Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Garden of Film: 'Omar' Climbs the Wall of Sad Experience

            Nominated last year for Best Foreign Film Oscar, "Omar," a film about Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, has almost nothing "Hollywood" about it.After seeing the film last night at the Boston Palestinian Film Festival, I'm surprised it made to the Oscar finals. Written and directed by Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad, "Omar" is neither resistance propaganda or a "message film." It assumes the audience knows what life has been like for decades in Occupied Palestine, never a good idea with
American audience. Its true subject is the cost of resistance to the resisters themselves, and audiences can draw little consolation from its conclusion.
             Omar is young, sincere, and idealistic. He is also in love with the sister of the man who leads an armed Palestinian resistance group.The Israelis call such people 'terrorists.' In Palestine they are called 'freedom fighters.'
            The film begins with Omar's strenuous struggle to scale "the separation war" built by Israel to keep the Palestinian population separate from both pre-1967 Israel and the Israeli settlements built on the West Bank land captured in the 1967 war. The reason for these climbs -- not clear to me until after the film -- is that Omar lives in a part of Jerusalem (the Arab part) annexed into Israel after the war and so must get over the wall to meet with Palestinians on the West Bank. It's a tricky business. To Israeli security forces being Palestinian is a lot like being black in Ferguson, Missouri. Omar is caught after one climb by Israeli soldiers, who humiliate him and club him in the face with a rifle butt.
            This event precipitates the group's attack and killing of the Israeli soldier, which in turn leads to Omar's arrest. His capture convinces his resistance group that they have been betrayed to the Israelis. In Israel, Palestinians who cooperate with the security forces are called 'informants.' Palestinians call them 'traitors.' We see Omar stripped naked and tortured in an Israeli prison -- routine, everyday operational procedure in Occupied Palestine, though most Americans don't know it because of the success pro-Israel groups have in shutting down informed discussion of life in the West Bank under Israeli occupation, abetted by the appalling spinelessness of American politicians (including the current occupant of the White House).
            Worse than torture, Omar is tricked by a Mossad (Israeli intelligence) agent disguised as a prisoner into making the single statement "I will never confess" caught on tape. We are told that Israeli courts regard will regard this as a legal statement of confession to whatever crime a prisoner is being charged with. He is then offered freedom by the agent in exchange for delivering the comrade the Israelis believe (wrongly) shot the soldier. Omar accepts the deal with the intention of using his freedom to learn the identity of the traitor and set up an ambush of Israeli soldiers; but, of course, a deal with the devil is a slippery slope.
            It's the beginning of a trail of compromises and betrayals that end up taking more lives and destroying all of Omar's meaningful connections with his own people. When the young woman whose love he regards as the foundation of his future hopes confronts him with the rumors that he is "working with both sides," the burden of the secrets and deceits he knows of prevent him from giving her the categorical denial she seeks. The Israelis have told him lies. But they are acting on information (some of it untrue) betrayed to them by one or more of his own comrades. In place of his youthful clarity and honor, suspicion is general.  
            The qualities and beliefs that motivate the idealistic young such as Omar to take up arms against the conqueror can't survive survive the ambiguities of the secret war of 'resistance.' They never do.The film reminds me of all the French resistance films made after World War II in which heroic Resistance fighters are betrayed by one of their own placed under impossible pressures by the Nazis. To save your family, or your lover, or your children, or some greater good of humanity, you betray your comrades -- the apparently lesser evil. As brutal occupiers in Algeria the French used the same tactics of official terror, infiltration and paid informers to try to put down a revolt by Algerian rebels. Stories of the Irish revolt and "civil war" in the early 20th century sounded the same note. Who was the true Patriot? Who among a range of likely "double agents" was the informer?
            Tyrants, conquerors and occupying armies always turn to the same tactics: torture, lies, psychological manipulation, betrayal. The Romans found locals to do their dirty work in ancient Jerusalem. The conqueror and his armies of occupation always turn into some version of those 20th century demons, the Nazis. The resistors begin each day wondering who they can trust.
            "Omar" isn't a cynical movie. It's a complex, nuanced film, but its message is a sorrowful one. Power relationships between oppressor and oppressed always corrupt. Israeli society will go on decaying morally behind its separation walls until all those who call the ancient land of Palestine home have equal rights in an open and just society.
The Boston Palestine Film Festival continues through Sunday, Oct. 26. For the full festival schedule see the link at