September 20, 2019

Will ‘Omar’ win Oscar gold?

For cinema fans interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this is a banner year, with Oscar submissions from both sides focused on the Israeli occupation.

Israel’s “Bethlehem,” which pits Shin Bet agents against diverse Palestinian factions eager to blow up the Jewish state, was eliminated early on by the Academy Awards selection committee.

By contrast, the Palestinian entry, “Omar,” is among this year’s five finalists in the foreign language film competition, and although it is considered a long shot to walk off with the golden statuette, judges in this category are notoriously unpredictable.

At the film’s opening, Omar (Adam Bakri), a handsome young baker, and the beautiful Nadia (Leem Lubany) pine for each other on opposite sides of the Separation Barrier, in Israeli terminology, or the Isolation Wall, in the Palestinian dictionary.

One night, Omar clambers over the wall, knocks on his beloved’s door and pursues his chaste courtship.

But events take a more serious turn when Omar and two buddies sneak up to an Israeli military post and shoot and kill one of the soldiers.

Omar is tracked down by Israeli undercover agents, who hang him naked by the hands from a prison wall, beat him and burn him with cigarettes.

In between, Omar is interrogated by a “good cop” and a “bad cop,” who seek to turn him into a collaborator and lead them to Tarek (Iyad Hoorani), the leader of the Palestinian gang and Nadia’s brother.

Omar is temporarily released from prison by his interrogators to find Tarek, but the word soon spreads among the Palestinians that Omar has sold out and is a traitor.

Distrusted by the Israelis and rejected by his own people, including Nadia, Omar is driven to one last act of desperation.

Hany Abu-Assad, the film’s director, is the product of diverse influences. He is 52, was born and lives in Nazareth, calls himself a Palestinian or Dutch-Palestinian and carries an Israeli passport.

He lived and worked for 25 years in Holland, first as an aeronautical engineer, then switched to producing and directing movies.

Adam Bakri and EyadHourani in ‘Omar.’

Abu-Assad came to wider public attention in 2005 with “Paradise Now,” a movie about two young West Bank Palestinians dispatched on a suicide mission to Tel Aviv.

The film was the first Palestinian entry to be nominated for an Oscar and triggered a lengthy controversy over whether its national origin should be listed as the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian Territories or Palestine.

Since then, all sides seem to have tired of this particular controversy, and the origin for “Omar” is now simply listed as Palestine.

Although in 2005 the local Israeli consulate and some Jewish defense organizations criticized the movie’s message, this reporter was struck by a different aspect.

As was the case in Abu-Assad’s earlier movie, “Rana’s Wedding,” the protagonists in “Paradise Now” do not hide their antagonism toward Israelis; nevertheless, the latter are portrayed as recognizable human beings, not merely sadistic oppressors.

In fact, there have been instances when Israelis depicted in Palestinian films have been more likable than the Israelis in such self-lacerating Tel Aviv productions as “Life According to Agfa” and “What a Wonderful Country.”

Leem Lubany and Adam Bakri in “Omar.”

However, in “Omar,” Abu-Assad forgoes such artistic and ideological balance, painting the Israelis as heartless torturers and connivers with no redeeming qualities.

In a phone interview with the director, the Journal asked the director whether anything had happened to him between “Paradise Now” and “Omar” to shift his attitude.

Abu-Assad rejected the question’s premise. “I am not a propaganda maker for any country,” he said. “I am, first and foremost, a storyteller. If I have a bias, it is that I want my people, and all other people, to be free and equal.”

The director draws convincing performances from his four main actors, for all of whom this is their first feature film. One of the few experienced hands is Palestinian-American Waleed Zuaiter, a Los Angeles resident, who portrays the key Israeli interrogator.

The Oscars will be awarded on March 2.

“Omar” opens Feb. 21 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, Playhouse in Pasadena and Town Center in Encino. The same theaters will screen Israel’s “Bethlehem” starting March 7.