See The Hollywood Reporter’s Live at Cannes video interview with the director below.
With the Certain Regard entry Omar, the only Arab film in Cannes this year, Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad returns to the land and themes of his breakthrough story of suicide bombers Paradise Now, and the result will once again divide audiences. There will be those who find the film’s punch-in-the-stomach ending a disturbing apology for violence, and others who will read it as another tragic outcome of events in the Middle East. But whether the film glorifies its young West Bank protagonist as a hero or pities him as a loser without options, it forces the audience to reflect on the endless violence and retaliation in the occupied territories. The fact that Abu-Assad keeps his distance and doesn’t put forward a clear-cut POV on his characters and their actions will limit its appeal for many viewers. But considering the film’s quality and topicality, good footwork on Match Factory’s part should slip it into the niches.
The three twentysomething protags are quickly and forcefully sketched. The wiry, athletic Omar (Adam Bakri) climbs the Isolation Wall separating his village from his friend Tarek’s house like a cat burglar. A shot fired by an Israeli patrol bloodies his hand, but he barely notices. His childhood friends Tarek (steely-eyed Eyad Hourani) and Amjad (the droll Samer Bisharat) are waiting for him on the other side, along with Tarek’s pretty sister Nadia (Leem Lubany) who goes to high school.
Very casually, the three boys slip away for some rifle practice, a prelude to what Tarek, their ringleader, calls “becoming a freedom fighter.” Omar has been humiliated and roughed up by some Israeli soldiers, but that incident doesn’t prepare us for the swiftness with which the trio kills a soldier one night. The next day Omar is caught after a frantic foot chase through the village and thrown in to prison.
Hung naked by his wrists like a piece of meat, he’s brutally beaten and tortured, but says nothing. A chance remark to a fellow prisoner (“I’ll never confess”) is recorded and considered a valid confession under military law. A lawyer tells him he faces 90 years in jail without appeal, unless he turns traitor and betrays his friends to his captors.
These are strong scenes shot with stark lighting that heightens the drama, yet even at this stage the viewer is caught in a cross-fire of mixed emotions. The casualness of the soldier’s murder (Amjad pulled the trigger, but all three gladly participated) feels more like a silly prank than a strategic political gesture. On the other hand, the horrifying torture scenes, undertaken without trial, makes sympathy for the Israeli military impossible.
To get out of prison, Omar cuts a deal with prison warden Rami (Waleed F. Zuaiter, the only pro actor in the cast.) He will be released for a month on the condition he leads them to Tarek, who has gone underground. In the meantime Omar has a chance to see Nadia and plan their future together with the money he’s saved up.
For some reason the story repeats itself at this point: Omar gets back together with Tarek and Amjad and they plan an ill-conceived ambush on the Israelis. Again everyone gets away but Omar and he finds himself back behind bars, until Rami lets him out for the second time to try again. Now his romance with Nadia takes a very ugly turn, as personal betrayal enters the picture, and love and politics become inextricably entangled.
A few years later, when a slightly older and wiser Omar tries to scale the wall again, he finds himself no longer able to muster the energy and collapses in tears. Though this is not the end of the film, it makes a fine symbolic conclusion to a young life full of frustration.
The whole cast of non-pro actors contributes a sense of realism to the tale, with Bakri a stand-out in expressing the defiant confusion of youth. Abu-Assad and his cinematographer Ehab Assal have every shot under control and rarely need to go overboard to convey a strong emotion.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production companies: ZBROS
Cast: Adam Bakri, Leem Lubany, Eyad Hourani, Samer Bisharat
Director: Hany Abu-Assad
Screenwriter: Hany Abu-Assad
Producers: Hany Abu-Assad, Waleed F. Zuaiter, Waleed Al-Ghafari, David Gerson
Director of photography: Ehab Assal
Production designer: Nael Kanj
Costumes: Hamada Atallah
Editors: Martin Brinkler, Eyas Salman
Sales Agent: THE MATCH FACTORY