Omar (Inexperienced & Unprotected) (Spoiler Alert)


I saw Hany Abu-Assad’s Oscar nominated Omar the other week on a Monday afternoon. The movie tells the story of four young Palestinians somewhere in the West Bank: Omar, Amjad, Tareq, and his sister Nadia, who’s in love with Omar. That’s how the movie starts. You already know that it’s not going to end happy. It can’t, because it’s about Israel and Palestine and the occupation.

The film is composed of three interlocking narrative elements — a love story, collaboration, martyrdom

[1] Omar is a beautiful film. The interior scenes evoke Palestinian urban life, the courtyards and tiled living rooms of old houses, the easy concourse between people, and strict social mores. The actors are young, the energy virile. Nadia loves Omar and Omar loves Nadia. The homely Amjad, plays the part of the group jester; he too loves Nadia. She’s still in high school, very much under the watchful supervision of her brother Tareq. Omar and Nadia steal glances, steal time to flirt, to make plans. He’ll take her to Paris for their honeymoon. The only place she’s ever been to is Hebron. The scenes between them are touching, chaste, and full of promise.

[2] The entire romantic plotline is doomed. I won’t tell you how, except that the story is riddled by lies and betrayals. It starts off when the three young men shoot a soldier at a checkpoint. We can assume it’s the Shin Bet that goes after the group. They want to catch Tareq, they arrest Omar, whom they interrogate and torture him. They turn him into a collaborator. All bound up with love, requited love, and unrequited love is the quotidian humiliation marked by the occupation, and the more acute forms of physical abuse and psychological manipulation suffered by Omar in prison by his handlers, and by the ostracism, shame, and danger at home outside prison that comes with collaboration.

[3] The moment of catharsis is bound up with martyrdom. I won’t tell you how the movie ends, but it will be no surprise that it’s an act of violence that relieves the film’s tension by redeeming the broken romantic and political plotlines. Two years pass. Nadia, now a mother of two sits in her living room surrounded in a transfiguring glow of radiating white. Clutching one last love note, she understands everything. Lives will be lost, sloughed off in a militant gesture of defiant resistance. I won’t say how it happens, but that it happens should be as clear as day.

What’s supposed to matter most in this film? Or are the romantic and political plotlines, desperate plotlines, so impossibly entangled that you can’t decide? In an interview with the Jewish Daily Forward, it’s clear that Abu-Assad wants to draw our attention to the young people. Of course he talks about the occupation, but it’s the young people he cares most about. The filmmaker claims that he wants the story to outlive the political conflict over Israel and Palestine, which will one day end, he states, one way or the other.

What caught my interest in the interview is precisely how Abu-Assad describes the young people, especially in relation to their parents. The parents of these kids were all revolutionaries. But they failed. You know the ’60s. In the ’60s everyone was a revolutionary, not just in Palestine. And after you’ve failed, and you’re disappointed, you don’t have the courage to tell the kids what to do. You failed to protect him, to bring him a better life. So you become absent.

I want to come back to that point, the failure of the parents to protect their children. It too is part of the film, the powerlessness and power of young people facing overwhelming exercise of state power on the part of their oppressors. The protagonists are young, and the young people who play them are inexperienced actors. This was intentional. About this Abu-Assad says in the interview: Inexperienced actors are more malleable and you can mold them, but you also have a sense that they could break at any second. Which is what I love about them, because you want to get this purity that looks very solid and you can get just one time. I believe that every actor will be only be truly pure in his emotions once in his life, because after that every time, he will always be acting. And with these young actors, it was almost as if I took their virginity as actors — it’s so good to see.But this inexperience is also sad to see. The young people are unprotected, and there’s nothing, or almost nothing the parents can do for them. This has everything to do with the occupation, which serves as both backdrop and foreground to the film. This failure speaks too to the failure of the parent’s generation, who were unable to lift the occupation, unable to liberate Jerusalem and the land, unable to protect their children, at least according to Abu-Assad.

I suspect that this failure might also speak to the failure of the film and its filmmaker, this failure to keep their heroes alive and whole if not untouched. On one hand, the unhappy story reflects the political realism and hard logic of the film and to its conventional narrative structure, as the film moves inexorably from exposition to crisis to catharsis. On the other hand, I’m wonder about the responsibility of art and the responsibility of the artist to show an alternative way out, here an alternative to martyrdom and to the wasting of young life.

I tend to go to the movies that interest me professionally either late at night in Syracuse or on weekday afternoons in New York. Since I can be pretty sure that most of these kinds of independent films relating to Israel and Palestine won’t make it up to Syracuse, I end up seeing them in New York. Inevitably in Manhattan, this means that I see a lot of those particular films with a lot of Jewish retirees. I’m sure I was the youngest person there. Almost to a person, my fellow filmgoers all got up to leave quickly as soon as the credits began to roll. I did too, and then stopped myself, to sit back down to watch the film credits.

I think “we” got up to go as quickly as we did not because of the politics. It’s not really a political movie.  It is, but it isn’t. I think it is more because the movie was such a sad and painful one. This may be my response as an older viewer. The sadness came to me actually after I left the theater and had time to think about what I had just seen. Inside the film, the tension builds up over the course of the movie. You see it coming, you know it’s coming, but you don’t know how, and the abrupt final scene will catch you up short. There’s nothing you can do to stop it, it happens so fast. What’s left? The beauty and defiance of a militant act or the waste of young life, inexperienced and unprotected?

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to Omar (Inexperienced & Unprotected) (Spoiler Alert)

  1. And did it not bother you at least a bit that all the Jews were evil, and the torture scene was horrendous, and all the Arabs were human?

    Sent from my iPad


    • zjb says:

      no, it didn’t, because i think it the jewish-israei characters were all context and role defined. much more interesting to me is that a lot of the soldiers, including the shin bet handler and the interrogator were played by Palestinians.

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