The tensions of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation exploded onto the screen at Cannes on Monday, where a tale of love and betrayal won a five-minute standing ovation.
“Omar” is the new work by Hany Abu-Assad, who shot to prominence in 2006 with “Paradise Now,” which won a Golden Globe and, in the race for best foreign-language film, became the first-ever Palestinian film to be tipped for an Oscar.
Abu-Assad dips into the conceptual source of Palestinians who take up arms, just as “Paradise Now” recounted the tale of two men preparing for a suicide attack in Tel Aviv. The new story, though, is darker and more complex — a political drama interwoven with a story of lovers caught in a vice, with Israel’s secret police on one side and Palestinian gunmen on the other. Both are equally ruthless.
At its centre is a young baker, Omar, who falls in love with Nadia, the sister of an old friend, Tarek, who runs a resistance cell in the occupied territories. To visit Nadia, Omar must clamber over the occupation wall built by Israel that divides the territories — an act that is fraught with risk.
Arrested one day after scaling the wall, Omar is humiliated and beaten up by police, prompting him in anger to join Tarek and another friend, Amjad, in an operation to kill an Israeli soldier. From then on, Omar’s life goes into a spiral. Picked up and interrogated by the Israelis, who learn of his love for Nadia, he is under pressure to betray his comrades.
Just as he is fingered as a traitor, he begins to doubt whether Nadia has been true to him as she avows, or whether she has yielded to the wooing of Amjad.
The dramatic denouement led to huge applause at a press screening in Cannes, where “Omar” is in the “Certain Regard” section – a closely-watched category for provocative films or follow-up works by emerging directors. Abu-Assad told AFP he was “very nervous at first but then I was amazed” at the audience’s reception. “They were involved in it, and it was good to see that, especially as this public, in Cannes, is the most critical public you can get,” he said.
The Nazareth-born 41-year-old Dutch-Palestinian studied airplane engineering before dipping his toes in film-making, emerging with his first feature, “Curfew,” in 1994. Of the five principals, three of them are making their feature-film debut: Adam Bakri as Omar, a graduate from New York’s Lee Strasberg Institute; Samer Bisharat as Amjad, a 16-year-old high school student;, and Nazareth-born Leem Lubany, another 16-year-old school pupil, who is superb as Nadia.
Filming took place in Nablus, Nazareth and Bisan, but there were no problems at all with the Israelis. “There was no opposition to us shooting anywhere,” said Abu-Assad. “We managed to get permission for all of the places, even the wall. For the wall, we had permission to climb up to a certain height and then, for the moments at the top, we used a fake wall on a set in Nazareth.”
“Omar” cost $2 million – less than one-fiftieth of a Hollywood blockbuster – and all of it came from individual Palestinians and Palestinian businesses, said Abu-Assad proudly. “For the first time, we have convinced businessmen from Palestine to invest in their (film) industry. It’s incredible,” he said.
Asked which audience he targeted, he said: “My first audience, honestly, are the Palestinians and Arabs. I hope from the bottom of my heart that they will be engaged with it, that they will love it.
“Even if they are not on the West Bank or Palestinians, it reflects life where they are divided between two sections and they have to deal between trust and love and friendship.
“It’s about the youth and Arab world now, and I hope they can accept it and that they can relate to it.”