Palestine at the Academy Awards

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominees for the 86th annual Academy Awards on 16 January 2014, including the Palestinian film Omar in the category for best foreign language film. A love story and a political thriller set in the West Bank, Omar was directed by Hany Abu-Assad, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, and financed almost entirely by Palestinians. The nomination marked the third time a Palestinian film had been recognized by the Academy, following Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now in 2006 and the documentary, Five Broken Cameras, by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, in 2013.

Beside the attention it garnered in the Palestinian community, Omar also received considerable international media coverage following the Academy’s announcement. Contributing further to the excitement surrounding the film’s nomination was the Academy’s choice to list the film’s country of origin as “Palestine,” rather than “Palestinian Territories,” as had been the case with the two earlier Palestinian nominees.

Above is the film’s official poster, courtesy of Adopt Films, and below are excerpts from three reviews of the film:

The separation wall runs through occupied Palestine, intimidating and omnipresent, covered with snarky graffiti, reminiscent of the Berlin Wall in its final days. A striking image of the wall opens Hany Abu-Assad‘s Oscar-nominated film “Omar”, Abu-Assad’s first Palestinian feature since “Paradise Now” in 2005. Omar (Adam Bakri) is seen grappling up a dangling rope, scaling the sheer face of the wall, before scrambling over to drop down to the other side. The wall will be used again and again in “Omar”, first to show Omar’s training as a revolutionary (once he gets out of practice, it becomes a huge struggle to make it up that wall), and also to symbolize the ways that the wall separates Palestinians not only from Israelis but also from one another. The wall makes things like love, loyalty, connection and intimacy impossible.

“Omar” is a thriller and a romance with unabashedly melodramatic elements (there’s even a love triangle), all of which are brought into stark relief by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Helped along by an amazing cast of mostly first-time actors, “Omar” feels very fresh due to its attitude, approach, and the fact that it offers no solutions. It’s the story of three childhood friends caught up in a war that seemingly has no end. They are torn between their individual desires to have a home, a girlfriend, a family, and their devotion to the freedom of Palestine. In such an atmosphere, their best qualities will be used against them; their love for one another makes them vulnerable to betrayal.

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Hany Abu-Assad is, of course, interested in the situation of Palestine, and how the occupation impacts the lives of the people who live there. In “Omar” he rejects the macro view, and stays strictly within the micro, keeping close to his main character, observing the daily rhythms of the occupation, and the daily weirdness of living under the shadow of that huge wall. The larger concerns of a group like Hamas are nearly invisible. Early in the film, we see the three friends letting off steam together—throwing around dirty jokes, Amjad entertaining them with his hilarious Marlon Brando imitation (it is pretty funny)—and it slowly becomes impossible to imagine the friends ever finding their way back to such an innocent dynamic. That is what is lost in such a war. That is what is sacrificed. The war seeps down into the molecules, the spaces in-between language. It is in people’s thoughts and dreams. When Omar and Nadja discuss escaping that world together after marriage they can barely imagine leaving their neighborhood. Those dreams hover, like a mirage. Maybe they’d like to go to Paris, but you see they can’t really believe in it.

The separation wall is not just a hated structure in the Palestinian landscape. It is within the hearts and minds of the characters. And that’s the tragedy.


Sheila O’Malley is a contributor for She received a BFA in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island and a Master’s in Acting from the Actors Studio MFA program.

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As he did with “Paradise Now,” Abu-Assad refuses to demonize characters for their poor choices. Only too aware of the crushing toll of the Occupation on Palestinians, he shows men (the film is male-centric) making tragic, often self-destructive decisions as a result of an inescapable environment of degradation and violence. With “Omar” he’s finessed the profile, depicting how the weaknesses that make us human, especially love, can lead, in such a place, to acts of betrayal. It’s as if he’s taken thematic elements from Westerns and film noir, using the fight for dignity and an atmosphere of doubt to explain rather than excuse heinous actions. . . .

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A subtle undercurrent exists in the visuals, which use cheerful billboard advertising, such as a mattress company with a man happily asleep, or a social responsibility pitch for “planting hope,” as casual background images to reinforce the disconnect between phony optimism and reality. Perhaps the sense of deja vu in the pic’s first half is necessary for the power of the second, in which treacheries are constantly guessed at and possibilities of redemption dissolve in a situation with no exit.

Apart from the superb Waleed F. Zuaiter (also producing), the attractive cast consists of actors making their feature debuts. Bakri’s steeliness doesn’t completely cover Omar’s vulnerability, made more acute by his love for Nadja. Wisely, Abu-Assad puts plenty of humorous lines in his characters’ mouths, revealing an ear for natural dialogue and the daily jokes friends exchange no matter what pressures they’re under. Lubany’s fresh girlishness acts as an important reminder that these are people barely touching adulthood, highlighting the “Romeo and Juliet” quality of the romance angle (which of course has its own betrayals).

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Jay Weissberg is a film critic with Variety, a show business trade publication.

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A deft blending of thriller and romance, Omar invokes everything from film noir to Shakespeare. It even incorporates humor at unexpected moments. Abu-Assad is a storyteller, not a polemicist; his backdrop happens to be his home turf. (In a conversation in my class at USC last night, he said that the film has been well received even in Israel, where critics and columnists took it for what it was: a good story, not a political tract.)

Of course, the volatile setting is more than incidental: it’s a highly-charged atmosphere where the presence of a traitor affects an entire community, not just the individuals in the foreground. Abu-Assad knows this and skillfully weaves the ongoing tensions into his story. He is also a classicist when it comes to visual presentation: as in Paradise Now, there is no shaky, hand-held camerawork as a shorthand to indicate chaos or confusion. His pulse-pounding chase scenes through the streets, markets, alleyways and rooftops are expertly choreographed and edited, without resorting to Bourne-like dizziness.

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Leonard Maltin is one of the most recognized and respected film critics in the United States. He appears regularly on Reelz Channel and spent 30 years on the hit television show, Entertainment Tonight.