LOS ANGELES (JTA) — For cinematic observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this is a banner year, with both sides choosing Oscar submissions that center 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 by the Academy Awards selection committee.
The Palestinian “Omar” is among the five finalists among foreign language films, and although it is considered a long shot to win the golden statuette, the judges in this category are notoriously unpredictable.
At the film’s opening, Omar (Adam Bakri), a handsome young baker, and the beautiful Nadja (Leem Lubany) pine for each other on opposite sides of the security fence. One night, Omar clambers over the wall, knocks on his beloved’s door and pursues his chaste courtship.
Events take a more serious turn when Omar and two friends — including Nadja’s brother Tarek — 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” seeking to turn him into a collaborator to lead them to Tarek, who is seen as the group’s leader.
Omar is released temporarily 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, rejected by his own people, including Nadja, Omar is driven to one last act of desperation.
Hany Abu-Assad, the film’s director, is the product of diverse influences. He 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 before producing and directing movies.
Abu-Assad, 52, 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 the debate: The origin for “Omar” is Palestine.
Although in 2005 Israeli officials and some Jewish defense organizations criticized the message of “Paradise Now,” I was struck by a different aspect.
As in “Paradise Now” and another Abu-Assad film, “Rana’s Wedding,” the protagonists do not hide their antagonism toward Israelis. In the previous films, Israelis had been portrayed as human rather than sadistic oppressors.
Palestinian films have depicted Israelis as more likeable than such self-lacerating Israeli productions as “Life According to Agfa” and “What a Wonderful Country.” But in “Omar,” Abu-Assad forgoes such an artistic and ideological balance, painting the Israelis as heartless torturers and connivers with no redeeming qualities.
Had anything happened to Abu-Assad between “Paradise Now” and “Omar” to shift his attitude?
In a phone interview with JTA, the director 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.”
Abu-Assad draws convincing performances from his four main actors, all of whom are making their debut in a feature film. The one experienced hand is Palestinian-American Waleed Zuaiter, a Los Angeles resident, who portrays the key Israeli interrogator.
Oscar winners will be announced at the Academy Awards broadcast on March 2.