Omar's village is separated from his friends' by the Isolation Wall. He scales the wall and dodges bullets frequently to visit his friends Tarek, Amjad and his girlfriend Nadia. The boys let together and practice shooting rifles, preparing to become fighters. When some Israeli soldiers humiliate Omar, the situation escalates quickly and ends with the boys killing a soldier. The next day Omar is arrested and is pressed by his captors to become a traitor and betray his friends or face 90 years in jail.
We first meet Omar (Adam Bakri) as he scales a 20-foot high concrete wall using only a piece of knotted rope. It’s clear he does it often as he dodges the odd bullet. Young and wiry, with extraordinary hollowed-out cheekbones, Omar has the intense determination and quick reflexes of a freedom fighter. But on the other side of the wall he merely visits his mates (Eyad Hourani and Samer Bisharat). He shares a cup of tea with them and passes a love note to his secret girlfriend, Nadja (Leem Lubany). Omar is a lover not a fighter. The tragedy of the story is that he’s forced to become a double agent, lawbreaker and murderer.
It takes a while to work out what’s happening in this often confusing Palestinian drama from writer-director Hany Abu-Assad. His previous work includes Rana’s Wedding (2002) and the Oscar-nominated Paradise Now (2005), about two Palestinians preparing for a suicide attack. This story assumes (perhaps too much) that the audience understands the situation of Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and the function of the Separation Wall. This huge concrete structure stretches for miles, not only separating the Israelis from the Palestinians, but cutting through Palestinian suburbs and communities. We quickly come to understand the everyday problems and burning resentments this brings, while still struggling to decipher the logistics. Such confusion that recurs in many of the film’s key moments.
When Omar is held up and humiliated by Israeli soldiers, his friends band together to take revenge. Their training in the forest is matter-of-fact and chilling, as is the assassination they carry out. Omar is then captured, brutally tortured and threatened with “at least 90 years in prison”. The alternative presented by charismatic Israeli handler, Agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter), involves spying on his comrades. One of them has already turned traitor, but Omar can’t decide who. To make matters worse, he suspects his oldest friend is trying to seduce his girl.
The young characters are all played by competent newcomers, but they’re completely outshone by experienced US actor Waleed Zuaiter (TV’s Homeland and The Men Who Stare at Goats), who is also one of the film’s producers. One moment with his likeable but dangerous character tells us more about the everyday workings of the occupation than the rest of the film. Interrupted during interrogation, he’s shown on the phone to his mother organising childcare for his five-year-old daughter. “I can’t pick her up. I’m at work and stuck in the middle of the fucking West Bank!”
Shot mainly in unobtrusive documentary style and filmed in Nazareth, Nablus and the Far’a refugee camp, Omar was nominated for the 2013 Oscar for Best Foreign Film and won the Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard at Cannes that year. It features some genuinely thrilling chase scenes through narrow back streets and alleys, and as the story builds to its abrupt climax, there are puzzling turnarounds and stunning surprises.
But it’s the tender love story you’ll remember. The exchanges between the smitten Omar and the beautiful schoolgirl are by turns teasing and earnest. Yet they’re also heartbreakingly innocent. A touch of the hand is thrilling and illicit and a first kiss feels like consummation. Their connection is convincing and their hopes for a future together are so humble that you’re longing for them to make it.