Palestine (2013) Dir. Hany Abu-Assad

Being in love will always mean hardships for young couples to overcome, whether it is disapproving parents, age gaps, or compatibility issues, but arguably the most damaging obstacle after religion, is politics. We’re not talking about having to deal with your new love being a Tory voter; the politics involved in this tale are far more divisive.

Omar (Adam Bakri) is a baker on the Israeli-occupied side of Palestine whose visits to girlfriend Nadia (Leem Lubany) on the other side involve scaling the West Bank barrier that separates them and dodging bullets from Israeli patrols. He is also a member of a resistance group led by Nadja’s older brother Tarek (Iyad Hoorani), along with childhood friend Amjad (Samer Bisharat).

In retaliation for Omar being abused by Israeli police, Amjad shoots an Israeli border guard but only Omar is caught by the police. In prison, Agent Rami (Waleed F. Zuaiter) offers Omar a deal to deliver Tarek and be set free. Released under Rami’s observation, Omar is arrested again after being set up by a traitor within the group. Given a second chance by Rami, Omar seeks to weed out the rat with disastrous consequences.

Hany Abu-Assad’s second Oscar nominated film is a curious beast, beginning as what appears to be a typical politically charged tale of Middle East life that holds a probing and rebellious mirror up to the messy social situations of his homeland, only to evolve into a taut crime drama reminiscent of Infernal Affairs and other “undercover moles” films, except the political commentary remains pertinent throughout.

That the setting is a segregated Middle East country instead of a bustling metropolis offers a fresh perspective on this well-worn premise, including the frantic backstreet chase sequences synonymous with the genre. The tight alleys are still impeded by market stalls but in this instance, they don’t lead to busy main road, leaving Omar to show off some impressive parkour moves to make it to safety across the rooftops.

It is fortunate Omar is in such fine shape as the West Bank barrier is a vast construction for him to regularly scale just to see his teenage sweetheart, who is still at school. This is almost a Romeo and Juliet scenario without the feuding families, leaving it to external political forces to keep them separated.

Such is his love for Nadia and loyalty to Tarek and Amjad, Omar takes a right beating at the hands of the Israelis for the shooting of the solider, refusing to name names yet somehow, Rami knows about Tarek and suspects he was the shooter. Here is where the script turns a corner into twisting crime drama: a supposedly friendly prison mate warns Omar about the prison practices in getting confessions to which Omar replies “I won’t confess”.

Unfortunately, that prisoner was working for Rami, secretly recording their conversation. According to Israeli law, “I won’t confess” is as good as a confession and coupled with Rami’s surprising knowledge of Omar and Nadia’s relationship, Omar realises Rami has him by the short and curlies and has no option but to accept his offer to protect Nadia and his friends or rot in jail. Yet, once freed a defiant Omar joins in another attack which this time is intercepted by the police. Guess who is suspected of being the traitor?  

Hany’s boldness in making this film extends beyond the statements made on screen, it’s also in the production. Omar is the first Palestinian film funded entirely with Palestinian money, without relying on the government. This sense of independence and freedom permeates through every frame yet at no point does it suggest Hany is so reckless he abuses this privilege and goes full renegade for the sake of sticking it to the man.

Not that it could have been easy for Hany to resist such a temptation but as a smart filmmaker, he knows that blatantly upsetting the apple cart is not always a smart thing to do. By packaging this as a sinuous crime drama Hany does what many have done before him, making a trenchant and relevant political statement through fiction. His script is very pointed in highlighting the Palestine division issue without being didactic, while the police corruption aspect could be applied to any country.

As mentioned earlier the unique setting makes this work so well, along with the cultural and political climate surrounding it, which gives us a cast of characters operating on a level unfamiliar to us in a situation that is familiar. The way the manipulation of Rami and the revelation of the “secrets” he knows unfolds becomes an edge of the seat tragedy in the making, leading to a heart-stopping climax that completely catches us off guard.

For most of the cast, excluding previous Hany collaborator Waleed F. Zuaiter (who also raised the money for the film), this was their first acting experience which gives it a raw honesty which trained and experienced actors would have a hard time replicating. Adam Bakri handles being the lead player with no signs of fear, proving to be a quietly commanding presence. Leem Lubany looks older than her 16 years at the time but there is no denying the charming innocence she exudes and has clout in the dramatic scenes too.

It is interesting that Hany approaches this like a Hollywood action film, having tried his hand in Tinsel Town but not replicating the success of the films made on his home turf. This would seem unwise as Middle East cinema has a certain style and unfussy, pared back panache to it yet Hany is successful in applying the more pacey elements without seeming shoe horned in thanks to the twists and turns in the story.

One could argue that in Omar, with its mainstream presentation and accessible storyline, Hany has made the film that would have won over Hollywood but its political bite puts it firmly into the ranks of provocative cinema for serious film lovers.