Tuesday, March 18, 2014

At the Movies: 'Omar' vs. 'Bethlehem'

This year's Israeli nominee for the Academy Award, "Bethlehem," was remarkably similar thematically to the Palestinian entry, "Omar."  Both depict the relationship of an Israeli security handler with a young Palestinian informant in the West Bank.  The plot lines diverge significantly, but then converge in a similarly brutal climax.  
The Israeli film focuses almost equally on the Israeli and Palestinian characters, and depicts the Israeli Shin Bet officer as developing a fatherly affection for his Palestinian source, despite the fundamentally exploitative nature of their interactions.  Sanfur, the Palestinian teen, is also emotionally affected by this relationship, but forced into a shattering atonement for being a traitor.

Similarly, Omar, the Palestinian young man in the eponymous film, is left feeling bereft, in a dead-end situation.  It's not entirely clear if Omar is playing a double game, and who else may be betraying whom; this poisons his courtship with his love Nadia, who may not be entirely innocent herself.

The director of "Omar," Hany Abu-Assad, is very talented.  I remember being impressed by "Paradise Now," his earlier film on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, also shortlisted for an Oscar.  Neither film wound up winning the prize, but "Omar" represents the political progress gained by the Palestinians in the intervening years, by being nominated in the Best Foreign Language category as the entry of "Palestine," rather than "the Palestinian territories."

It turns out, however, that Abu-Assad was born in Israel.  The film's publicity erroneously refers to his birthplace and hometown, Nazareth, as being in Palestine and not in Israel;
and he is said to refuse to speak Hebrew in public.  Nazareth is the largest Arab municipality within the borders of pre-1967 Israel, and where Abu-Assad was born in 1961 — when inhabitants of Palestinian-Israeli towns and villages, although Israeli citizens, were subject to martial law until 1966.

Of the five major characters, three are portrayed by Israeli-born actors, including his star, Adam Bakri as Omar, and Leem Lubany as Nadia, his love interest.  (Born and raised in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Bakri is the son of Israeli-Arab actor and filmmaker Mohammad Bakri.)  All five actors are Palestinian, but only one is from the occupied territories, and the most experienced, Waleed F. Zuaiter, who plays the Israeli security agent, is a Palestinian-American who was born in California.

For a variety of reasons, I did not get to meet the director when he was available in New York for an interview.  But we can all benefit from the interview written up in The Forward by Sheerly Avni, who describes the filmmaker as "cordial but not conciliatory." This is how Abu-Assad describes his view of the conflict and of the Israeli film, "Bethlehem":
. . .   I want to make a movie that will outlast the conflict. Because this conflict will end — one state, two states, 20 states, 100 states, it doesn’t matter — it will end.  . . . 
Avni: “Bethlehem,” which was directed by an Israeli and which treats a very similar agent-asset relationship, also features a teenaged protagonist. What kinds of differences and similarities do you see between your film and “Bethlehem”? 
My film deals with the inner conflict generated by a love story, which is quite different from “Bethlehem.” But I liked it very much, and I also liked the fact that it gave me an opportunity to see how the Israelis see this conflict, how difficult it is for them to accept that they are occupiers. Even for a good person — and of course most Israelis are good people — it’s hard to admit: “Even if I am against the army, I am still the occupier. Even if I am left-wing, and I want good things for the Palestinians, I am an occupier.” You might think, “Oh no I’m not one of them,” but you are one of them. Because you are an Israeli.  [Read more: http://forward.com/articles/193031/hany-abu-assad-discusses-his-oscar-nominated-film/?p=all#ixzz2uL6mbjCl]
This combative attitude is further illustrated in the concluding paragraph of Yair Raveh's review in Fathom:
In early January this year, Abu-Assad came to Tel Aviv to present his film to an Israeli audience; not an obvious move for a filmmaker trying to distance himself from his Israeli identity (Abu-Assad adamantly refuses to speak Hebrew in public). When asked about the abrupt and brutal ending of his film, Abu-Assad was straightforward: ‘To me,’ he said, ‘the meaning of the ending is clear: the Occupation must die’. In the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, one of the last of the liberal strongholds in an increasingly right-wing Israel, this blunt reply won applause. 
Both are exciting films, and both leave viewers gut-wrenched in the end.  I wish that relations between Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians were such that Arab citizens of Israel would be more accepted by Jews, and that they, in turn, would see themselves as fully Israeli — to the point that "Omar" would also be regarded as an Israeli film.  Sadly, the conflict continues within Israel as well as without, bitterly exacerbated by the Second Intifada in the early 2000s and the Gaza violence since 2005.  Yet the internal divide is mostly a clash of cultures and identities, and very rarely marked by battling in the streets.

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