TORONTO: In Africa, a story has it, there’s a simple technique for catching monkeys. In the top of a large box, hunters cut a small hole – one big enough for the creature to get its hand through.
Simians like sugar cubes, it seems, so the hunters use the stuff as bait. The monkey will reach into the box, try to pull out a sugar cube and find the hole isn’t big enough for its clenched fist. It won’t release the bait, however, and therein lies the creature’s demise.
This story may be true, or not. What’s important is that it’s a good story, good enough to be mentioned twice in Hany Abu-Assad’s “Omar.”
The eagerly awaited follow-up to the Palestinian writer-director’s 2005 hit “Paradise Now,” “Omar” just had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, which wrapped up Sunday. The film debuted at Cannes, where it took the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section.
The story centers on three childhood pals. Omar (Adam Bakri), Amjad (Samer Bisharat) and Tarek (Eyad Hourani) live in a town that’s been cut in two by the Israeli separation barrier. As Omar lives on the far side of town, he routinely scales the wall at various points to see his friends.
Omar also wants to see Tarek’s sister Nadia (Leem Lubany). The alpha male of the group, Tarek is conservative and jealous of his sister’s virtue, so Omar must conceal that he and Nadia love each other and routinely exchange love letters.
Further complicating the friendship, Amjad – a comic character at the bottom of this three-man testosterone totem pole – professes his own love for Nadia, telling Omar that he’s exchanged love letters with her.
The yearning, posturing and insecurity of young men have provided the sinews of many a dramatic tale – whether among vicious street gangs or effete Ivy League fraternities. “Omar” evokes them in the context of occupied Palestine.
Tarek leads a local resistance brigade – Abu-Assad doesn’t specify precise politics – and he’s been preparing Omar and Amjad for a mission.
After a routine humiliation at the hands of an Israeli patrol, Omar is impatient for action. The operation goes according to plan. An Israeli soldier is killed, the three militants escape and the evidence is destroyed.
The occupation regime wants blood and Omar is arrested in a sweep of his village. He’s resilient under torture – pointing out that the man beating him needs to wipe his nose – and remains silent in detention, saying nothing when other detainees ask which organization he’s with.
One of these, a devout-looking Hassan Ismail (Waleed Zuaiter) declares himself to be part of the Al-Aqsa Brigades. He suspects the military administration has no evidence against Omar and that he’ll soon be released.
Yet collaborators pretending to be prisoners will approach you, he warns, wanting to befriend you – little birds who will share valuable information to you. Naturally you will trust them in return. If you confess, they will make you one of them, and once you fall into that trap, my friend, there is no escape.
“They’ll never make me confess,” Omar says, defiant.
The warning proves prescient.
The balance of Abu-Assad’s elaborate plot is devoted to the web of intrigue into which Omar is drawn. In the environment of deception, the least suspicion undermines the trust that binds him to his principles, his friends and Nadia.
“Omar” is reminiscent of “Paradise Now” insofar as it takes up a thriller’s conventions and applies them to characters and situations that conventionally haven’t received sympathetic treatment in Western genre fiction.
Since 2005 many young filmmakers from the Middle East and North Africa have emerged from the art house scene, intent on experimenting with genre. If “Omar” is head and shoulders above many of these latter-day efforts, it is on the strength of its production values – notable, since the director says many members of his all-Palestinian crew were freshmen.
Chase sequences and scenes of physical violence, for instance, are the bread and butter of thrillers, and in “Omar” these are gripping and well paced. Dramatically fraught as it sometimes was, “Paradise Now” had little of this sort of thing, suggesting Abu-Assad refined his skills during his last directorial outing – “The Courier,” a Mickey Rourke action vehicle from 2012.
The acting is also strong, particularly from the young actors who dominate the cast – for whom this is their first feature. Bakri runs the risk of achieving the same celebrity as his older brother Saleh and his father Mohammad.
Equally effective is the performance of Waleed Zuaiter. The lone veteran with ample screen time, he plays Rami, an Israeli military intelligence officer assigned to track down those responsible for the death of the Israeli soldier. He uses deception, guile and blackmail to lure Omar into becoming a collaborator. Zuaiter’s performance is nuanced and human without diluting the sentiments of a film – which are strongly critical of the occupation.
In this the writing of “Omar” can be read as slightly more nuanced than “Paradise Now,” which was criticized in some quarters for being too one-sided in its representation of the occupation. There is little in the new film to make audiences sympathetic to Israeli policies in Palestine, but it does illustrate how charm can leaven elemental forms of coercion, making them more effective.
Since the film’s Cannes premiere, the writer-director has remarked that, “when it comes to filmmaking, reality is not as important as believability.” True of fiction generally, in film this statement is conditioned by genre.
In “Paradise Now” for instance, a pair of young suicide bombers are preened and dressed in “Reservoir Dogs”-style suits. Some Palestinian activists grumbled that no self-respecting militant would dress this way. Yet the transformation of the two protagonists from wooly shabaab to Tarantino clones was dramatically effective.
The same may be said of some facets of “Omar.” The writing is interested in representing neither verisimilitude for its own sake nor a vista of progressively minded Palestine, but in effective drama.
In this regard, the subject matter is serious, even tragic, yet Abu-Assad isn’t afraid to allow his characters a grim sense of humor. At the start of the film, Omar arrives at Tarek’s house, having almost been shot clambering over the wall.
Amjad and Tarek quiz him about the route he took. He tells them he climbed over at Qalandiyya. They ask why he didn’t come over another part of the wall, one closer to Tarek’s place maybe?
“Ajaa,” he shrugs. Too much traffic.