Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Dual Movie Review: Omar & Bethlehem

Directed by: Hany Abu-Assad.
Written by: Hany Abu-Assad.
Starring: Adam Bakri (Omar), Leem Lubany (Nadia), Samer Bisharat (Amjad), Iyad Hoorani (Tarek), Waleed Zuaiter (Agent Rami).

Directed by: Yuval Adler.
Written by: Yuval Adler & Ali Wakad.
Starring: Tsahi Halevi (Razi), Shadi Mar'i (Sanfur), Hitham Omari (Badawi), Michal Shtamler (Einat), Tarik Kopty (Abu Ibrahim), George Iskandar (Nasser), Yossi Eini (Levy), Dudu Niv (Shefler), Ibrahim Saqallah (Tayson), Karem Shakur (Abu Mussa), Efrat Shnap (Maya), Slmnham (Ibrahim).

I wasn’t planning on either doing back-to-back viewings of Omar -from Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad – and Bethlehem – from Israeli director Yuval Adler. But when I saw the two films – back to back – last weekend, I felt that a dual review was appropriate for the two films. Both tell very similar stories that end with a scene that is essentially the same, and yet the approach and viewpoint of the two films are actually quite different – yet not quite in the way you would suspect. Both have been acclaimed in their home countries – Omar actually got nominated for an Oscar for Foreign Language Film last year, and Bethlehem was Israel’s submission, although it didn’t make the cut. I liked both films almost equally – and I think that separately they present two very pessimistic view of relations between Israel and Palestine – together they deliver an even bleaker portrait.

Omar opens with the title character (Adam Bakri) going over the wall using a rope to get to his friend Tarek’s (Iyad Hoorani). These two, along with Amjad (Samer Bisharat) make up a low rent revolutionary “cell”. They latest (probably first) job is that they are going to drive to one of the many outposts when Israeli soldiers patrol the border, and kill one of them. Tarek, is the leader, and makes the plan. Omar steals the car they are going to use – and Amjad needs to pull the trigger. They are successful in their mission – a solider is killed – and then the police come looking for the three of them – capturing only Omar. After a brutal “interrogation”, he is put into general population, where he is approached by an older inmate, who tells him exactly how the Israelis will try to get him to confess. Omar’s lone response is “I will never confess”. Of course the inmate is really an Israeli agent, Rami (Waleed Zuaiter), and to him, and apparently the Israeli justice system, saying “I will never confess” counts as a confession. So Rami gives Omar a choice – deliver Tarek, who they assume is the trigger man, or go to jail for the rest of his life. Complicating matters is that Omar is in love with Nadia (Leem Lubany) – Tarek’s sister – and Rami threatens to destroy her as well.

In Bethlehem, the Israeli agent, Razi (Tsahi Halevi) has already turned his informant – the teenage Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i) – before the movie even opens. Sanfur is the younger brother of Ibrahim, the leader of a cell of the Palestinian resistance, who lives in hiding, and who has recently help to plan some attacks in Jerusalem. Razi wants Ibrahim badly – and thinks that Sanfur can help him do that. But unlike the relationship between Israeli agent and informer in Omar, these two have a shared history – they`ve been working together for two years, and they care for each other – even if both are not above using each other for their own means as well. Complicating matters are various egos – like Badawi (Hithman Omari) – Ibrahim`s second in command who no one seems to like, and is angry that perhaps Ibrahim has gotten into bed with Hamas. Ibrahim`s group works with the Palestinian authority – who wants a ceasefire – but not everyone is convinced.

In broad strokes, the two films sound very similar – an Israeli agent turns a would-be freedom fighter (or terrorist,
depending on your viewpoint) and then uses him to inform on his friends and family – leading to an inevitable, violent conclusion. That`s true enough. But the two films take very different directions to get there. Omar is a tighter, leaner film – it basically never leaves Omar’s side, and works fine as a crackerjack thriller where you can ignore politics if you choose to. Written and directed by Hany Abu-Assad, who directed Paradise Now (2005) a sympathetic, complicated portrait of two would-be suicide bombers and if this film shares anything in common with that one, it is that sympathy with a lead that many would call a terrorist. While Rami uses questionable tactics to get the dubious confession out of Omar, and then pushes him farther using other dubious tactics, the fact remains that Omar is guilty. He helped plan, and carry out, the assassination of an Israeli soldier. Omar has a legitimate beef with Rami, and Israel in general, but he still did what he was accused of doing.

Bethlehem is a wider ranging movie – with more characters, and more plot. In fact, it probably has too much plot for a single movie (I could see this film being spun off into a TV series if anyone was interested). While I think Omar is certainly partisan towards the Palestinian side of the equation, I   think that mainly Bethlehem is neutral – in that it finds enough to find corrupt and hateful on both sides. The Israeli agent here, Razi, is not as outwardly cruel as Rami in Omar is – and he seems like a nicer guy – but he’s just as ruthless. He has essentially threatened a 15 year old boy, and groomed him for two years, by becoming a father figure to him, in order to use him to get to his family and friends. He does seem to legitimately care about Sanfur – wanting him out of harm’s way when an operation to capture Ibrahim is coming up. But in the film’s heartbreaking final scene, when Sanfur practically begs him to take him to Israel, he is dismissive, while trying to sound like he cares. For his part, Sanfur is basically a typical hotheaded teenager – full of conflicted feelings – his family and everyone he knows idolizes his brother, and so he feels the need to prove his manliness by doing stupid things. He tries to impress everyone – but he’s playing a dangerous game. Badawi is dangerous and unpredictable, and Sanfur is coming into contact with others who don’t trust him, and won’t hesitate to kill a teenager.

What both films share is a pessimism about the current situation between Israel and Palestine. Both films feel sympathy for the Palestinian characters, who want their own country, but also questions the violent tactics they use. Bethlehem portrays the Israeli more positively, but it’s still not an overly great portrait of them. In Omar, the Israeli agent is basically a one note villain – a cruel, man willing to do anything to get what he wants. In Bethlehem, he’s a man who will do almost anything to get what he wants – but at least does care about the people he’s using – to a degree anyway. Both films sees the current conflict as one that isn’t going to end – where everything is fueled by violence and hatred, and neither sees a way to counter either. These are two superior genre films that are also intelligent politic dramas about a conflict that, if these movies are correct, will never end.

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