In the hands of a lesser writer and director, Hany Abu-Assad’s “Omar,” the story of a trio of young Palestinian friends caught up in a singular act of vengeance against the Israeli occupation, could have descended to the level of mere agit-prop. That would have left the film — which was recently selected as the Palestinian entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, and is screening October 11 and 12 at the New York Film Festival — appealing strictly to its natural audience: Palestinians and those who make common cause with a reflexive anti-Israel position. But in “Omar,” while using the Separation Wall as the core physical fact around which the drama unfolds, Abu-Assad has other human essentials on his agenda: the nature of love, friendship, trust and betrayal.
These passions play out in a story whose elements are deceptively simple: the title character, a handsome young Palestinian, regularly jumps the wall in order to visit Nadja, a high-school girl who is the sister of his best friend, Tarek. The latter, resolutely militant though unaffiliated with any political or terrorist group, enlists Omar and a third friend, the goofy Amjad, in a nighttime ambush of an Israeli military post. In the event, Amjad — a natural comedian who does a mean imitation of Marlon Brando in “The Godfather” — pulls the trigger to kill a single Israeli soldier. The three flee, but Omar is eventually tracked down and hauled off. At first, he undergoes “enhanced interrogation,” then he’s left to languish in jail until Israeli Agent Rami, armed with a recording in which Omar implicates himself, deftly negotiates the young Palestinian’s release if he will collaborate in bringing in Tarek. Rami clearly has his pulse on Omar and his circle, and he uses his information to leverage all he can from Omar.
Yet upon Omar’s release, and his return to his darling Nadja — a girl who, by age and custom, must be circumspect in her behavior — we see that Omar is open-hearted in his affections but otherwise reticent in revealing how it is that he has been so quickly released by the Israelis. He deflects such questions by answering that the authorities hadn’t sufficient evidence to hold him. Yet he finds himself under suspicion for collaboration by Tarek and, most painfully, by Nadja; under a pall of distrust and paranoia it becomes clear that someone in their circle has been double dealing. And Palestinians do not deal gently with their own collaborators, categorically regarded as traitors to the cause.