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An excerpt from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune's ★★★★ review of “Omar” by Colin Covert:
A riveting blend of thriller and romance elements, "Omar" grabs you from the very first image. A fit, energetic young man climbs a knotted rope to the top of Israel's 25-foot separation wall, the concrete curtain isolating West Bank Palestinians from Israelis. Hand over hand he makes his way to the top of the looming barrier. The long shot shows there's nothing to break his descent if he slips. You watch, stomach knotted, gripped by fear that he'll plummet to the roadway below. The rest of the film details Omar's actual fall, as the cycle of Mideast violence costs this would-be freedom fighter his freedom, his illusions and his ideals.
Nominated for an Oscar as best foreign-language film, "Omar" is the latest from Palestinian writer/director Hany Abu-Assad, whose 2005 "Paradise Now," a character study of suicide bombers, was also up for that prize.
Abu-Assad packs his film with richly layered characters and vivid visuals. Omar routinely climbs the fence to get to his childhood friend Tarek's house. He's there less to hang out with his buddy and their amusing sidekick Amjad than to pass clandestine love poems to Tarek's pretty kid sister Nadia.
Excerpts from an article by the Associated Press:
In the Holy Land, the state of Palestine does not yet exist. But in Hollywood, it already had an Oscar finalist.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' announcement that "Omar," one of this year's candidates for best foreign language film, hailed from "Palestine" has raised eyebrows in these parts, where Israelis and the Palestinians are engaged in peace talks aimed at establishing just such a state . . . much of the drama was shot in the Israeli city of Nazareth, home of director Hany Abu-Assad and many of the movie's actors, rather than in the West Bank, where much of the movie is set. In contrast, Abu-Assad's 2005 film "Paradise Now," which was also nominated for an Oscar, was billed at the time as coming from the "Palestinian Territories" to avoid the inevitable political saber-rattling over sovereignty.
The United Nations General Assembly's 2012 recognition of Palestine as a non-member state, over fierce Israeli objections, paved the way for the Academy to change its definition this time around. Abu-Assad also said the film qualified as such because it was the first to be almost completely financed by Palestinians. In any case, he added, the film's nationality, like his own, was a matter of identity, not geography.
"As long as we are under occupation, it doesn't matter what it is called," said Abu-Assad, 52, who, like many Israeli Arabs, considers himself Palestinian even though he holds Israeli citizenship. "That doesn't make us Israeli. As long as the state is exclusive, you can't identify with the state as long as it doesn't recognize you as equal."
The debate over the film's land of origin touches on the complex status of Israel's Arab minority, who make up about a fifth of Israel's 8 million citizens.
Israeli Arabs remained in the country during the war surrounding Israel's establishment in 1948, in contrast to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were driven out during the fighting and later came under Israeli occupation when it captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war.
Israeli Arabs hold full citizenship rights, generally enjoy a higher standard of living and more civil liberties than in neighboring Arab countries, and in many ways have become integrated into Israeli society. Yet they often suffer discrimination and complain of second-class status and frequently identify with their Palestinian brethren. Abu-Assad said he considers all of Israel "under occupation" since Arabs do not have full equality with the Jewish majority.
Yousef Abu Wardi, a veteran Israeli film actor, said he could relate to the identity crisis many of his fellow Arabs felt. "To be Israeli, does that mean I have to stop being an Arab?" he asked. "Until the final borders are defined here, it is going to be very hard to define who is Israeli and who is Palestinian."
In "Omar," a love story set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Abu-Assad explores some of these elements by focusing on the plight of Palestinians who collaborate with Israel.
Abu-Assad said he made no effort to tell Israel's side of the story.
"I find any kind of balance between the occupied and the occupier a little false," he said in a phone call from Los Angeles, where he is awaiting Sunday's ceremony. "A balance makes it less impressive as a movie. All good movies are told from one point of view."
Yair Raveh, a film critic from Israel's leading entertainment magazine Pnai Plus, said "it's not an anti-Israeli film per se. It just has a lot of anger and anger is good for cinema."
"Omar" has mostly played before art house-type theaters in Israel while in the West Bank it has had only limited viewings. That has not stopped passions from rising over the film — and the Academy's stance on its origins.
"The policy of the government of Israel, among other things, is to establish a Palestinian state. But one doesn't exist right now," said Paul Hirschson, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "Unfortunately, this does not contribute, to say the least, toward conflict resolution because it doesn't nurture intellectual honesty in the conversation."
The Palestinian culture minister, Anwar Abu Aisheh, called the film a "qualitative step" for the Palestinian film industry. "I'm very proud of this movie. It succeeded in introducing the world of our problems under occupation, of our tragedy."
Israeli films were finalists for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film four times between 2008 and 2012, giving Israel more nominations during that period than any other country.
All but one of the films dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, creating a counterintuitive "golden age" of Israeli film in which the government has bankrolled movies that have often shined a critical light on Israeli policies and society.
Abu-Assad said the Palestinians were not yet ready for such introspection.
"The Israelis have less problems with it because it (the conflict) does not control their life," he said. "We have less luxury to deal with other topics even though I would love to."
Still, he said he made an effort to create a movie that was about love and friendship in which the conflict was only part of the background.
"I do not want to make a movie that will die with the occupation," he said. "You want to make a movie that will live forever and the occupation will die one day."
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