Hillel Schenker

“Omar” vs “Bethlehem”

And the Oscar goes to… Well, it will definitely not go to “Bethlehem”, directed by Yuval Adler, the Israeli candidate for Best Foreign Film, which didn’t make the final cut. It will probably also not go to “Omar”, directed by Hany Abu-Assad, the Palestinian candidate, though who knows, maybe it will surprise.

However, it’s fascinating to compare the two films, both of which should be seen by all who care about Israelis and Palestinians, and also because both are good films, each in their own way.

Two films on the same theme, with the same ending

The most amazing facet of the comparison is the fact that both films deal with the same theme, a young Palestinian in the West Bank and his Israeli General Security Services “handler”, who turns him into an informant on his Palestinian colleagues. Even more startling is that both films end in exactly the same way – which I won’t reveal here so as not to be a spoiler for those who haven’t seen them yet.

After completing a doctorate in philosophy, Adler decided to make a film, learned the trade, and does a very job with his first full length feature.  The strength of Adler’s film, co-written by Palestinian Israeli journalist Ali Wakad, is  his sweeping portrayal of the dynamics and different factions within Palestinian society, and the wonderful job that he does with a cast of primarily amateur actors.The weakness, in my view, is the elements which are missing. How can you portray the Israeli presence in the West Bank without a single settler appearing on screen? And how can you portray Palestinian life in the Occupied Territories without a single image of the Separation Barrier and the Check Points which are an inherent part of the daily experience for many?

Omar climbs the Separation Barrier

The opening scene of Abu-Assad’s film immediately makes up for one of these lacks, when we see Omar climbing over the Separation Barrier which separates two sides of a town to visit the home of a high school girl that he is courting. Incidentally, climbing over the 8 meter wall is apparently a physical impossibility, but in the world of cinema that’s okay.  Abu-Assad is also a more experienced professional filmmaker than Adler, and this is his second film that was a candidate for the Oscar, after “Paradise Now” (2005). He focuses more on telling the human story of a number of Palestinian friends, perhaps making the film more accessible to a foreign audience than “Bethlehem”. Yet I felt that “Paradise Now” was a better film, with its elements of satire and its different segments – the first in his native Nazareth. Yes, Hany Abu-Assad is a Palestinian-Israeli citizen, though he chose to declare that the film is a totally Palestinian project, which in my view is a perfectly legitimate choice. After all, the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish also spent his youth in Israel, and studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The Israeli experience of watching “Omar”

An Israeli watching “Omar” also is struck but certain elements that a foreign viewer probably would not catch. The star, Adam Bakri, in his first film, is of course the son of noted Palestinian-Israeli actor and filmmaker Mohammad Bakri, and the younger brother of actor Saleh Bakri, who appeared in the award-winning Israeli film “The Band’s Visit” (2007). And the father, Mohammad Bakri, was one of the two leading protagonists in the Israeli Oscar candidate “Beyond the Walls” (1984).  So when his handler, brilliantly played by Essam Abu Aabed speaks Hebrew to his wife on the phone, and Omar says he only understood two words, an Israeli viewer can only smile. And when an Israeli viewer sees Palestinian-Israeli actor Yousef (Joe) Sweid play an Israeli interrogator in prison who viciously abuses Omar to get information out of him, it’s hard not to recall that in “The Bubble” (2006) directed by Eytan Fox, he plays the Palestinian gay guy from the West Bank who is befriended by a group of Tel Aviv left-wing Israelis.

All of this is not surprising, since our lives as Israelis and Palestinians are so intertwined. Cinema can help us to cross boundaries and create understanding. Two examples of this are the fact that Israelis flocked to see the Iranian film “A Separation”, directed by Asghar Farhadi, winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2012, out of curiosity to see what daily life in Teheran was like, even in the height of the tensions between the two countries. They were also very curious to see the award-winning Wadjda (2012), the first Saudi film, directed by Haifaa Al Mansour, to get a glimpse of life in Saudi Arabia. And of course two other must-see films for anyone who cares about Israelis and Palestinians are Israel’s two candidates for Best Documentary Oscar in 2013, “The Gatekeepers” directed by Dror Moreh, and “Five Broken Cameras”, co-directed by Palestinian Emad Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi. And there are many others.

If you haven’t seen them, go see “Omar” and “Bethlehem.”

About the Author
Hillel Schenker is Co-Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, and lives in Tel Aviv