At the 86th Academy Awards ceremonies on March 2, a film about the morally ambiguous and lethal world inhabited by Palestinian informants and their Israeli handlers will be one of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. Win or lose, the evening will cap a successful year in which the film has won awards across the world.
The film in question is not Bethlehem, Israel’s entry, by first-time director Yuval Adler, which recently won six Ophirs, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars, as well as the top prize at the 2013 Venice Film Festival. It is Omar, the Palestinian submission, directed by Hany Abu-Assad, which won the Special Jury Prize at the 2013 Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. Abu-Assad was also nominated in 2006 for his film Paradise Now, about a pair of Palestinians preparing to become suicide bombers.
Both films, with two different viewpoints of the same controversial subject, are among the record 76 submissions from countries looking to take home a statuette. Only the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences know why one of these films was selected and not the other — the “arts” part of the academy’s name underscores the subjective nature of judging what is best about the form.
Over the next few weeks, area moviegoers will be able to make up their own minds about the two films. Omar is currently playing at the Ritz at the Bourse, and attendees of the upcoming Israeli Film Festival can check out Bethlehem on March 16 at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute before it begins its Philadelphia engagement at Ritz Theaters on March 21.
What they will see are two films that are mirror images of each other, both with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the backdrop.
The eponymous protagonist of Omar is a baker on the wrong side of Israel’s security wall, separated from his friends and his love, the younger sister of his best friend. After taking part in an ill-conceived plot to murder an Israeli soldier in order to show he is worthy of marrying his girlfriend, Omar is almost immediately captured, interrogated and put to work as an informant by his Israeli handler to turn over the soldier’s killer. What happens next is a series of tragedies, each presented in a matter-of-fact way that does nothing to lessen the tension that builds as the viewer waits for the next domino to fall.
Bethlehem follows a similarly tragic path taken by Razi, a Shin Bet officer who has developed an almost paternal relationship with his teenaged Palestinian informant that everyone but him can see has become too close for safety. As Razi sacrifices his work and his family to try and help Sanfur, the Palestinian boy is working just as hard to prove to his community that he is not a traitor to his people and their cause.
Omar provides a portrait of a young man trying to find happiness despite the situation, and Bethlehem depicts a man so dedicated to protecting the lives of others that he is willing — consciously or not — to give up his own life. But beyond presenting sympathetic portraits of deeply flawed protagonists, the films share another crucial aspect: No one comes off smelling like a rose.
In Omar, Israelis are portrayed as an overwhelming, callous and manipulative presence, while Palestinians are shown as fractured, petty and self-destructive. Bethlehem’s characters go through their lives with blinders on, focused only on reaching their own goals regardless of the collateral damage caused. There is no attempt in either film to lay out an agenda, a way forward or enlighten audiences about the conflict.
Abu-Assad says that is by design. “I don’t want to educate — I hate movies that educate,” he says. “If you can make the background a contrast to your characters, it will add to your movie. It is the same structure you do with Romeo and Juliet, but with the background of the occupation. There is no ideal balance, because what matters to me is the love story, not the background.
“This kind of movie, where you have only moral dilemmas, this is the most interesting for me,” he continues. “All the movies I love have ambiguous characters on the boundaries of good and bad: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Le Cercle Rouge, The Godfather.”
It is to The Godfather he turns to make his most compelling argument for why audiences should focus on appreciating the movie without succumbing to the influence of the outside world. “You don’t really agree with the politics of the Mafia,” he explains, “but we appreciate The Godfather because it features such great characters. Just because you appreciate it, it doesn’t mean you want to legalize organized crime.”
Jeff Lipsky, the co-founder of Adopt Films, the United States distributor for Omar, says he wasn’t scared off by finding the right publicity angle for the film. “The marketing hooks were right there without even thinking about it,” he says. “American audiences love Shakespearean tragedy-influenced movies, and even though we weren’t immediately familiar with it, we knew there were pockets of Palestinian-Americans. And, with any film” that features Israel, he adds, “there is going to be a curiosity on the part of Jewish audiences, and perhaps a fervent desire to see it, because of the conflict.”
In addition to owning the U.S. rights to Omar, Adopt is also the distributor for Bethlehem. Lipsky doesn’t see a problem with having to market the two films. Even though they cover the same ground, they do so from markedly different viewpoints and with very different styles.
“I don’t call them similarities as much as coincidences,” he explains. In comparison to Omar’s multiple plotlines, “Bethlehem is a straight-line thriller — it takes you from A to Z with little deviation.”
Of course, Lipsky has a vested interest in making sure that audiences go see both films. This is not a foregone conclusion, as Abu-Assad himself acknowledges. Even though the awards and critical acclaim have been overwhelming for him, he says, the box office returns in Israel have not been. Omar’s first weekend in the United States yielded a respectable return of just over $3,000 per screen, which could bode well based on what happens Sunday night. By contrast, Bethlehem was the highest-grossing film in Israel last year as well as being the most lauded.
Abu-Assad has seen Bethlehem, and he is not bothered by the comparisons between the films nor does he read too much into the fact that the two most critically acclaimed films to come out of the Middle East in 2013 are about the exact same subject.
“I saw Bethlehem when it came out,” he says. “The politics of that movie were not the politics of mine, but I appreciate the way the Israelis approach the issue.”