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Cinematic Intifada: ‘Omar’ and the Oscars

Last night at the Oscars, the award for Best Foreign Language Film went to The Great Beauty, a Fellini-esque Italian movie. The most important story about the Oscar in this category, however, involves one of the films that failed to win: Omar, a film the Motion Picture Academy credited to a country it called “Palestine” – remarkably similar to another film, Bethlehem, which was Israel’s Oscar submission this year. In The New Yorker, film critic Anthony Lane noted the similarities:

The Israeli submission … was “Bethlehem,” a thriller about a young Palestinian man, with links to terrorist activities, who is secretly controlled by an Israeli handler. The Palestinian offering was “Omar,” a thriller about a young Palestinian man, with links to terrorist activities, who is secretly controlled by an Israeli handler. Who said the two sides in the conflict have no common ground?

There was a distinct difference, however, in the treatment of the two movies by the Academy, and in the two films themselves. Omar made it onto the Academy’s nine-film shortlist, and then was selected as one of the Oscar nominees. Bethlehem won the Ophir award in Israel (the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars) for “Best Picture” of the year, but it did not make it onto the Academy’s shortlist, much less garner a nomination. And thereby hangs a tale.

The two films have identical plot structures; each is very well made; but they do not in fact, as Lane wrote, show that the two sides in the conflict have common ground. On the contrary, for reasons I have addressed in the March issue of The Tower Magazine (“Ideology at the Oscars”), they demonstrate why common ground is a distant dream, and why the Academy’s Oscar nomination for Omar will have the effect of widening the gap. One of the films treats the young Palestinian terrorist as a thoughtful teenager in love, pushed into violence by Nazi-like Israelis; the other film, jointly written by a Jewish-Muslim team that treats both the Palestinian youth and the Israeli handler as complicated, conflicted characters, attempting to juggle personal and political loyalties, is all the more powerful for its nuance.

The two films, taken together, vividly demonstrate the inadequacy of “processes,” “parameters,” “plans,” or “frameworks” to produce peace, given the current Palestinian culture, even if the current Palestinian “president” – now finishing the first decade of his four-year term, still unable to set foot in the half of his putative country (controlled by the terrorist group with which he periodically tries to “reconcile”), governing his own half without any of the institutions necessary for a successful state (including the rule of law, a free press, elections, or a civil society or educational system not rampant with incitement) – were to sign a “historic” or “breakthrough” document embodying the latest process/plan/parameters/framework.

Although Omar did not receive the Oscar, the nomination itself implicated the Academy, perhaps unwittingly, in an ongoing cinematic intifada that is described in my Tower article. The Academy should engage in some serious self-reflection on the process it followed this year in elevating Omar and snubbing Bethlehem.



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