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Film review: Omar

What makes a film Oscar-worthy? Of course great acting, careful production, direction by someone who notices the details. But also: telling age-old human stories in a way that can break your heart all over again.

So Hany Abu Assad’s Omar, which opened the Dubai International Film Festival on Friday night — has a good shot. Not that Abu Assad would really care either way, I think.

Omar is described as a psychological thriller, which it certainly is, and that’s something that brings home the absurdity of life in the West Bank for people such as Omar, a young man with relatively straightforward dreams of life and love who constantly finds himself at a dead end, whether it’s in his life, or running from Israeli police in the alleyways of his city. How can the real lives of so many people be classified as “psychological thriller” material?

We follow Omar as if a camera is on his shoulder, taking in the budding romance he has with the sister of his childhood friend, and the daily humiliations and violence of his life, which he and his friends early on resolve to tackle by killing a soldier by sniper fire. Omar is quickly arrested, gruesomely treated in prison, then given the impossible choice of turning collaborator or finding everyone he loves in as much trouble as he is. From here on in, the twists and turns of the story are as tight and frequent as the impossibly confusing alleys we see Omar running down in what was a very physical performance by Adam Bakri.

Omar has been described as Shakespearean, and, yes, there are little hints of that — a “balcony” scene with his Juliet, Nadja; a hand guiltily washing off spilt blood. But its tragedy is Greek, with the yelps and moans of the audience I was part of standing in for the chorus.

For while the story is rooted in the very here and now of Israeli occupation, the heartbreak, betrayal and distrust are universal and ancient. What is Omar more afraid of — the agent who tracks him via a digital ankle bracelet, waiting for him to reveal the killer? Or perhaps he’s most paranoid about that other guy his girlfriend may or may not be speaking to. Which one will lead to destruction? With your heart in your throat and your stomach churning, watch Omar to find out.