Omar and Theeb, Two Destinies in the East

in 25th Carthage Film Festival

by Frédéric Ponsard

Among the 15 films competing at the Carthage Film Festival in Tunis, two in particular were noteworthy (in addition to our winner): Omar by Hani Abu Assad (Palestine) and Theeb by Naji Abu Nowar (Jordan).  Two films, two names, two destinies in this tormented history of the nearby Middle East.

Beyond the walls

Omar is the story of a young Palestinian man facing a Cornelian dilemma: betray his family and friends or live free and find the woman he loves. Adam Bakri who portrays Omar captures the ambiguity of such a situation. Caught by the Israelis after murdering an Israeli soldier with two of his childhood friends, Omar will try to double cross the Israeli secret services, promising to deliver his companions to them. But his release arouses doubts in his community and Omar is left on his own, forced against his will to cooperate with the Mossad.

Like in his earlier film Paradise Now, Hany Abu Assad is talking about the individual caught in a contemporary history trap. His characters must make a choice while unable to escape the violence of their environment. Omar is a labyrinthine film literally as well as figuratively. Several scenes of clashes between Israelis and Palestinians are pure moments of action, enhanced by a syncopated editing and a soundtrack that cleverly emphasizes the constant tension of life in Palestine. We discover the streets of the occupied territories through the Israeli military grid that sustains the population in a genuine open-air prison. The other labyrinth is the psychology of the character, constantly undermined by inhumane choices that will push him to betray his family despite himself.

There is also an unhappy love affair, also marked by betrayal that makes Omar both a combat film and a Shakespearean tragedy. Omar is one of the best movies I have ever seen on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its implications for each individual.

Once upon a Time in Jordan

Theeb by Naji Abu Nowar takes us into a different world, geographically close, as the film is set in the Jordanian desert, but set in another era, during the First World War, at the margins of the conflict between the British and Ottomans. The film could be called Once Upon a Time in Jordan as it emulates the great Westerns of Sergio Leone. It is a story of stalking, revenge and lawless bandits with a background of the arrival of the railway in the Wild East.

We follow a young Bedouin named Theeb (meaning Wolf) who accompanies his brother and an Englishman with a mysterious mission across the desert. Arriving at a water well, they fall into a trap set by bandits. Theeb and one of the murderers will be the only survivors and they will have to help each other to survive in the burning desert where hyenas and the dangers of all kinds surround them…

The comparison with the westerns of Sergio Leone is not exaggerated. The desert of southern Jordan is no less vast and impressive as the deserts of the Sierra Nevada and Monument Valley. These natural settings, reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia by David Lean, are rarely seen in films. In this magnificent isolation, a man finds humility and connects with his inner thoughts. The clash of the two sworn enemies who have to cooperate against their will is the engine of the film, providing constant tension.

Theeb therefore operates on several levels: as an adventure in a hostile environment, as an initiation of a young guy facing death, and as a filigree of the history of the Middle East at the beginning of last century. The historical context is subtly evoked and the filmmaker cleverly gives us the keys to what is being played out in the desert: the control of the routes between Arabia and the Mediterranean, and of those territories where oil will be found. The heroes’ lives are affected by the English and the Ottomans who battle in the background. Theeb looses his beloved brother because of the stubborn Englishman who wants to find a well in the middle of the desert. Meanwhile the Ottoman railway robs the livelihood of the Bedouins who used to accompany the pilgrims to La Mecca. They now take the train, and ancestral tracks are disintegrating. The viewer is never lost in historical details – the political issues are clearly stated yet they never cloud the human story being told.

Both films have already been awarded in major festivals (Un Certain Regard Jury Prize for Omar, Orizzonti Award for Best Director for Naji Abu Nowar). Along with Before Snowfall, the FIPRESCI Prize winner, they were by far the three most exciting films in the official competition of the Tunis Carthage Film Festival.

Edited by Yael Shuv