Palestinian Cinema Comes of Age With ‘Eyes of a Thief’

It was to be expected that Palestine’s 2015 Oscar nominee would draw angry responses in Israel, since its plot revolves around a terror attack. But why did it annoy some Palestinians who saw it?

Anyone needing proof of the political minefield that is Israeli-Palestinian relations only needs to consider recent events in the film world. First, Israel’s Culture and Sports Ministry demanded that film director Suha Arraf return the grant she received to make “Villa Touma,” after she submitted her film to the Venice Film Festival as Palestinian rather than Israeli. Second, Israeli film festivals are asking director Ibtisam Mara’ana to remove the caption “Israel/Palestine” from her film “Write Down, I am an Arab,” while Arab festivals are boycotting it. And third, director Najwa Najjar’s film “Eyes of a Thief” was chosen to represent Palestine – the state that does not exist for Israelis – at next year’s Academy Awards.

The Palestinian-Jordanian filmmaker Najjar lives in Ramallah. She started out in advertising, and since 1999 has been making both documentary and feature films. Her first full-length feature, “Pomegranates and Myrrh” (2008), screened at more than 80 film festivals worldwide, and won 10 international awards. But it also drew sharp criticism. Not so much from outside, but from within Palestinian society.

The film’s plot focuses on the story of a young, newlywed couple: Kamar, a young woman from Jerusalem; and her husband, Zaid, from Ramallah. Kamar is a performer in a dance troupe that combines the traditional dabke with modern dance, while Zaid produces olive oil from his family’s olive grove. When the Israel Defense Forces expropriates the family’s land and allows settlers to take control of it, Zaid confronts the soldiers and is arrested. A loyal wife, Kamar carries on with Zaid’s work, producing and marketing the olive oil while he is in prison. But she also goes back to dancing and begins spending more and more time with Kais, a dance instructor who has come from Lebanon, and develops feelings for him.

SPOILERS: However, Kamar remains faithful to her husband. She does not consummate her love for Kais and rejects his attempts to seduce her. But she does have strong feelings for him, and continues to meet with him, even after Zaid is released from prison and returns home.

Many people in Palestinian society were troubled by the portrayal of the wife, seeing her as being not entirely faithful to her husband, who is being held in an Israeli jail. This they saw as inappropriate and contrary to the spirit of the Palestinian struggle, in which not only the prisoners take part but also their wives, who wait faithfully for them.

Najjar’s intention was to show the Palestinian problem, describe everyday life and the difficulties that Palestinian families suffer under the occupation, including Palestinian women. But the security prisoners themselves were furious with the film, claiming that such a portrayal lowered morale. Hamas outdid itself by calling for the director’s expulsion from Palestine, without even having seen the film, Najjar claimed.

“Eyes of a Thief” has also drawn ire, but this time from Israelis and Palestinians alike – albeit for completely different reasons.

The film is named for, and was inspired by, a sniper attack that took place in Wadi al-Haramieh (“Valley of the Thieves” in Arabic), near Ramallah, in March 2002. A young Palestinian man from the village of Silwad, Thaer Hamad, shot 10 Israelis to death at a checkpoint while hiding in the hills. He was subsequently arrested, after telling fellow Palestinians what he had done, and is serving several life sentences.

The film’s plot revolves around the character of Tarek, who is released from an Israeli prison 10 years after a killing spree. Tarek returns to Nablus, the city where he lives, to search for his wife and daughter. The film uses flashbacks to move between 2002 – the peak of the second intifada – and the present, in which the protagonist (together with the audience) are shown the conditions in which Palestinians live today and the changes that have taken place in society since he was arrested.

No Israeli funding

The anger on the Israeli side was obvious and expected. “What kind of society glorifies and exalts a murderer and commemorates his killing spree in a feature film?” some people asked. Some even suggested that a film be made about Baruch Goldstein (who perpetrated the Tomb of the Patriarchs massacre in 1994) in response. For these people, presumably the attack was not committed under occupation. Presumably Israeli cinema is free of films that praised and glorified operations that are heroic in our eyes but terrorist in the eyes of others. Presumably the characteristics of the Palestinian national struggle, which also includes the use of cinema, differ from other national struggles throughout the world.

Still, it doesn’t seem that the Israeli criticism matters in the least to those who created and worked on the film. After all, this is a Palestinian film that was shot entirely in the West Bank – mostly in Nablus, a little in Bethlehem – and supported by Palestinian, Arab and international foundations, without assistance from any Israeli foundation.

But the Palestinian critics have also sharpened their pens. The film’s premiere took place about a month ago in Ramallah’s cultural center to a packed audience. Palestinian film critic Firas Obeid noted afterward, “The film is named after one of the most important operations in the history of the Palestinian struggle. We expected that the film would tell the story of the operation from a historical perspective and tell us the life story of the Palestinian hero Thaer Hamad.” But Najjar’s film didn’t meet those expectations, Obeid complained. It failed to tell the story of the eponymous operation, and the way it was edited created an unconvincing and unabsorbing plot, far from what would have been expected.

SPOILERS: In addition, the review said, the film does not reflect day-to-day life for the Palestinians at all. Obeid cited the scene where Tarek is released from prison as a prime example. There is no one there to greet him, a description that is completely contrary to the celebrations that are conventional in Palestine when security prisoners are released from jail. On top of that, the film doesn’t explain how it is that Tarek didn’t know that his wife had died during all his years in prison, or that his only daughter didn’t live in Nablus anymore. Obeid asks in his review whether this is because Palestinian prisoners are kept from having contact with the outside world, or because it is the nature of Palestinian society not to care for its martyrs and prisoners?

“Eyes of a Thief” is the first Palestinian film in which the actors are not only Palestinian, but also Arab actors with an international pedigree. Tarek is played by the renowned Egyptian host-actor Khaled Abol Naga, while Lila is the acting debut of Algerian singer Souad Massi.

Najjar said in an interview that the choice of Naga as the protagonist was not coincidental, nor did it stem from financial considerations and making the film more marketable to a wider audience. Naga’s father fought in Palestine in 1956, and Naga – who read the letters that his father sent his mother – feels complete solidarity with the Palestinian people. But for Palestinian film critic Sallah Dhebah, while the casting choices of Naga and Massi for this important film were definitely the lifting of the siege that had been imposed on Palestinian creativity from both within and without, it also detracted from the film as a cinematic work.

This was particularly prominent when it came to Naga, who had trouble with the Palestinian dialect and was clearly not one of the local populace in terms of both the language and understanding of cultural codes. Dhebah said that while Naga deserved a great deal of credit for his efforts to “pass” as Palestinian, such an effort detracted from his great talent as an actor, and in the end also detracted from the credibility of the film as a whole.

Still, it’s important to remember that Najjar’s film is a “boycott-evader” because it was filmed entirely in Palestinian Authority territory, supported by Arab and international foundations, and all its actors are Arab. This ensures its acceptance not only in international film festivals but also in Arab film festivals, which have boycotted Palestinian films on occasion because they were funded by an Israeli foundation or because the director was a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship.

For example, the Beirut Film Festival recently rejected a film by Mara’ana because she holds Israeli citizenship. Considering that her documentary “Write Down, I am an Arab” was made by a Palestinian director – even one who holds Israeli citizenship – and that the film is about Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, the decision is an absurd one.

But there is no lack of absurdity in the existing situation. Israel can continue arguing with Arraf about whether her film is a Palestinian one; with Sweden and other nations over whether to recognize a Palestinian state; and with the entire world over whether there is a Palestinian nation.

In the meantime, Palestinian filmmakers are shooting Palestinian films in Palestinian cities with Palestinian actors (with the occasional Egyptian and Algerian) who speak the Palestinian dialect. With Israel or without it, they are bringing a story that is wholly and completely Palestinian to the entire world.