The London Palestinian Film Festival opened with Najwa Najjar’s Eyes of a Thief (2014), Palestine’s chosen representative in the 2014 Academy Awards. Following on from her well received debut Pomegranates And Myrrh (2008), Eyes From A Thief is, like Najjar’s previous film, grounded in a reality that emphasises a humanism within a context that many will only know from the narratives of international news perspectives. The film circles around an incident in 2002 that happened in Wadi al-Haramieh (“Valley of the Thieves” in Arabic, where the film takes it name) where Thaer Hamad shot 10 Israelis to death at a checkpoint while hiding in the hills.
This incident forms the purposely vague backstory of water engineer Tareq (played by Egyptian superstar Khaled Abol Naga) who after being released from jail in the West Bank 10 years later (for a separate crime) returns home to find his wife dead and his daughter sent to an orphanage in the town of Sebastia. This isolated experience, of exiting jail with no support has created a stir in Palestine. After the premiere in Ramallah last month many pointed out that there is no one there to greet Tareq on release, a fact that is completely contrary to the celebrations that are conventional in Palestine when security prisoners are released from jail. Further complaints went on to query that the film doesn’t explain how Tareq didn’t know that his wife had died, or that his only daughter no longer lives in Nablus.
Upon arrival in Sebastia, Tareq befriends local businessman Adel (Suhail Haddad), and starts working on a building project that Adel has promised the locals will bring prosperity. Housed at a local seamstress’ workshop where Leila (Algerian singer-songwriter Souad Massi) is employed, Tareq starts the search for his daughter and is intrigued by the young girl Leila is looking after. Her name is Malak (Malak Ermileh) and she appears to be roughly the same age as his missing daughter. The film sets itself up as the possibility of a certain genre that wrong foots the audience up to three times. This is done in such a subtle manner that the viewer only realises later what Najjar has cleverly done. It’s not clear until close to the film’s final third that Eyes of a Thief is asking some difficult questions, questions that never leave the grey uncertainty of an ill defined reality that resounds with the effects occupation leaves on the psyche of a traitor.
The sense of spirit and humanity is best shown in the interplay between Tareq and the spirited Malak (a beautiful performance by first timer Ermileh) as their bond grows on the possibility that they may be father and daughter. Never once does Najjar fall into the trap of idealised unearned emotion, she’s far more interested in these characters as human beings and never motors towards didacticism. This is brought to the fore by having Tareq and Leila both being played by non-Palestinians (Egyptian and Tunisian retrospectively). Ultimately Eyes Of A Thief is a sleight film that acts as an opening to the world of a closed society that eats, drinks, fights, watches football and exists like any other community.
D W Mault | @D_W_Mault
The London Palestine Film Festival runs from 28th November – 8th December. For more information click here.