Eyes of a Thief takes Palestine into mainstream cinema

Eyes of a Thief takes Palestine into mainstream cinema
The film interweaves original elements and familiar Hollywood tropes to bring the Palestinian struggle to mainstream cinema.
4 min read
16 December, 2014
Still from Eyes of a Thief, courtesy of Najwa Najjar

Spoiler alert: this review reveals some of the film's plot.

Eyes of a Thief is a very accomplished piece of film-making that has a politically committed vision.

It is about a man in search of his daughter, but it is also the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most intriguingly, it is loosely inspired by a true event that has become legendary among Palestinians of the West Bank. 

Shot on location in the West Bank town of Nablus with its picturesque old town, lively new city and starkly stunning surrounding countryside, the film is aesthetically beautiful.

In fact, the choice of location posed a major logistical difficulty, since it was unclear whether the actor playing the lead character, Egyptian filmstar and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Khaled Abol Naga, was going to receive a permit to enter the country until a few weeks before filming started.

The film opens in 2002, the height of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, with a wounded man hiding out in a church in Bethlehem. When he tries to return to his wife and daughter in their besieged hometown of Sebastia, outside Nablus, he is stopped and arrested by Israeli soldiers.

On his release from prison, ten years later, the mysterious man, Tareq, goes to find his family. His wife, he learns, was killed at her window by a stray bullet.

Najwa Najjar, director of Eyes of a Thief, speaks
exclusively to al-Araby al-Jadeed


The search for his daughter takes him to Nablus, where he meets and is attracted to Lila, played by Algerian singer and actress Souad Massi, who happens to be bringing up orphan girl Malak.

The mayor, Lila’s fiancé Adel, employs Tareq as a water engineer. But he is both suspicious and jealous of Tareq, and starts digging into his past.

Tareq settles in, builds a fatherly relationship with feisty Malak and her adoptive brother, and makes his own discoveries about Adel and his water project, while the audience learns about Tareq's secret past through flashbacks to 2002.

The film has been hailed as "humanising the Palestinians", as if they could be anything else. But director Najwa Najjar told Al Araby Al Jadeed that this was "not enough" for her, and that it was time for the Israeli occupation to end. As a result, her vision of resistance is very clear.

     [Director Najwa Najjar's] vision of resistance is very clear.

The film was loosely inspired by the story of the Silwad sniper, a young bricklayer named Thaer Hamad who used his grandfather's Second World War carbine rifle in 2002 to shoot 11 Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint, while sparing an Israeli settler woman and her child.

The incident took place in the Valley of Thieves along the Jerusalem-Nablus road, where bandits used to operate during the British mandate. Hamad did not tell anyone of his actions, and was only discovered a few years later when a spy planted in a prison heard his brother boast about it. He is now serving several life sentences in jail.


Different versions of the story exist, but at their core is a real event that has become the stuff of legend, particularly given Israel's silence over the attack.

The film's vision is clear, though not always as subtle as it could be. The attraction between Lila and Khaled, for instance, is so convenient that it stretches credibility. Adel, the mayor, is a stock villain - a corrupt official who betrays his people. The film does not take on the complexities of collaboration and betrayal, as did Hany Abu Assad's 2013 film Omar, nor does it examine the invasive psychological games and threats that Israeli intelligence engages in to get ordinary people to collaborate.

Good triumphs straightforwardly over evil and the film is reminiscent of Hollywood's many accounts of the historical struggles of the oppressed or colonised, be they Americans, Scots, Irish, Jews in Europe, Christians in ancient Rome, or subcontinent Indians, to name but a few. Its chief innovation is to give voice to the ongoing Palestinian struggle.

It is a remarkable achievement to have brought that struggle into the mainstream, and to have done so by winding together elements that are both familiar and new: a family reunited, a resistance fighter confronting his oppressors, and the diversion of water resources as one aspect of Israel's particular brand of settler-colonialism.

Defiantly political, Eyes of a Thief is also an accessible human story with a heartwarming, mainstream sensibility.