Najwa Najjar did not know until two days before filming her second feature “Eyes of a Thief” whether she would have her leading man. Already, she was stepping into potentially treacherous territory, telling a story loosely inspired by a Palestinian man incarcerated by Israeli forces during the 2002 Palestinian uprising who returns home in search of his wife and daughter and shooting within range of the conflict zone where it actually took place. However, if the threat of nearby explosives didn’t faze her, surely the process of obtaining permission from the Palestinian Ministry to use the famed Egyptian actor and humanitarian Khaled Abol Naga, who was denied entry into the country at first, wasn’t going to give her any thoughts about recasting.
“I like challenges, obviously,” laughs Najjar, who is quick to note that Naga had just won a Best Actor award at the Cairo Film Festival for his turn as the enigmatic prisoner in “Eyes of a Thief.”
In fact, it was in Cairo where Najjar first bonded with the actor, who told her about a stack of letters that his father wrote to his mother in 1958 while he was in Gaza before committing to the role of Tarek, the former prisoner. That deep sense of history that would seem to inform all of “Eyes of a Thief,” which may tell the story of a man looking to reclaim his past, but subtly gives shape to the far larger one of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation as it follows Tarek to the titular territory near Nablus where he takes a job with a businessman named Adel whose soon-to-be daughter-in-law bears a striking resemblance to him.
Simply by showing daily life in the region, whether it’s the women working at a garment workshop or visiting a coffee shop where the village’s men gather, Najjar raises provocative questions about living life freely as the spectre of war always remains around the corner, either geographically or personally as nearly everyone in “Eyes of a Thief” has had their life altered by the conflict. While making the opposite of an epic in terms of how intimately she captures her characters, she clearly spared no effort or expense in conveying the sense of community in Nablus, filling the frame with the real people that live there and often shooting in and around the town square. In Los Angeles for Oscar consideration as Palestine’s official entry for Best Foreign Film, Najjar reflected on the occasionally turbulent production, how complicated it is to show daily life in Palestine and why she felt compelled to make the film.
I live in Jerusalem. I live inside the walled area, so it’s closer to the West Bank. If you’re hearing all the news, it’s back to getting really bad. The situation that we’ve been living for the past three or four years, in particular, has been very, very difficult, so I started losing hope, and I don’t want to lose hope. I kept thinking, what do we do when our backs are so pushed against the wall — when it seems that there’s nothing we can do when peace process doesn’t work, when non-violence doesn’t work — what are the options that are available for people? As people who have families there and as parents, we just think, what kind of life do we have for our kids? Ultimately, it was questioning the options to really bring it to the foreground. They are usually options that nobody wants to talk about and I have been fought not to show this movie because it actually discusses these options. But instead of sugar-coating it, why don’t we talk about it, so that there is some kind of justice? As people living there, we need this to end, we’ve had enough.
How did you learn about the event the story is based on?
We heard about the story since I live there. This was the time of the Jenin massacre where the army went in and they were switching soldiers. I’m not condoning it, and I’m not condemning it. It’s not my place. But this is the incident that came to mind. Somebody did something without claiming responsibility, without saying it’s Hamas, it’s Fatah and I don’t want to say he became a folk hero, but that was the mystique of it because he never claimed responsibility. It wasn’t done out of vengeance. There was a settler woman who was spared, and her daughter, and when he actually was finally caught and taken to court, she asked for him to be tried as a prisoner of war, not as a terrorist because he did not kill a civilian. He killed soldiers on Palestinian soil.
Could you tell me about the film’s title? There’s something almost romantic about it, but it’s actually the name of the region where this happened.
Yes, but the title’s also a play on words, because in Arabic, “eyes” also means “springs,” so it’s about water. Then, the thief — who is the thief? But the area is a valley between Ramallah and Nablus in the West Bank where, in the old times, during the British Mandate period, there was a road that they would slow down and there would be thieves hiding who would jump and steal whatever is coming in the cargo. [Later] the [military] checkpoint was there and this was the checkpoint that was suffocating the whole area. We actually shot in Nablus. Of the 25 shooting days, 21 days were in Nablus, and four days were shot in Bethlehem.
You’ve said there were incursions at night. That must’ve been nervewracking.
Every single night in Balata [refugee] camp next to Nablus, one kilometer away. It was quite stressful, and we had to work hard and fast. Sometimes I wish we had more time. This movie should have been shot in 45 days, but we had to work because at any point, any time, we could be stopped. That’s always the problem of working under occupation, is that it’s all arbitrary. One day you could be stopped, and one day you could work. We just had to focus and just work.
The stress was also incredibly high for us as producers because it was a huge responsibility to make sure that everyone was safe. Because we have Icelandic money, we had an Icelandic crew and we had an Egyptian superstar [Khaled Aboul-Naga], which was for the first time in Palestinian cinematic history. These are all people who are not locals. Plus, we had children. I have to say we did have the whole city of Nablus protecting us. The Palestinian police tried to ease things down, but we had 25 days to shoot a movie with explosions, and a movie with huge crowds, so it was a pretty complex, complicated movie. We had to work hard, we had to work fast. Everybody knew the tension and stress, but I think that [created] a lot of camaraderie on-set. It was quite lovely — that you would look around and we had 11 heads of departments working in cinema for the first time and they appreciated the experience so much that you felt they were soldiers willing to protect the movie.
One of the most compelling elements of the film is how you balance the narrative drive of the film with just depicting what life is like on the West Bank. Was it difficult to make room for both?
Editing was very difficult. It was harder than the shooting to create that narrative and to have that balance [where] it’s not overpolitical and not oversimplified, but has that sense of the place. It’s also very important to me not just to talk about what happens between Palestinians and Israelis, but what’s happening within our own contemporary place in the society. Nablus was closed off for 10 years, and in 2002, we often knew who the enemy was. Now, sometimes we’re not so sure. I tried not to draw Adel out to be a bad guy. He was actually someone who really believed he was trying to do the best he could for his society.
At the same time, you’ve got the men who don’t have any clients and they come to the coffee shop, there’s not much to do and the women who work in the tailor shops, and they’re so free inside the tailor shop, then when they go out, they cover up. For me, this is more interesting, because if you just want what the news has, then you can see the news. But I wanted people to come and see the faces, the life, the small things, the small talk, the houses, and what’s inside the houses. This was important to me. These are images that are usually not seen of Palestinians. This is our lives, so why not show that as well?
There’s a scene set eat a coffee shop where Adel tells a story to all the old men there about a potato field that was dug up at the request of the Israeli Secret Service. It’s a tricky scene because it’s goodnatured, but it also speaks to the conflict in an understandable way. How did that scene come about?
This is quite a story that we heard. I do a lot of research before writing and I went to all these coffee shops and I sat with the people there. You see what people say. I was trying to put some bits [of what I heard] in the coffee shop and in the tailor shop. In the tailor shop, their introduction was telling a joke about how men see the place of women in society. This was also a way to lighten the atmosphere. But when it came to the coffee shop, this was actually one of my most difficult scenes, even though it was the most fun scene to shoot because the extras had never [acted before], but they were brilliant. Nobody gave me a hard time.
But [in the coffee shop], I sat there and I tried to find out a story that would be best reflective of where these two men stand politically. How do I make it simple? This story came to mind. It’s a common folk tale we have in the country. Everybody knows it. When I auditioned [actors] for Adel, I asked them to tell me the story. [Suhail Haddad] just nailed it. I just thought he can do it, and [that was important] because up to that point in the story where you have two ideologies and two men standing up, this is where it all comes together.
While you don’t make a big deal of it in the film, the character of Tarek is a Palestinian Christian when the person he was based on wasn’t in real life. Why was that important to you?
Back home, they even ask me why did you make him a Christian? Because he’s not Christian, he is a Muslim. But I did my undergraduate and graduate studies here [in the U.S.] and I was never very pleased about the image of Arabs and Palestinians in the media. Then, more recently, it became Muslims in the media. In 2000, [I was here] for one of my documentaries at the Human Rights Festival, and it was right before 9/11. At this time, there was a whole sudden demonization of Muslims and they started pitting Muslim against Jew. Suddenly, we started hearing back home, it was always the Muslims, the Muslims, the Muslims.
But I live in a country where Muslims, Jews, and Christians live together, [as do] atheists, agnostics, and everybody else. When my parents were there before they were forced to leave in ’48 as Christians living there, they lived within a whole society. Twenty percent of the population were Christians and I started to understand that when you demonize one religion, and then you pit [one] against [another], and you make that the issue, it loses its national importance. So to have [Tarek] as a Christian is to show that it’s not the Muslims. It’s anyone who has no options, who is so desperate. And when you have somebody who’s Christian, which is closer to the West, then perhaps their understanding will be different. This is not a religious issue, we’re not fighting about religion. We are fighting about land. There is land at stake. It’s a national issue. Without land, and without water, there is no peace with dignity. You can live, but if you don’t have dignity, then it’s not living, it’s just surviving.
There’s an intimacy to the film, which is partially due to your use of close-ups. What was it like to work with cinematographer Tobias Datum [“Smashed”]?
Toby was just wonderful. He worked with my friend Cherien Dabis on “Amreeka,” so he was familiar with the terrain. He wasn’t scared, he wasn’t worried. He was very calm and that’s the best thing you can have with the [director of photography]. If I was nervous, he’d look at me and he would just be my support. We went to all the locations, we did the shooting schedule, how we want to shoot everything and at first, we thought that we were going to do something that is more on tracks. But we had a lot of non-actors, so it would’ve been very difficult to shoot [scenes that] had to be perfectly timed. We decided after two days that the best thing would be to shoulder [the camera], and he’s really good with that. He’s got that movement and it’s more intimate. My main actress [Souad Massi] is a very famous Algerian singer who lives in France and she had never acted before, so we needed a camera that was flexible and basically, that’s how we changed [our approach]. We’re trying to show a story that tells the human emotion. We needed to be close to that person.
Is it an interesting thing to represent your country for Oscar consideration?
It’s very hard to bring out a different Palestinian story, so to have what’s considered the highest accolade put on a film is wonderful because you actually do get one more story out there. You see more faces and you see a narrative that usually is not seen. It’s a big honor to represent your country, so I hope I’m up to it.
“Eyes of a Thief” does not yet have U.S. distribution.