It’s 2012 and Tarek, a water engineer from the West Bank, is guarding a dark secret from the Second Intifada. A flashback to 2002 reveals Tarek returning home one day to find Israeli soldiers surrounding his village. When he attempts to defy the army and run to fetch his wife and daughter he is shot. Wounded, he seeks shelter in a local church.
Najjar’s West Bank thriller, Eyes of a Thief, is in part inspired by the siege of the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002. Palestinian fighters hid in the church whilst the Israeli army occupied Bethlehem for 39 days in an attempt to capture those inside.
Back to the film and in a hidden passageway beneath the church Tarek pens a letter to his daughter before he escapes, perhaps foreseeing the impending chain of events. After winding up in prison for 10 years when he fails to produce his ID at a checkpoint, Tarek makes his way towards Nablus in search of his family.
Arriving at the home they once shared he finds it boarded up and Tarek is told that his wife has died. Is it possible for 10 years to pass with no news of his wife passing away? Rather than staying with friends or family his daughter has been taken into an orphanage and is, dubiously, nowhere to be found.
Almost immediately upon his return to the city Malak appears. A force of nature she is the kind of girl who throws fire at the local boys and steals metal from the back of trucks to make money. Early on, Tarek suspects she is his daughter. With no other contenders in sight, the film immediately becomes predictable and lacks suspense.
Malak is being taken care of by Lila, played by renowned Algerian singer Souad Massi, who works as a struggling seamstress in a local shop. The shop is owned by Palestinian businessman Adel, a shady character who is clearly up to no good. Adel is in love with Lila, who relies on him financially. But then so is Tarek, which makes their lives at home complicated, mirroring the world outside.
Meanwhile, Tarek attempts to iron out Malak’s feisty edge by teaching her to play billiards – if she promises to go to school – so she can focus on winning the local competition. Whilst the film invests a lot of time in Tarek teaching her, in the end we never see the tournament, or find out who won it.
As the film unravels, it appears there is more to Tarek’s dark secret than simply not telling Malak that he suspects he is her father. At times it is hard to decipher which parts of the film are set in 2002 and which are from 2012; but it is easy to imagine the frustration Tarek feels when 10 years after the Intifada he emerges from prison to see that the occupation continues.
“Eyes of a Thief” considers this despair and the effects such a drawn-out conflict can have on personal relations. It questions how far people are willing to go when they feel almost everything has been taken away from them.