Najwa Najjar’s film to open London Palestine Film Festival

Palestinian director Najwa Najjar's film Eyes of a thief, which opens the London Palestine Film Festival, is a contender for an oscar in the Foreign Language category, but getting noticed is an uphill struggle explains director Najwa Najjar.

The director Najwa Najjar.
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Given its rather difficult circumstances and a population barely that of an average-sized city in the United States, Palestine has had a rather impressive run at the Academy Awards of late. Last year, Hany Abu-Assad's West Bank thriller Omar was among the final five competing in the Foreign Language category, while the year before Emad Burnat's 5 Broken Cameras narrowly missed out among the documentaries. And in 2005, it was Abu-Assad again with Paradise Now.

Should everything go according to plan, 2015’s jaunt down the red carpet at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles could feature a nominee from Palestine for the third time in as many years. But Najwa Najjar, director of the Palestinian Foreign Language selection Eyes of a Thief, coming with financial support from the Dubai Film Connection, admits she faces an uphill struggle in the quest to get her film noticed by the all-important Academy voters.

“Everyone else has money from their governments to help support their campaigns,” she says, adding that such a campaign could cost anything from US$30,000 (Dh110,199) to $100,000. “But we have a country that doesn’t have any money for cinema.”

Najjar, whose first feature Pomegranates & Myrrh had its world premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2008 and was hugely well received at festivals around the world, has been trying to raise money to help create a buzz, host screenings and – ultimately – ensure the Academy members watch Eyes of a Thief.

With 82 other films from around the world also jostling for attention – including the likes of Winter Sleep (Turkey) and Leviathan (Russia), which have been amassing awards since Cannes in May – getting noticed and ending up on the final list of nominees come January can be a rather difficult and expensive affair.

“Honestly, it’s been a complete learning experience for me,” she says. “This movie isn’t about the director, or this particular story, it’s about representing a country, and it’s a big responsibility. You’re carrying a big load and you don’t know what to do.”

But while Najjar admits that Omar's Oscars appearance last year could encourage people to check out Palestine's next entry, Eyes of a Thief has been generating a sizeable amount of exposure all on its own. Starring Khaled Abol Naga, a well-known face in Egyptian cinema who has been praised for his appearances in local indie hits such as Microphone, Eyes of a Thief is a thriller in a similar vein to Omar, and again highlights the issues facing a society living under the shadow of occupation. However, this story is inspired by true events, following a Palestinian man who was arrested during the Second Intifada in 2002 and, having been released from an Israeli prison 10 years later, returns to his West Bank hometown to find his daughter.

After a huge opening in Ramallah’s Cultural Palace in September to a packed crowd, the film travelled to the Rio de Janeiro Film Festival.

“It’s the biggest festival in South America and was brilliant,” says Najjar. “It was there we found out that we were the Palestinian nomination for the Oscars.”

Since Rio, the film has been on an upward trajectory. At the recently concluded Kolkata International Film Festival, Eyes of a Thief took home the Best Film award, while Najjar won Best Female Director. In Egypt, at the newly reinvigorated Cairo International Film Festival, the film received a standing ovation, with Khaled Abol Naga scooping the Best Actor award – or, more accurately, the Silver Pyramid – on his home soil.

As for the Oscars run, there's still plenty of time between now and January, when 83 films will be whittled down to nine, and eventually five. Making it to either shortlist would be an impressive achievement, especially in a year that has brought us not just the above mentioned Winter Sleep and Leviathan, but also the Polish drama Ida, Timbuktu from director Abderrahmane Sissako and the Marion Cotillard-starring Two Days, One Night.

“The importance for me in this whole Oscars campaign is not the winning part,” says Najjar. “It’s the more the exposure of a Palestinian story. That for me is crucial, and in the US in particular. It’s the story about resistance and what happens if there’s no options available.”

Following this summer’s fighting in Gaza, Najjar hopes her film adds a voice to the growing international opposition to Israel’s foreign policy. “We need a change in world opinion to change the status quo that has been suffocating Palestine for the past 64 years. If my movie contributes in some way, then great. Wonderful.”