A tale of two snipers

How should ‘heroism’ be defined in the context of war and occupation?

36th Cairo International Film Festival
Eastwood's film is much more of a war buddy flick, writes Ditmars [Getty]

Clint Eastwood’s film, “American Sniper”, has made global headlines, and sparked heated debate, while Palestinian film-maker Najwa Najjar’s “Eyes of a Thief” – also about a wartime sniper – remains relatively off radar.

But the two films – one the un-nominated Palestinian entry for the Oscars, the other, a multiple Oscar nominee – make for an interesting study in perception and reality.

Both have been controversial in their own way, and both appear to lionise their protagonists as “heroes” – one for shooting over 125 Iraqi “savages” during the US occupation of Iraq – and the other for taking out 10 Israeli soldiers at an Israeli army checkpoint guarding a settlement next to the West Bank town of Silwad during the second Intifada (“Eyes of a Thief” is the name of a valley between Nablus and Ramallah so monikered because of the robberies that used to occur there. Once home to British army barracks, it’s now the site of a permanent Israeli army checkpoint). Both films are based on real life events, adapted for the cinema.

“American Sniper” is inspired by Chris Kyle’s autobiography – which some say is already rather embellished. Najjar – who also wrote the screenplay for her film, took the 2002 incident at Silwad in which 22-year-old Thaer Hamad  (who, like Kyle, honed his shooting skills on childhood hunting trips and who became a Palestinian legend in his own right) shot the soldiers – and cinematised it.

Clash of religions

She made her sniper protagonist a Christian, whose Israeli army-inflicted wounds are treated by nuns and priests before he is captured by the Israelis, and threw in a love interest (Algerian singer Souad Massi as Lila) and a quest to find a missing daughter (a plucky Nisreen Faour as Duniya).

But how should “heroism” be defined in the context of war and occupation? And who are the real heroes? Men with guns? Or the women and children who defiantly attempt to survive the daily struggle?

Controversial films generate Oscar buzz

And how does point of view influence film viewers? Can new Palestinian media like “Eyes of a Thief” help western viewers change their perceptions about Palestine? Or is cultural identification too powerful to overcome?

Does the extreme stereotyping of “American Sniper” represent a new Hollywood low, or is it simply a continuation of the classic war movie genre that dehumanises the “enemy”?

When is a sniper a “hero”? And when is he a “terrorist”? And says who? A study of the two films offers much food for thought.

After the screening of “Eyes of a Thief” at the Palm Springs International Film Festival earlier this month, several disgruntled Americans left the theatre in disgust, saying: “This kind of thing should not be glorified.”

I wonder what would their reaction would have been to “American Sniper”?

While Najjar is a young second-time film-maker, and Eastwood is a veteran, both have faced controversy and perhaps unfair accusations of “glorification” of violence. Many right-wing Americans seem to have taken Eastwood’s film literally, but on one level it can be read as an anti-war film that questions the madness of the Iraqi adventure, or at least as a catalyst for reflection upon it.

Najjar – who faced internal criticism in Palestine for a previous film (2008’s “Pomegranates and Myrrh”) in which the wife of a prisoner contemplates, but does not consummate, an affair with another man – has been accused by some Israelis of “glorifying” violence against occupying soldiers. And in “Eyes of a Thief”, she dares to confront the taboo subject of the collaborator – in the character of Adel, the local corrupt businessman who does dirty deals with the Israelis, diverting Palestinian water to a nearby settlement.

Moments of self-awareness

Yet, as Adel reminds the townspeople when his collaboration is revealed, he’s still the one everyone came to when they needed a permit, a job or a favour.

“American Sniper” approaches a few moments of similar self-awareness – like when the dead-eyed, shell shocked Kyle rambles on to his bewildered wife about the superficial life of “malls and cell phones” in the midst of a war that no one talks about. And as Noam Chomsky recently implied, Obama’s current drone wars render most of his countrymen complicit as “American snipers”.

Meanwhile, I long for a film – Hollywood or otherwise – that eschews the lone gunslinger point-of-view in favour of a war widow heroine, raising her kids in a Baghdad slum, or a Gazan mother struggling to survive the winter in a bombed out shell of her former home. After all, true heroism deserves its due.

With Shin Bet is still one of the biggest employers on the West Bank, Najjar’s collaborator character also rings true.

The points of resonance don’t end there. In fact, when I first saw “Eyes of a Thief”, prior to watching “American Sniper”, it reminded me of an Eastwood in Palestine movie. Like Kyle as portrayed by Bradley Cooper, the sniper-hero Tarek (played by Egyptian heart-throb Khaled Abol Naga) is a lone gunslinger hell bent on justice and revenge; a man of few words, haunted by his past.

In the climactic scene, he jumps from a balcony onto the wedding horse of the corrupt groom Adel, preventing him from marrying Lila and exposing his collaboration to the assembled townsfolk in a dramatic fell swoop.

But his final gesture of defiance – destroying the water main he unwittingly helped divert to an Israeli settlement –  is more “Wounded Knee” than “High Plains Drifter”.

As Adel wryly notes, one water main won’t make much difference to an increasingly shrinking Palestinian territory.

Still, it’s a fine populist moment of genuine heroism – and I’m sure it elicited cheers from Palestinian audiences. The final scene, a flashback to the moment 10 years earlier when Tarek shoots the soldiers with his grandfather’s rifle, conveys more ambivalence.

While the two sniper films are quite different in their execution – Najjar’s film explores Tarek’s relationship with Lila and his daughter, and the toll occupation takes on women and children – while Eastwood’s is much more of a war buddy flick – a certain real politik reality also separates them.

Defining the ‘hero’

While Kyle was celebrated as a hero and decorated by the military, Hamad is still rotting in an Israeli jail, along with thousands of other Palestinians, where he is serving 11 consecutive life sentences.

In the end though, the films made me reflect on the senseless violence of both occupations. The context so sorely lacking in “American Sniper” speaks volumes; thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis lost their lives after a client regime was overthrown in an illegal invasion that turned former CIA asset Abu Musab al-Zarqawi into the al-Qaeda in Iraq bogeyman who “justified” the pulverising of towns like Fallujah (including the use of white phosphorous), encouraged the fomenting of violent sectarianism, and paved the way for the likes of ISIL.

And some 13 years after Hamad shot those 10 Israeli soldiers – as distant and dehumanised in “Eyes of a Thief” as Iraqis were in “American Sniper” – illegal settlements continue at an unprecedented rate, and Fatah works with Shin Bet and the CIA on “internal security” issues.

Meanwhile, I long for a film – Hollywood or otherwise – that eschews the lone gunslinger point-of-view in favour of a war widow heroine, raising her kids in a Baghdad slum, or a Gazan mother struggling to survive the winter in a bombed out shell of her former home.

After all, true heroism deserves its due.

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: a Woman’s Journey Through Iraq, a past editor at New Internationalist, and has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.