‘Iraqi Sniper’: Why an Egyptian director is writing a film about Chris Kyle’s nemesis
By Adam Taylor
“American Sniper,” a Clint Eastwood-directed film about Navy SEAL sharpshooter Chris Kyle’s exploits during the Iraq War, was an enormous financial success after its release in December 2014. However, the film sparked furious debate, with critics arguing that it presented a jingoistic and incomplete portrait of the war and the Iraqis who lived through it.
Award-winning Egyptian filmmaker Amr Salama is now planning a feature that shows another side of the conflict. Tentatively titled “Iraqi Sniper,” the film will follow the mysterious insurgent shown engaged in a battle with Kyle’s character in “American Sniper.”
Salama said he was motivated to write the film after seeing “American Sniper” in a Cairo cinema shortly after its release. When the insurgent sniper who has been terrorizing U.S. troops is killed, some in the crowd cheered. “That’s intriguing,” Salama recalled thinking. “This is an Iraqi fighting in Iraq versus an American fighting in Iraq.”
In “American Sniper” and Kyle’s memoir, this sniper is referred to only as “Mustafa” and given little backstory. However, there were contemporary reports of a real Iraqi sharpshooter named “Juba” who became a semi-mythological figure among his countrymen at the time, with some unverified reports saying he killed hundreds of Americans. WorldViews wrote about some of these reports in 2015, shortly after “American Sniper” came out.
Salama’s film, which is still in the early stages of writing, would take these reports and build a human story out of them. The Egyptian filmmaker has made a career out of looking at the perspective of the “others,” he said. His latest film, “Sheikh Jackson,” takes a look at an Egyptian Islamist cleric who revisits his teenage Michael Jackson obsession after the American singer dies in 2009.
That film, due to premier at the Toronto International Film Festival next week, was personal for Salama. “I was once religious,” he said, and “I was once a Michael Jackson fanatic.”
“American Sniper” was controversial in much of the Arab world. In 2015, The Washington Post’s Liz Sly reported that it had been pulled from Baghdad’s only movie theater after complaints that it insults Iraqis. “It portrays Americans as strong and noble and Iraqis as ignorant and violent,” one viewer said. In the United States, there were also suggestions that Kyle, who was killed in 2013, had inflated his military record.
Salama is a fan of Eastwood as a director and said he isn’t anti-“American Sniper” per se, just disappointed that the American director hadn’t shown both sides of the story, as he did in the World War II films “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.” Salama said he was more insulted by Kyle’s book, which he said portrayed Arabs as savages.
“I’m an Arab, and I don’t think of myself as a savage,” he said.
While much is made in “American Sniper” of Kyle’s battle with the Iraqi sniper, not a lot is known about this person — if he even existed — in real life. “Juba” worked with a Sunni insurgent group, the Islamic Army in Iraq, and was featured in a number of videos between 2005 and 2007. Some claim he ultimately shot scores, if not hundreds, of U.S. troops — at one point, a video directly threatening President George W. Bush was released.
Though the videos clearly got under the skin of U.S. troops, some regarded them as simple propaganda. “Juba the sniper? He’s a product of the U.S. military,” Capt. Brendan Hobbs told Stars and Stripes in 2007. “We’ve built up this myth ourselves.”
Salama has spent a considerable amount of time researching Juba, but the film isn’t designed to be totally historically accurate. Information about Juba is sketchy and largely unconfirmed. “The Iraqis made him almost like a superhero,” the director said, noting that some have suggested that the sniper was, in fact, not one person but a composite character. “My main intention is that just as people cheered for killing the Arab guy in [“American Sniper”], this time you will be sad for him,” he said. “The same guy you cheered for his killing, you will empathize with him.”
“Iraqi Sniper” was announced by Salama during a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, which also reported that two-time Oscar nominee Hany Abu-Assad and the prolific Mohamed Hefzy would be producing. Hefzy told the publication that he thought the production could have “international appeal.”
Salama said he wouldn’t mind any critical responses from Americans to his film. “I want debate,” he said.