A stunningly beautiful Bedouin Western by first-time director Naji Abu Nowar, Theeb uses fabulous locations in Jordan to tell a gripping coming-of-age story.
Desert Stormby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Theeb is the obverse of Lawrence of Arabia, though its date and location – and even the conflict at its heart – are not made explicit. Small details – the Englishman’s uniform, his lack of respect for the Bedouin culture, his antiquated technology – convey the past. The nomadic Bedouin and their lifestyle, in contrast, seem timeless. The small glimpses of their lifestyle are fascinating. In fact, it’s 1916 in a remote part of the Ottoman Empire on the cusp of 20th century modernity.
Theeb means ‘wolf’ and it’s the name of the Bedouin boy (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat) through whose eyes we see events. A British officer (Jack Fox) arrives at their camp with an interpreter (Marji Audeh) and a mysterious wooden box which he won’t let Theeb touch. Theeb’s big brother (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen) is obligated to guide their uninvited guest across the desert to an unspecified rendezvous at a well in the desert. Theeb’s curiosity gets the better of him. After negotiations that he half hears and doesn’t understand, although he’s not wanted, he tags along on the journey and by the time the adults find out, it’s too late to send him back home.
The film is shot in the most stunning locations – the sweep and big skies of the desert are contrasted with the steep and overpowering craggy rock faces of Wadi Rum and Wadi Araba, so close together they obscure the sky and so high they dwarf the human figures underneath them. Extreme close ups of small details – flies on blood – supplement the sparse dialogue. The stunning cinematography is by Wolfgang Thaler. They were wild and lawless places in 1916. It’s in this unrelenting, elemental trap that Theeb’s group are ambushed. After a breathtakingly suspenseful gun battle Theeb finds himself alone and having to fend for himself.
Theeb is in effect a Bedouin Western, a gripping coming-of-age story. When one of the men who ambushed them (Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh) unexpectedly returns, wounded and needing help, both he and Theeb are forced to rely on each other to survive and get out of the desert. Jordanian director Abu Nowar says it was the combination of the cooperation for survival made necessary by the harsh desert conditions and the moral dilemma of the duty of a host to protect a stranger – the law of Dakheel – that was his inspiration for the film: “What would happen if you were stranded with your worst enemy but needed their help to stay alive? How would this relationship develop?” As the man and the boy cautiously come to an accommodation to each other as they travel, Theeb quickly grows up and uses his ingenuity to outwit his enemy and take a surprise revenge.
It’s a story stripped down to essentials and using mainly non-professional actors, though you’d never know. Al-Hwietat and Al-Sweilhiyeen are Bedouins and are cousins in real life – their closeness comes through in the film. It’s set against the background of a changing world. The need for Bedouin guides who navigate the desert by the stars is dying out under the threat of the new railway line, laid by the occuping Turkish army, and its “iron donkey”, polluting the purity of the desert with its black smoke. Both Arab rebels and British agents are locked in an obscure battle to sabotage it, we discover finally.
Theeb deservedly won the Orizzonti Award for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival this year. Abu Nowar said in Venice that he spent over a year living with the tribe to prepare for the film. It’s a Jordan, Britain, UAE and Qatar co-production funded in part by the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and Doha Film Institute and had its premier actually in Wadi Rum.
Theeb is released on 14th August 2015 in the UK