"Epic" "intimate" "brutal" "riveting" "spellbinding" "spectacular." The adjectives come tumbling out of the reviews - but please see this movie for yourself. Described as an "Arabic Western" and a "coming of age story," I suspect that this is one of those rare films that stimulates a unique reaction in every viewer.
Directed by British-born Jordanian Naji Abu Nowar, the story is set during the First World War at the time of the Arab Revolt, and, given that it was filmed in and around Wadi Rum, the instinctive reaction is "ah, Lawrence of Arabia." But, other than the location and the historical context, these films have absolutely nothing in common. "Theeb" is filmed entirely with Bedouin people for whom this is their first experience of acting; it is their story and, most of all, it is the story of a young Bedouin boy caught up in a strange and frightening journey and through whose eyes we perceive the events.
Theeb ("wolf") is played by Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat. Abu Nowar has commented that he "never actually liked [Jacir] as an actor as he was so shy and quiet and I never considered him, but he has this crazy thing that when you put him on camera he a different person. Immediately it became obvious. And so he was the first person we cast and we never looked back or at anyone else." It is indeed not only this kid's extraordinary performance but the kid himself that makes this movie, and, together with Abu Nowar's unique and sensitive directing skills, creates an intangible grip on the viewer. And this grip lasts for the entire film - at the end I could not fathom how one hundred minutes had just gone by.
Watch the trailer:
In a fascinating interview, Abu Nowar comments that:
The time in which the film is set is the single most important period in Middle-Eastern history. That’s when the end of a 400 year empire came to be and radical redrawing of the map which we are still suffering from today. With all the issues going on in Iraq, Syria, with the Kurds and the Turks, Israel and Palestine, Saudi Arabia and the Yemen. All of these issues we hear about today are a direct result from that single moment in history. So, it was such a crucial moment and such an existential crisis for the region and I like the mirror of the character going through a similar sort of crisis.
For myself I wanted to make something that felt authentic to the Bedouin. And so I tried to listen to them as much as possible and incorporated their feelings and thoughts as much as I could. All of it was just exciting for me. I love their poetry. I love their stories and so it was why it comes about in that way. In no way was I trying to enforce a cinematic understanding of storytelling onto subject matter, it is really the subject matter informing it.
And I think that is why is has that feel because it is really genuine. Sometimes the best thing you can do as a director is to step out of the way and not put you two cents in and let people do their thing. I do that and I like getting surprised by what they come up with. That’s the enjoyment of it. There were things all along the way, for example the sound design adding little tiny moments here and there that you pick up and generally just member of the team surprising you. It was a lot of fun.
"Theeb" premiered at the 71st Venice International Film Festival on 4 September 2014, where Abu Nowar won the award for Best Director. It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards, making it the first Jordanian nomination ever.