It’s been a few good years for Middle Eastern Cinema.
In 2011, the Audience Choice Awards at TIFF went to Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now. Thanks to TIFF’s Rasha Salti, the Middle East and Africa programmer, who assumed the position in 2011, each year she brings a slew of strong films form the region. Earlier this year, it was announced that Cairo is to build the first cinematheque of the region, to be called Cimatheque. ‘Cima’ being the Arabic slang word for cinema. This year, Naji Abu Nawar’s Theeb, screened at TIFF, is taking the international festival circuit by storm.
I love Theeb dearly because it does something I have never seen in a film coming from the Middle East in many years with the exception perhaps of Nadine Labaki’s films.
I love it when a film takes you by surprise, walking into a screening not knowing anything about the film you’re about to watch can be one of the best things you can do in a film festival. Not since I saw Mathieu Kassozvitz’ La Haine at TIFF as part of a retrospective program that a film out of nowhere literally floored me.
Abu Nawar knows film, he loves film, he respects film and it all comes through in Theeb. His love of Ford’s and Pekinpah’s Westerns is evident and it is what sparked his interest in making this film. He recounts how he always wanted to set an Arab Western in the Jordanian desert and his dream was reignited when he read Bassel Ghandour’s short script. Together they embarked on the four-year long journey of bringing the script into fruition.
Theeb, meaning wolf in Arabic, is a story of young Bedouin boy forced to grow up faster than he had expected. Set in the tail end of the Ottoman Empire in 1916 during WWI at the cusp of a changing environment, the film centers on a Bedouin boy, Theeb. In a tale of survival in the treacherous Wadi Rum desert, Theeb fights for his life after he stubbornly follows his older brother, who has been ordered to escort a British soldier through the desert to a well, only to be met by hostile desert rebels and fears beyond his understanding. Sparse dialogue, stunning cinematography and subtle but powerful performances culminate in a refreshingly original and incredibly entertaining window into the rarely seen world of Bedouins.
An Arab-British co-production, Theeb was co-written by Abu Nawar and Bassel Ghandour, produced by Nadine Toukan and Rupert Lloyd, who also edited it. All the film’s leads, with the exception of the British soldier, are non-actors. Actual Bedouins to be precise, who knew close to nothing of film and cinema. To gain more knowledge of their environment, the crew spent almost a year living with them in the desert to familiarize themselves with the shooting environment, but more importantly with the Bedouin traditions, which informed much of their final script. Abu Nawar spent 8 months training the Bedouins chosen to be in the film, which he calls a long but rewarding process. Instead of meticulously directing them, he instead utilized the skill of Thaler, his DOP, to fluidly move in tandem with them. Extracting strong performances such as those seen in Theeb is not an easy feat and speaks to Abu Nawar’s skill and knowledge of film. Beautifully shot by Wolfgang Thaler in Super16 anamorphic, the result is breathtaking imagery that fluidly alternates between the comfort with which the Bedouins live in the desert to their struggle of survival through unfamiliar and hostile territories.
From all the African and Middle Eastern films I saw at TIFF this year, Theeb stands out. While other films mostly dealt with politics one way or another, Theeb is first and foremost a coming of age story. It is understandably difficult for filmmakers not to imbue their films with the politics that plague and inevitably define the region, especially to a Western audience. These filmmakers are admittedly approaching the subject through a different more subjective and creative lens but in the end, film remains very much in the background and the politics take precedence. But identification in film is KEY. When a filmmaker underestimates the important of identification, they are either doing it purposefully to alienate viewers or unknowingly. Regardless, there is always the danger of distancing and even boring your audience. Theeb, however, poignantly follows the narrative through the point of view of its young protagonist, highlighting his curiosity, confusion, and determination to survive as he adjusts to his changing environment. Film can bridge the gaps, and I believe the way to do that is by finding common ground through identification, which is Theeb’s strongest asset.
What does this all mean? I’ve never been one with amazing foresight, but I will say this, I really hope that this film ignites something in the region’s cinema. Abu Nawar for one is striving to nourish the Jordanian cinematic infrastructure through more films like Theeb.
Here’s a list of accolades the film has garnered so far:
First time filmmaker British born-Jordanian, Naji Abu Nawar, and his team appeared out of nowhere and it has been very refreshing and humbling to see a strong Arab presence on red carpets around the world. Left to right: Naji Abu Nawar with the Bedouin stars of Theeb, Hussein Salamah waving to the crowd in Venice, Jacir Eid featured in the pages of Vanity Fair.