An intricately woven tale of change, hardship, and defiance set in 20th century Arabia, award-winning film Theeb (2014) by Naji Abu Nowar has gained wide acclaim from film enthusiasts and critics alike. It has now also been nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Community Times speaks to filmmaker Abu Nowar about how he went about making a film that gives voice to an otherwise marginalized community – the Bedouins of Hijaz.
A mountainous terrain unfolds; beautiful scenery of tall, mammoth structures and a scorching desert are spread out before the audience. Silence leads the first few minutes of the film: the moving picture is given the floor to communicate with the audience as they wait to learn the story of Theeb, the Arabic word for wolf and the name of the film’s young protagonist.
Set in 20th century al-Hijaz in the year of the famed Arab Revolt of 1916, the film tells the story of young Theeb, a Bedouin of the Arabian Desert. Award-winning director Naji Abu Nowar explains that 1916 was “the most important historical moment of modern Arab history.” He goes on: “A moment that echoes throughout our lives in the most drastic physical and emotional ways, even today.”
In the film, young Theeb (Jacir Eid) ventures across the desert with his older brother, Hussein (Hussein Salameh), as they lead a British officer (Jack Fox) to a far-off well on the historic pilgrimage-route. The well that they seek out was an important landmark for pilgrims and travelers before the route was abandoned altogether in 1908 – only to be replaced by the Hijaz railway. Commissioned by the Ottoman Sultan and sovereign of Hijaz, the Hijaz railway had socio-economic repercussions, which are exemplified in the character of the Stranger, who is destitute after losing his source of livelihood as a pilgrims’ guide in the desert. In Theeb, the railway becomes both a site of struggle during the Arab Revolt and a symbol of oppression for those whose livelihoods were severely altered by its construction.
Shedding light on these socio-economic changes is part of the film’s effort to trace the historical transformation occurring in the region in 1916. The tale also probes at the heart of a colonialism that was omnipresent, in spite of the fact that it was not a physical reality in what is today the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
As a matter of fact, the film presents anything but the conventional historical narrative. Relying on a corpus of historical material – which, Abu Nowar explains, includes Bedouin oral history from tribal elders – the details of the story are intricately woven together to present as much of an original vision of history as it possibly can. The film’s story focuses entirely on the Bedouin tribe, which is often spoken about but is seldom free from the shackles of reductionist stereotypes.
Theeb first screened in 2014 as Abu Nowar’s first feature film and received widespread acclaim from a number of film critics and enthusiasts. In Jay Weissberg’s review of the film for Variety, Theeb was dubbed “a classic adventure film of the best kind, and one that’s rarely seen these days.” The film has garnered major awards, most notably the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Narrative Film at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and Best Director at the Venice Film Festival. The screenplay was a joint effort by Abu Nowar and writer / producer Bassel Ghandour.
From research to writing to workshops with the actors, Theeb was produced over the course of four years. “Most of our research came from what we learned by living with the Bedouins for a year in preparation for the film,” says Abu Nowar. Abu Nowar explains that the film crew moved to the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan for this preparatory year, which is where a number of scenes in the film were also shot. In addition, the realism and rawness that instantly comes across in the actors’ performances stems from the fact that the actors playing Bedouin roles in the film, including young Theeb himself, are in reality all Bedouin, non-professional actors.
Abu Nowar describes working with the actors as “a great joy [and] as one of the most rewarding and pleasurable experiences of [his] life.”
The raw performances in the film are complemented by its soulful music. The soundtrack, composed by London-based musician Jerry Lane, is a fusion of Bedouin tunes produced by an amalgam of clapping hands, thumping drums, and harmonious human voices. Played against the backdrop of an awe-inspiring desert view, the music contributes to the film’s overall experience; an experience in which one is able to spiritually reside in the Arabian desert, with all its joys and fears, for the duration of the film’s one hundred minutes.
The music also accompanies Theeb’s theme poem, which is recounted by Theeb’s father to his young son. The poem is one of the fruits of the year the crew spent in Wadi Rum among a Bedouin tribe. It was Mdallah Al-Manajah, one of the tribe’s most venerated poets, who authored the theme poem.
Theeb is a unique film experience. The story it tells and the journey that preceded its production render it a successful experiment for both the filmmaker and for the new wave of Arab cinema. And while telling historical narratives on the big screen is not new to Arabic-speaking films, it is presenting the often sidelined and overlooked narratives in the history of the Arab world that sets Theeb apart.