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New Directors/New Films Festival: ‘Theeb’

by Photo of April Baptiste-Brown

Director Naji Abu Nowar explores a tale of brotherly love and manhood in the film ‘Theeb’

New Directors/New Films Festival: ‘Theeb’

In this article…

With a quiet nod to the days of Westerns with an Arabic twist, director Naji Abu Nowar delivered a desert drama with his family driven epic Theeb.

Following the young boy whose name reflects the title, Theeb is one of three brothers whose father was the head of a Bedouin community in the Ottoman Empire during the midst of World War I. Theeb learns the majority of his skills from his older brother Hussein, and the two have quite a close bond. However when a British officer and his translator come to the Bedouin camp seeking aid, Hussein offers to be their guide and unbeknownst to them, Theeb follows behind. What ensues is a tale of loyalty, honor, and manhood as the brothers attempt to guide their foreign companion to his destination and make it back to their camp alive.

Theeb was quite a remarkable film led by quite an amazing young man. When the movie began, we watched Hussein teaching Theeb how to fetch water from a well, how to feed camels, and how to shoot. Though he’s no more than ten, these are indispensable skills to the Bedouin lifestyle and Theeb is eager to learn. So when the opportunity arose to follow his brother into the wilderness to prove himself, Theeb’s ambitions got the better of him.

Yet it is in the wilderness alone that Theeb realized how pivotal his brother’s teachings become to his survival, as he must utilize every skill he has to make it from one situation to the next. An unlikely partnership formed with an injured thief proved useful, however Theeb’s age was left behind as he quickly matured to overcome each new dilemma he faced.

This film was most certainly a coming-of-age story. Though Theeb’s physicality never changed, we watch as he mentality aged with each passing scene. Furthermore, the brotherhood that exists within the Bedouin community was exemplified through the relationship of Theeb and Hussein. The brothers do anything and everything for each other. Even in the face of defeat and impending death, their bond never wavered and their loyalty to one another doesn’t cease, even with the movie’s end.

Director Naji Abu Nowar rendered absolutely amazing visuals throughout the film. Shot on Super 16, the utilization of film over digital camera work allowed for the desert scenes to be captured with stunning quality. Furthermore, the cinematography was executed in such a way that it further capitalized the vastness of the desert and mirrored the feelings of uncertainty that Theeb harbored throughout the film.

Theeb is, in its simplest form, a story of expedited maturity; a young boy forced to become a man through harrowing circumstances. Director Naji Abu Nowar perfectly delivered a tale of brotherhood and honor through remarkable visuals and a strong (yet young) lead actor. Theeb shows that wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age, but with experience.

Q&A with Director Naji Abu Nowar

After the film’s conclusion, we were treated with a Q&A from director Naji Abu Nowar, and one of the first questions that was asked was: Where did they actually go to shoot the film?

Well, as the movie denotes, the film was shot in the desert. More specifically in the deserts of Jordan in an actual Bedouin tribe. Nowar and co-writer Bassel Ghandour lived with the Bedouin for a year, and it deeply contributed to the production and success of the film.

The film’s young star, Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, was cast through a stroke of luck — and a considerable amount of laziness. After living with the Bedouin for about three months, they began casting and were looking for a young boy to play Theeb. Their location producer with the Bedouin thought it too much work to look for suitable children, so he sent his son. Though he is extremely shy and reserved off camera, Jacir's demeanor ignited once onscreen and Nowar realized they had found their Theeb.

The film was shot over the course of five weeks (since they had very limited resources), however it took a total of four and a half years to complete the film from start to finish. Two years were spent in pre-production and filming, with an additional two and a half years in post.

An audience member raised an interesting question: why were there no women in the film? When you view the movie, there is clearly a lack of female presence on screen. Nowar explained that because of the Bedouin’s customs, filming and working with women professionally were extremely untraditional. So the Bedouin women in the tribe were kept out of scenes and you can barely see them from a distance in one or two shots in the beginning of the film.

Working so closely and living with the Bedouin during production, however, found the tribe changing some of its ways. A couple crew members on the film were women, and though the Bedouin were reluctant to work with them at first, over the course of the crew’s stay their professionalism and character received respect in the eyes of the tribe. They are now more open to working with women and have even allowed some women to start working in film.

Furthermore, one Bedouin woman made authentic props to be used on the film’s set. She now has her own business making and selling authentic Bedouin wear. Talk about a step in the right direction.

This film was presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMa during the 44th Annual New Directors/New Films Festival.

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