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Arab Cinema, the Western

Theeb (Jordan/UAE/Qatar/UK 2014)

Theeb looks out across the desert

Theeb looks out across the desert

Here is one of the films of the year – a film both familiar and mysterious from a region with few cinemas and where filmmaking has traditionally been a struggle. Reading a little about the film before I watched it I thought this might be relatively conventional. I expected to enjoy the representation of the Arabian Desert but I was not expecting the complexity and richness of the narrative – nor the story that lay behind the production itself.

Director Naji Abu Nowar was born in the UK but now works out of Amman in Jordan and this is his first feature-length film co-written with Bassel Ghandour. The director has called the film “a Bedouin Western” and that certainly makes sense. But the genius of the film is to tell the story from the perspective of a young boy, Theeb (which in Arabic means ‘Wolf’). This reminded me of When I Saw You (2013) the Palestinian film shot mainly in Jordan that I saw earlier this year. Using the boy’s perspective means that the narrative proceeds via the logic of the enquiring mind of a mischievous boy rather than the conventional structure of adult storytelling. There are no on-screen titles to tell us where and when the story is set. We have to pick up scattered clues, mainly via what Theeb observes. A further difficulty is that discourse in Bedouin communities proceeds with formulaic traditional greetings and also through poems and aphorisms. Gradually we learn that Theeb is the youngest son of a sheikh who has recently died and that he is being taught about his role in the family by his older brother Hussein. When guests arrive in the middle of the night they must be welcomed and hospitality and family reputation means that their guests’ request for help in finding a local guide to take them to a well in the desert must be met. Hussein sets out to guide them through the dangerous territory. Theeb, intensely curious about who they are and where they are going, and not wanting to be parted from his brother, tracks them and eventually arrives in their camp. Whether they like it or not he is now part of a dangerous mission.

I’m not going to spoil the narrative because it is important that it unfolds slowly and with surprises. Instead, I’ll fill in the historical background which might help you enjoy the film. The story appears to be set in the Arabian Desert around 1916. Most of the Arab world at this time was part of the declining Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans had lost their control over North Africa but hoped to keep suzerainty over what is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Saudi Arabia. Their plans included the building of the Hejaz Railway from Damascus to Medina in the Hejaz province (modern-day Western Saudi Arabia). The railway, completed in 1908 had two ostensible purposes. It meant Ottoman troops could be dispatched south not only to maintain control over Arab communities but also to deter attacks – by the British in particular. It also provided transport for travellers to Mecca making the Hajj. This latter threatened the livelihoods of many Bedouin who worked as guides through the desert. In 1916 the area just south of present day Jordan was dangerous because it contained various potential combatants – local Arabs wanting to use the confusion of war to stage rebellion against the Turks, British ‘insurgents’ aiming to attack the railway and Bedouin ‘marauders’ who had lost their livelihood and were forced to prey on travellers. The Turks themselves didn’t wander far from the railway line without considerable support.

Riding through the narrow dry gorges

Riding through the narrow dry gorges

In lots of ways the geopolitics of the region was similar to the mix in the border territories of Mexico and Texas over the long period from 1840-1920 – one of the locations for classic American Westerns with soldiers, cowboys, revolutionaries and Native Americans as well as Mexican peasants. The Arabian desert also resembles the deserts of Arizona with the equivalent of canyons, arroyos etc. The film was shot in wadis (dry stream beds – like arroyos) in Southern Jordan by Austrian cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, best known for his work with auteur Ulrich Seidl but also on many documentaries. One of the most discussed aspects of the film’s look concerns the images captured by Thaler using a new anamorphic lens, the Hawk V-Lite with a lightweight 16mm camera. This must have been easier to use in the desert than 35mm or digital film and the cost of stock is one third of the cost of 35mm. I’m frankly amazed at the quality achieved – Nowar has described the filming process as very difficult because of the desert environment. The music too, by British composer Jerry Lane, works well in conveying a sense of place and using Bedouin songs as inspiration. It’s Lane’s first feature credit after work on various documentary series with strong landscape elements. Rupert Lloyd, the film’s producer-editor is revealed in interviews to be very hands-on as an old friend of the director. This was clearly a close-knit crew working with non-actors from one of the few traditional Bedouin communities still in Jordan. I strongly recommend the film’s press pack (and more) on the New Wave website in which the director explains a great deal about how the film was made and what various aspects of the narrative ‘mean’ in terms of Bedouin culture. Apart from one British actor, all the cast are Bedouin non-actors. Theeb is played by Jacir Eid the Bedouin co-producer’s son and Hussein by the boy’s cousin, Hussein Salameh. Because Bedouin culture is primarily oral, a written script was not appropriate and the actors responded to the situations described to them.

After reading these comments about the production I was struck by the similarities between this film and Ten Canoes (Australia 2006) another film made by an outsider committed to helping a community represent itself as far as possible (and the subject of discussion in Chapter 3 of The Global Film Book). In practical terms this means that when the film was released across the Arab world earlier this year (a rare achievement for a non-Egyptian film) it had to be subtitled in classical Arabic because local audiences would not necessarily understand the Bedouin dialects. What does this mean in terms of storytelling? Without spoiling the narrative I can say that the film ends with an action that poses a question for the audience: “Why did he do that?” The narrative is like the best psychological Westerns – how do people act and react in dangerous situations? What has their culture taught them about survival and the ‘right’ thing to do. Theeb, the wolf is an important symbol in Bedouin culture – a pack animal and part of a family, but also able to survive on its own. Naming a son Theeb is a strong statement and as the boy is told, the strong will always defeat the weak.

This film is a must see on the biggest cinema screen you can find (see the New Wave website for future screenings).

UK trailer:

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