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:

Buck and the Preacher (US 1972)

Sidney Poitier as a Western hero

Following the release of the Harry Belafonte ‘bio-documentary’ Sing Your Song in UK cinemas, I decided to look at some of the Belafonte movies available on DVD. In all the coverage of the new documentary relatively little has been said about Belafonte’s film work – which though not extensive was important in the development of African-American cinema, not least because the actor-singer produced his own films at a time when few African-Americans had any direct power in the industry. Belafonte’s second independent production company, Belafonte Enterprises, made the film in conjunction with Columbia. Belafonte took the second lead, but the star and director of the film was Sidney Poitier (who took over from the first director, Joseph Sargent). Ruby Dee, often paired with Poitier as an actor and with Belafonte as an activist, was billed third. The script was by the distinguished TV writer Ernest Kinoy who had written another Sidney Poitier script, Brother John, a year earlier and who would go on to contribute scripts to the TV serial Roots (1977) and its sequel in 1979. The music for the film was composed by Benny Carter, the great jazz band leader, and includes contributions from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

Buck and the Preacher belongs to the cycle of ‘revisionist Westerns’ in the early 1970s when the counter culture and the anti-war movement in the US managed to find an outlet in the New Hollywood. This was the period of Soldier Blue (1970) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972), but the most popular Western of the 1970s was Mel Brooks’ comedy Blazing Saddles (1974). What links these three very different films is a debunking of the mythology of the West and a reappraisal of the representation of characters who would later be known as ‘African-Americans’ and ‘Native Americans’. This same period also saw the commercial success of a range of ‘Blaxploitation’ films, led by urban crime thrillers like Shaft (1971) and this development also included Blaxploitation Westerns, especially the cycle of films starring Fred Williamson – The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972), its sequel The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973) and Boss Nigger (Black Bounty Hunter, 1974). The creation of Black ‘super-heroes’ in different settings attracted audiences (partly because of the provocative titles which created controversy) but didn’t really engage with the Western myths or the conventions of the genre as such. In his magisterial BFI Companion to the Western (1971), editor Ed Buscombe argues that Buck and the Preacher did precisely that – and that makes it an important film both for African-American cinema and the Western.

Outline

The narrative focuses on an aspect of American history largely neglected by Hollywood – the attempt by freed slaves from the South, after the Civil War ended, to head West on wagon trains, seeking new lands. Poitier plays ‘Buck’, an ex Union Cavalry sergeant, who sets himself up as a wagonmaster who will pilot wagon trains through hostile territory. He makes a deal with the local Native American chief to allow the wagon trains an unhindered passage, but he also has to battle a band of ex-Confederate soldiers. These men have been hired by plantation-owners in the South to drive the freed slaves back into low-paid employment in the cottonfields and their tactics are vicious and uncompromising. Ruby Dee plays Buck’s wife and Belafonte plays a con-man preacher who clashes with Buck but eventually forms an uneasy alliance with him to fight the ex-Confederates.

Analysis

The history of African-American cinema is usually presented via three distinct phases in Hollywood and then a question mark about what is happening today. In the first phase early American cinema and Hollywood in the silent era drew upon a range of Black stereotypes that had been developed in the nineteenth century. Donald Bogle’s ‘Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films’ revised in 1992 has the main title of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks. These five types defined the roles offered to Black actors in mainstream Hollywood (although initially, following the practices of minstrelsy, white actors ‘blacked up’ for some roles). In the 1930s Black entrepreneurs struggled to offer an alternative to this Hollywood condescension but they did manage to produce low-budget independent Black films exploring popular genres – including Black Westerns such as the ‘Western Musical’ Harlem on the Prairie (1937) and the much earlier The Bull-Dogger (1922).

Hollywood eventually reacted to the potential of the Black popular audience with the gradual development of mainstream films with Black themes – and predominantly Black casting – by the late 1940s and early 1950s when Poitier and Belafonte were young actors seeking work. This was the second phase of African-American cinema with films that were presented as ‘liberal’ dramas attempting to deal with some elements of social realism. However, the old stereotypes remained in place. Sidney Poitier was the 1950s ‘good Negro’, essentially a ‘Tom’ derived from the character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ruby Dee was the ‘good Negro wife’ and Harry Belafonte was seen as the ‘beautiful, sexy young man’ – the ‘Buck’ (which he resisted strongly and which no doubt was one of the reasons why he focused more on his musical career). The third phase was associated with the Blaxploitation cycle which critiqued the old stereotypes and the most immediate signal of change was evident in the casting of Poitier, quite literally, as ‘Buck’ with Ruby Dee still his wife, but now supporting him in actions which under the conventions of the Western represent resistance to the dominant ideology. Meanwhile, Belafonte is cast as the ‘Preacher’, a con-man role which featured in several of the earlier Black Westerns of the 1930s/40s.

Harry Belafonte as the long-haired ‘Preacher’

Buck and the Preacher is partly a comedy and that may be both why the film was a relative commercial success, but also why it hasn’t perhaps been given the status it deserves. As Ed Buscombe points out, the script is intelligent and knowing in its play with the conventions and the performances are very enjoyable. Poitier doesn’t just play the ‘Buck’, he overplays the role, sporting two mini-howitzers rather than conventional six-guns. There is an exhilaration in the way in which all three leads become ‘Western heroes’ and Bogle tells us that Black audiences cheered at the sight of the three heroes racing their horses across the screen pursued by a sheriff’s posse – I won’t spoil the narrative by revealing why they are on the run. The smiles are more wry in the key scene when Buck negotiates with the Native American chief who responds to the argument that Black and Red men have both suffered at the hands of the Whites by pointing out that Buck had served in the Union Army. This again feels like a commentary on Poitier’s previous roles in Hollywood – as well as, perhaps, a comment on the way in which Black soldiers had become a crucial element in the US Army in Vietnam.

I highly recommend the film as an enjoyable Western and a film that at least lifts a corner of the carpet under which the African-American experience of the ‘Old West’ has been carefully swept by Hollywood. You can download my notes on Harry Belafonte and Hollywood here: BelafonteNotes

Looking Over Brokeback Mountain

I’m intrigued by the success of Brokeback Mountain. In fact, it has to some extent restored my faith in audiences. Several of the people I have discussed the film with are not fans of the Western and were surprised when I suggested that Ang Lee’s triumph was to so skilfully make use of the conventions of the Western genre – and specifically those of what some have termed the ‘Twilight Western’. This term can be used to describe either Westerns set in the dying days of the ‘Old West’ (i.e. 1890-1910) or in the post-1945 period when the Western lifestyle began to feel more and more out of tune with contemporary America. In the main, Twilight Westerns have been produced by Hollywood (and independents) since the late 1960s, although earlier examples include The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray 1952) and Ride the High Country (Sam Peckinpah, 1962).

I’ve been running an evening class with the title ‘Looking Over Brokeback Mountain‘ at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford for the last few weeks. So far we’ve watched The Last Picture Show (dir. Peter Bogdanovich, 1971) and extracts from a range of films including Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948) Johnny Guitar (Nick Ray, 1953), Hud (Martin Ritt, 1962), Junior Bonner (Peckinpah, 1972), Desert Hearts (Donna Deitch, 1985) and The Ballad of Little Jo (Maggie Greenwald, 1993).

We’ve discussed gender in the Western in both the traditional ‘mythologised West’ and the more realist ‘Twilight West’ and this week we look at a little-seen Twilight Western, Stephen Frears’ 1998 film, The Hi-Lo Country. I wonder how it will look in 2006 after the success of Brokeback? Billy Crudup and Woody Harrelson play the two young men, but this time they fall out over Patricia Arquette.

The course has also prompted me to read Annie Proulx’s short story collection and I’ve enjoyed all the stories so far – I’m saving up the Brokeback story for the last week of the course.