Theeb – Film Review


Theeb – Film Review by Frank L.

Director: Naji Abu Nowar
Writers: Naji Abu Nowar, Bassel Ghandour
Stars: Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen, Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh

In 1916, the first World War is consuming many unlikely terrains. One of its theatres of engagement was the Eastern side of the Red Sea, an area known as Hijaz in the then Ottoman Empire, now part of Saudi Arabia. It also contained within its midst the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In order to improve communications, beginning in 1900 the Ottomans had built a railway linking the region with the capital of the empire, Constantinople. One of the no doubt unintended consequences of the arrival of “the iron donkey” was that it rendered redundant the Bedouin tribesmen who had acted as guides for centuries through the inhospitable desert terrain to Mecca. As a result some had turned to banditry in order to survive. To cross the desert terrain by camel had therefore become even more dangerous than those perils provided by the inhospitable terrain itself.

Naji Abu Nowar comes from a military background who was brought up in both Jordan and England and his life to date has been spent divided between the two. He currently resides in Jordan. He is steeped in the culture of the West and the Middle East. Theeb is a young boy, who lives a nomadic life with his tribe in Hijaz province. His father has recently died and with Hussein, his elder brother, they tend their camels. Even though the war is raging elsewhere it forms no part of their immediate world. Two strangers arrive in their midst, an Arab guide and his charge, a British military officer who needs to reach a secret destination which involves traversing the now bandit country. They need a local guide and Hussein agrees to undertake this task.

Naji Abu Nowar has used Bedouin tribesmen who live in the desert at Wadi Rum, Jordan as his cast. They live nowadays in a settlement but most of them were borne nomads. Their way of life is part of a world which began to disappear with the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the subsequent creation of the various countries with irrational borders which now constitutes what is called the Middle East. Nowar spent a year with them to come to terms with whom they are and to glean as much as possible of the way of life which had been theirs prior to the cataclysm of the events surrounding the First World War. It is these Bedouin tribesmen who make this film special. They include Theeb who is little more than a slip of a boy. Nowar uses him as the eyes through which the film is seen. He will move from boyhood to manhood just as his tribe is on the verge of changing from a centuries old nomadic existence to something which will not be nomadic. The outside world is represented by the British Army officer, deeply alien with his shock of blonde hair.

The story line is that of a sort of nineteenth century boy hero. Theeb surreptitiously tags behind his brother Hussein into the bandit country. He only reveals himself when the party has gone too far into the inhospitable terrain for the boy to return on his own. There now follows a series of adventures for Theeb… tales of derring-do but given the landscape, the goodies and the baddies and the amount of shooting there is a certain Western movie feel to the proceedings… a sort of Middle East Western. It is all beautifully shot and the magnificent camels, with the their uneven fangs, slow moving jaws and elegant loping gait keep your attention firmly rooted in the world of the occidental desert.

This is a classic adventure film but because of Nowar’s deep and diverse cultural roots he leads us into a world which is to some extent both recognizable and strange.  The desert, like the sea, demands alertness and respect. The film contains within it the familiar and unfamiliar depths. To grasp fully, what Nowar has created probably more than one viewing is required. It is a prospect which pleases.


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