One of the most exceptional films that premiered in Venice last year, Theeb is a classic adventure, transporting us back in time through the eyes of a young Bedouin boy.
Set in 1916, while war rages in the Ottoman Empire, Hussein raises his younger brother Theeb (“Wolf”) in a traditional Bedouin community that is isolated by the vast, unforgiving desert. The brothers’ quiet existence is suddenly interrupted when a British Army officer and his guide ask Hussein to escort them on a treacherous journey. The young, mischievous Theeb secretly chases after the travelers, but they soon find themselves trapped amidst threatening terrain riddled with mercenaries, revolutionaries, and outcast raiders, forcing Theeb to live up to the name given to him by his father.
Theeb is the Official Jordanian selection for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, winner of Best Director at the Venice Film Festival 2014 and Abu Dhabi Film Festival 2014, FIPRESCI Prize for Best Narrative Film, and now has it’s US theatrical release.
Indiewood sat down with director Naji Abu Nowar and talked about Bedouin culture, the beautiful cinematography and location set in Jordan, how he came across the cast, his vision behind the story and more.
How did you come across this particular story?
A couple of factors came into play. Growing up, my father used to tell me stories about the Arab culture, the Bedouin knights tales, heroic tales of chivalry, famous warriors, etc. Sort of like King Arthur & the knights of the round table. If I did something wrong growing up, my father wouldn’t say that’s bad because of this, or don’t do that, he would tell me a story instead.
Then I discovered Akira Kurosawa and I loved the way he adapted the western genre into the Samurai movies. I thought we could do that for the Bedouin film and make it into a western, because you have all the aspects of their life, like a western. This was the basic concept. First thing I tried to write was a Bedouin western, and I didn’t know what I was doing. So it was in the back of my head, but I dropped the whole thing. Then Bassel Ghandour turned up, whom I wrote the screenplay with, he happened to have graduated from USC, in California. He wrote his first short film, which was a story about two Bedouin brothers who go on a hunting trip that goes wrong. I saw how he sort of had taken the idea of this intimate character story and that was the way in, that’s what we ultimately should do. I asked him if we could work together, he thankfully said yes. We immediately agreed that the only way we could tell this story is to go down and research the film, find more about the Bedouin culture on the ground. So we studied the situation for about a year. We found the last Bedouin nomadic tribal from Jordan to Central. So a lot of the adult male had grown up as nomads. Living there for a year, we developed Theeb, that’s how we found the film you see on the big screen.
The film marks a historical period, but also has a human aspect of survival & betrayal. Were you trying to make some sort of a political statement or being agnostic about it?
One of the big decisions was that the Bedouin don’t really care about time. None know their birthdays. In fact, Jack Fox was the only birthday that was recorded. This was very difficult when I got their passports for the first time to take them to the premiere in Venice. In 1916 when the British arrived for their revolt, these people had no idea, they had been untouched for hundreds of years. They had no idea of the outside world. I wanted to put the audience in those shoes where you are with this young boy and you don’t know what year it is, that it’s the World War I and suddenly this alien comes out of nowhere, talking about missions and things.. You are suddenly involved in this huge conflict. How that would be overwhelming and how you wouldn’t understand what was going on and yet whether you like it or not, it was going to come at you. Therefore, to give context would be to cheat the audience out of that experience.
Everyone spends all their time in the Middle East talking about the history and the context, politics, arguing or shooting each other over the history. What I really wanted to do was put you in the shoes of a character and have you feel the experience what that might feel like, rather than preach. I’m not too interested in politics in films, I think it’s dangerous because you try to fit a character or story to your attitudes and that can lead to two-dimensional characters, two-dimensional stories, because you are trying to fit them to your box.
I’m half English, half Jordanian, I come from two different cultures and my whole life I was put in boxes. I don’t like when people say oh you’re from this, therefore you are this.
The cinematography was beautiful and had a huge impact in the film. We feel we are in this vast open space, yet confined indoors. Can you talk more about the cinematography?
First thing was finding the right cinematographer. We had several criteria, filming in extreme environments, working with non-actors, with different cultures. Also, shooting on film with an experienced person, because I never touched a film camera before, since there is no film industry in Jordan. So we wanted someone that had all the attributes and Wolfgang Thaler has all of these. Second thing is something I love, working with your key elements of your crew, your cinematographer and sound designer. Both were on board from the second draft of the screenplay. We were talking about the film constantly, developing the themes of the film. Wolfgang would come out 6 months before we shot and visit, look around all the locations I was thinking of and we discussed things. He knew the film and the locations just as well as I did. Some themes came from that, one was the idea of the micro and the macro environment.
The desert is something you can only have when you live there and come to experience it. The idea of this overwhelmingly open space, but at the same time as you are standing in this vast space, you can hear a beetle walking on the sand or a wind rustling through a leaf. It’s very intimate and makes your connections with human beings much more personal. You and I talking in a room now, if we were sitting in a desert this environment would be much more of a tangible human connection between us, you would actually feel that because it’s so vast and we are the only human contact. It builds strong relations. So we wanted to find a way to express that. Also that works very nicely with the narrative because the fragility of the boy’s experience in comparison of the overwhelming vast world.
The other conception that we wanted to create was this maze, a forest in a fairy-tale. So once the boy leaves his home world and travels into the mural maze, that you would be surrounded 360 degrees. Choosing our locations and how we filmed, we always wanted to have mountains in the background. Never once is the rice untouched, the sand floor. The idea of being in the sea, from the poem of the Red Sea. So creating the camel steady cam, moving with the camels and giving that feeling of being in sea.
What about the night scenes? They seemed so truthful without an intense lighting that you see sometimes in movies.
When it comes to the night scenes, we studied a lot from films. We decided we didn’t like most of them, because it seemed like 50 feet of moonlight, light on top of the actors head. From the experience of living there, I told Wolfgang this should feel like a Caravaggio painting, where you feel the character but you are surrounded by darkness. So that’s what we were set about to do and he achieved it with minimal lighting. This was really amazing.
Can you talk more about the cast. The British actor Jack Fox has an extensive list of credits, but all others are unknown.
They are all real Bedouin, from that tribe where we settled and lived with for a year and the surrounding villages. What we did is, we went down to all the villages, met with people and did about 250 taped interviews. We whittled them down to 20 and we did weekend acting workshops with them to see if they had the talent. We narrowed them to 11 and then an 8 month acting workshop in order to prepare them for the film.
The boy was pure luck. When we first moved about three months in, we had that trust. We decided to do a mood board to get investment for the film, because we moved down there with no money, so with the mood board we could show investors what we were going to do. We talked to our Bedouin contact, who was going to be the Bedouin producer, so to speak and help us with all things Bedouin. We said we needed a twelve-year-old kid to play the role of Theeb in this mood board. He was very lazy, so he sent his son. The first month or so, before I moved to a house we rented, I was living with them, so I knew the son really well. I knew that he was really shy and I completely forgot about him for the role. I was actually a little annoyed with the guy that sent his son because I thought what am I going to do with the boy, he’s too shy! He just put him on camera and it was magic! It’s a difficult thing to describe because it’s something you’ve got or you don’t. He just has this thing, the way he moved, his physicality, holding the rifle, the way he lived in the scene… You simply can’t train that. So, we never looked at anyone else. He is just a natural talent.
— Interview conducted by Lia Fietz