Director Naji Abu Nowar describes how the optimism and energy of the Arab Spring inspired him to make his debut feature, Theeb, Jordan’s entry to the best foreign-language film Oscar.

Set in Arabia in 1916, Theeb is a coming-of-age story about a young Bedouin boy forced to grow up fast following the death of his father. He undertakes a dangerous journey to escort a British officer, played by the UK’s Jack Fox, across the desert.

Naji Abu Nowar says his most important audience for Theeb (‘wolf’ in Arabic) were the Bedouin tribesmen who helped to make the film. “If they hadn’t liked it I would have considered this whole thing a failure, but they loved it,” he says with relief. He took five of the film’s non-professional actors to the film’s world premiere at Venice 2014. “It was their first time on a plane, first time in the cinema. It was an unbelievable experience. They got an ovation, it was pure magic. It’s almost impossible to repeat that. That’s one of those lifetime experiences you’ll never forget.”

He is also not likely to forget the night a few days later when he was awarded the best director prize in Venice’s Horizons section —not bad for his debut feature.

“I’d been struggling for 10 years to make films,” says the UK-born, Jordan-based director. “When I was developing this screenplay with Bassel [Ghandour, the co-writer who also produced alongside Rupert Lloyd], the Arab Spring was happening. There was this new attitude everywhere.

“In our heads we were saying, ‘We’ve had enough of waiting for permission from people, of being rejected from funds. Actually, if we’re going to be film-makers we need to stop hoping to be film-makers and stop asking to be film-makers and we should just do it.’”

Once they decided they were going to make this film against the odds, a “snowball effect” happened and they attracted established collaborators on board — and a budget that enabled them to shoot on super 16mm.

Nowar knew plenty about the Bedouin — his father is a historian who had studied the tribes, and two of his brothers-in-law are of Bedouin heritage. But before attempting to make the film he knew he would need to embed himself within a Bedouin tribe. He started travelling around South Jordan, near Petra, and came to live with a tribe for eight months to learn more about them.

On-screen naturals

He chose this particular group of men because “most of the men had grown up as nomads. The guys you see in the film really know how to guide camels, they know how to find water in the desert,” he explains. “That was really important. All they have to do is just be themselves in front of the camera.”

He finessed the script by collaborating with the Bedouins on dialogue. “They came up with some of the best lines in the film,” he says proudly. The tribesman went through a workshop process to see who would be best on camera. “Once they realised they were making the film with me hand-in-hand and I wanted to respect them, then they started to come on board,” Nowar says. He adds the crew became like an extended family.

Jacir Eid was cast in the pivotal title role, appearing in most scenes and bringing a remarkable screen presence. It was not always an obvious casting — his father Eid Suweilheen had helped the film-makers’ research, and only offered for his son to shoot some mood board scenes. The young teenager was at first “cripplingly shy,” Nowar says. But even in the early shots he had something magnetic on screen. “He just naturally has that physical ability to engage.”

The director continues, “I had all kinds of notes and plans of how to get certain moments and I just ripped them all up — when you’re dealing with a talent like that you just give him the basic information and get out of his way.” The biggest challenge with his young star? “If we gave him a Pepsi, we’d lose half a day!”

More complex issues of shooting in the desert were handled by all the cast and crew pitching in, but Nowar pays specific tribute to veteran cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, a frequent collaborator of Ulrich Seidl, for working under extreme conditions. He also says Thaler’s firelight scenes are “like Caravaggio paintings… I’m so amazed by what he did.”

The film has drawn praise from around the world. After Venice, it travelled to festivals including Toronto, London, Karlovy Vary and New York’s New Directors/New Films. Fortissimo is handling sales on the feature, which was set up as a Jordan-UK-UAE-Qatar co-production. New Wave Films released Theeb on August 15 in the UK and Film Movement is launching it in the US from November 27, starting in Los Angeles. MAD Solutions is handling rights in the Arab region.

The attention marks a big change for Nowar, who did not go to film school and did not even have much luck securing film internships in London. He was a waiter and took some runner jobs at a documentary company, writing his screenplays at night. His big break was being selected for the 2005 Rawi Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab. “That changed everything for me,” he says.

Theeb has changed everything again. Nowar is now working on a war epic set 10 years after Theeb. “It’s my answer to Seven Samurai or Zulu,” he reveals. It again involves the Bedouin and includes a female heroine.

Nowar also plans to work in the UK and is negotiating the rights for a book adaptation. And he has plans for projects that would take him to the Arctic and the Amazon. “Doors have started opening up,” he says, “and I’m excited to take my next film to another level, to do something even more challenging.”