Dir: Naji Abu Nowar. UAE-Qatar-Jordan-UK. 2014. 100mins
A beautifully simple and stunningly elegant film – that can be seen as something of a companion piece to Lawrence Of Arabia – Naji Abu Nowar’s delightful Theeb is a striking film, old-fashioned in tone and structure but always watchable and modestly powerful. The story of a young Bedouin boy caught up in violence and drama when stranded alone in the Arabian Desert in 1916 it is the sort of film that should intrigue niche distributors, particularly if good press and awards come its way.
Beautifully shot by Wolfgang Thaler (who was cinematographer on Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy), the film makes the most of the majestic backdrops, but never really lingers.
The film, which premiered at Venice and has played in the Toronto, London and Abu Dhabi film festivals, is a confident debut from the UK born but Jordan-based filmmaker, and like Lawrence before it the film makes great use of the Wadi Rum (where David Lean’s film partially shot) and other memorable locations. The challenge will be whether it is pitched as a young person’s film (it is an adventure film at heart) or an art-house title.
Theeb – which means ‘wolf’ in Arabic – is played with infectious enthusiasm by young Jacir Eid. His character is the playful, inquisitive and determined third and youngest son of a sheik who has recently died. Desperately close to his grown-up brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh), he refuses instructions to stay in camp when Hussein agrees to help guide an English soldier (Jack Fox) and his guide (Marji Audeh) to a hard-to-find waterhole.
Bedouin hospitality dictates that Hussein aid the travelers through dangerous and violent territory where bandits and insurgents are active, but Theeb simply doesn’t want to be left behind, and follows the three men on their well-equipped camels but leaping onto his tiny donkey and heading off on their trail. They are forced to take him with them, but start starts as a genial adventure heads into dark territory as the group are attacked and Theeb has to face up the very real dangers of the desert.
A fight sequence at the waterhole is impressively staged – rather like an old-fashioned Western at times – and positioned at the mid-point of the film sets things up for Theeb to grow and face the perils of not only his environment but also the increasing complexities of the desert life, with the traditional Bedouin life set against a changing modern world.
Theeb allows the realities of this changing world to form the parameters of the film, but at its heart it is a rather engagingly simple story of a young boy’s fight for survival, all set against the most stunning of desert backdrops. Young Jacir Eid is thoroughly engaging as the rebellious and forthright Theeb, while Hassan Mutlag makes a fine impact late in the film as dubious traveler who stumbles injured to the well, offering Theeb the possibility of escape.
Beautifully shot by Wolfgang Thaler (who was cinematographer on Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy), the film makes the most of the majestic backdrops, but never really lingers. Naji Abu Nowar’s does an impressive job in telling one boy’s adventurous story and while it is partly a coming-of-age tale (and a pretty dark one at that) the film also shrewdly details the change of an era for the desert dwellers – just has Theeb has to face up to bandits, bullets and bombs so the culture of the Bedouin is faced with change.
Production companies: Bayt Al Shawareb, Noor Pictures
International sales: Fortissimo Films, www.fortissimo.nl
Producers: Bassel Ghandour, Rupert Lloyd
Executive producer: Nadine Toukan
Co-producers: Nasser Kalaji, Laith Majali
Screenplay: Naji Abu Nowar, Bassel Ghandour
Cinematography: Wolfgang Thaler
Editor: Rupert Lloyd
Production designer: Anna Lavelle
Music: Jerry Lane
Main cast: Jacir Eid, Hassan Mutlag, Hussein Salameh, Marji Audeh, Jack Fox