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"Theeb": Jordan's Official Submission to the 88th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film

By Laura Blum

What the title hero of Theeb does for his bedouin tribe, avenging a dishonor, the Arab world has dreamed of doing ever since modernity and colonial intrigue took a shot at its integrity a century ago. Naji Abu Nowar's stunning debut film unfolds on the Arabian Peninsula during this epochal transition.

It's October of 1916, two months into World War I, four months into the Great Arab Revolt and five months into the secret dealmaking between Britain and France that would carve up the Ottoman Empire's Middle Eastern territories into their own zones of influence after the war. Filmed during the Arab Spring, the movie could hardly be more timely, and its glimpse into the roots of the Modern MidEast could not be more illuminating.

Abu Nowar, however, tells a tale that beguiles us without any help from modern parallels. Encoded in its visuals and sounds is the pre-Islamic ethos of the desert. The very second image we see is a triangle on a slab of sandstone. This is no mere rock art: rather, it's the wasm of Theeb's (Jacir Eid Hwietat) tribe and a mark of collective identity, affiliation and possession. But more critically, it's no mere rock. Theeb's father has recently died, and here by his gravestone the 13-year-old boy ponders coming of age without the elder's presence. We see Theeb's eyes narrow and flicker as he recalls the great sheikh's patriarchal words of wisdom: “He who swims in the Red Sea cannot know its true depth. And not just any man, Theeb, can reach the seabed, my son.”

Here we have Theeb’s chief moral vision. For a true bedouin warrior, power transcends brute force. Only through the added engagement of the mind and soul can a boy become a man. In this sense, the Red Sea shimmers as an imaginative realm of purification in which human frailties are rinsed clean. Ending with the maxim, "The strong eat the weak," the father's exhortative qasida begs a definition of strength that is not restricted to the sword. Theeb's struggles to survive and do right summon the spirit of his late father throughout the film.

Two musical motifs accompany him on that journey. Drawn from bedouin stylings by composer Jerry Lane, they include a main melody referencing the Red Sea and the father's oral poem as well as a counter-melody that riffs on Theeb's evolving strides. One evokes "the loss of the father, the emptiness, the lack of ability to survive," and the other, "the presence of the brother and the idea of completion and wholeness," Abu Nowar told during his New York jaunt to promote the film. Cued to Theeb's grapplings, they pay homage to the father-son themes hovering artfully over the saga.  

The boy has the clan name to live up to, but his own given name as well. "Theeb" is Arabic for "wolf,'' an animal whose pack loyalty yet capacity for lone survival are revered in bedouin culture, as are its courage, dignity and patience. Theeb's lupine bona fides will be put to the test following the arrival of two strangers in the night.

In keeping with bedouin custom, British soldier (Jack Fox) and his Arab agent Marji (Marji Audeh) are welcomed into the fold. More than mere niceties, hospitality and ministering to guests' needs are legal obligations in the harsh desert environment. Coffee is drunk and a goat is slaughtered as the guests are ritually joined into Theeb's household. Abu Nowar displays a sensitivity, even a reverance for bedouin law beginning with this principle of diyafa, whereby guests are granted protection as if they were family members. And given the potential for armed conflict in this wartime picture, that's no small thing. To be sure, the kindness of strangers is a serious business, with the host's reputation sharply at stake. That duty is all the more sacred for Theeb's clan, which for generations has served as pilgrim guides. No less a grandee than Sharif Hussein of Mecca, the British and French partner in the Arab Revolt against the Turks, has commended the family's services to the traveling duo.

Their destination? A well near the Hejaz Railway tracks. Despite the risks of the trail -- now a raider's paradise -- Theeb's older brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh) is dispatched by their eldest brother to do the honors. But not young Theeb. Undeterred, the boy ventures out to find them nonetheless.

About now Abu Nowar's touch with the roving foursome becomes poetic if not downright magical. From the intricate patterns of cracked mud flats to the narrow winding passage leading deeper into the canyon, the surroundings suggest a neverland of infinite and confounding choices. "The maze is like a forest in a fairy tale, the Jordanian-British director mused. "It's a moral maze."

Which way to turn? the visual rhetoric asks. There are sound reasons for wondering what's at play. Much of the film is presented from Theeb's point of view, and we can't know a lot more than he can. What we grasp about the party's foray, however, is pieced together by the British soldier's wartalk and by the explosives detonator he so frantically protects. Eventually the suspense gets more fully resolved: it's about the sabotage of the rail access transporting Ottoman troops southward to face down the Arab insurgency.

That mission suffers a setback when the Brit and Marji are shot dead. Hussein and Theeb make a run for the hills amid the wild taunts of Arab bandits. The following day they kill Hussein, leaving Theeb to go it solo. His coming of age only intensifies a when a raider (Hassan Mutlaq) shows up. Badly hurt and all but falling off his camel, he triggers Theeb's cautionary instincts. What guarantees the setup's pitched drama are the canny moves both stragglers make for their mutually dependent survival. Yet however much Theeb may want to kill his brother's murderer, he needs him in order to eat, fend off feral beasts and to ride out of the desert alive. For his part, that murderer -- who was shot in the leg by Hussein -- requires Theeb's medical care, which his fellow mercenaries coldly denied him. To resolve the vendetta with Theeb's clan, he offers his camel as blood money. Little does that help Theeb, who lacks the physical heft to get a camel moving, but more to the point, it's a far cry from the tribal court process needed to adjudicate a murder. 

To be sure, bedouin cultural code shapes the twosome's modus vivendi. From the moment the raider asks for Theeb's help and protection, the boy's responsibilities of dakhala kick in, requiring that he oblige or risk losing his honor. Beyond that, the raider invites Theeb to help prep and share his bread. "Crucially in bedouin law, if you break bread with someone, you cannot kill that person," Abu Nowar summarized the logic of rafiq ad-darb. "The stranger too is under that obligation not to kill Theeb."

Ancient honor codes aside, the young orphan defers to an emotional agenda as well. Theeb's key themes — a boy coping with the loss of a parent while coming into his own — are amplified by the potential father figures who enter his frame. Naturally his brother Hussein represents the closest surrogate, yet arguably the Englishment cuts a paternal figure as well; and even the raider beckons in that role. "A sort of Stockholm Syndrome develops there," noted Abu Nowar about Theeb's momentary bonding with his survival partner.

We too might warm to the raider. The advent of the steam-powered "iron donkey," he laments, has shunted traditional society, leaving pilgrim guides like himself without "means or opportunity" and pitting brother against brother. As much a victim as a perpetrator, Mutlaq's desperado is too soulful to be purely a villain.

Still, he has it coming to him. (Spoiler alert.) That destiny hangs in the balance when he and his young charge reach the Ottoman garrison. No longer beholden to the circumstances that previously bode restraint, Theeb is now free to prosecute Bedouin justice. "Theeb's Theme" comes on with a new vibe, signalling the onset of his self-reliance and grit.

But first, audio and visual prompts replay his maze-like adventure and the memory of his departed father and brother. There's a splash of well water as Theeb enters the garrison, followed by a glance of a backgammon game reminiscent of the Taab played back at the family tent. Next Theeb sees the Ottomon officer shaving, not unlike how the British soldier lathered up. We can feel the tension mount as the raider begins handing over his loot. Out comes the Brit's watch with his wife's photo lovingly tucked into the clasp. Then it's the detonator that's being hawked, with the tribal marking that Theeb himself carved.

How much consternation can the boy take? we wonder as he processes the transaction underway. Realization dawns that his brother has died for filthy lucre, a perversion of everything their culture stands for. Yet the ultimate travesty occurs when the raider says Theeb is his son. With that, as Abu Nowar put it, "the stranger commits another crime." He added, "This brings us back to the core of the story, which is that none of these men can be his father. The only way out is for him to be his own person."

That rite of passage comes after the boy suffers a final outrage: money dangled by the Ottoman officer. Here Theeb delivers a jolt and so does Theeb. Dum bitlab dum, as the lex talionis goes, and the gun that appeared in Act I will go off in Act III. "He doesn't want to shoot," said Abu Nowar. "You see in his eyes the guilt and horror of what he's done." Yet watching the raider's face as he stares down the barrel of Theeb's gun, it's hard not to feel that he's resigned to his fate, if not almost proud of his young avenger for preserving the bedouin way of life that he himself has cashiered. "Theeb had to do it," noted Abu Nowar, relaying the verdict of his bedouin cast and advisers. "They always go like this," he said biting his knuckle, "and they say, 'It's such a shame.' No one wants him to do it, but yeah, they all say he's got to do it."

The moral dilemmas, the struggle of the male hero and the challenge of survival in hostile nature are but three elements that place Theeb in the Western movie tradition. Abu Nowar confirmed that he set out to make the first ever bedouin version of the genre. Citing a handful of Sergio Leone, John Ford and Sam Peckinpaw classics -- even a few by Kurosawa -- he drew parallels between such Wild West tropes as the lawlessness following civil war and the Arab revolt at the end of the 400-year Ottoman empire, not to mention the expansion of the railroad and its impact on frontiersmen's lives.

Shooting on Super 16 mm with anamorphic lenses, DP Wolfgang Thaler virtually creates a mirage of Monumental Valley in Jordan's Wadi Araba and Wadi Rum. At the same time, he racks focus in such a way that each discarded bullet, each crawling bug, even flies on blood-soaked fabric get a of touch of the hyperreal. Yet somehow the overall effect is so natural that any camera tricks are camouflaged.

Two words Abu Nowar favors for the world that Theeb contructs are "micro" and "macro." The filmmakers have come up with a visual stratetegy that subsumes both conceits: the tighter the shot, the more heightened the sensory effect; yet with each sweep of the desertscape, we are awed anew by the virtues of selfless behavior. "Visually you've got vast, epic, overwhelmingly grand landscapes, but at the same time you've got a very intimate microcosm of the world where insects rustle," the director said. From the crackle of snapped sticks to the plunk of a rock hitting well water, the sound design conveys a kindred hypersensitivity. "It's about the feeling that you get when you're in a monumental environment and you're locked in with another human being. This is an intimate character study on an epic scale."

But Abu Nowar's Western is no mere genre placeholder. The authentically bedouin content makes it an original work with its own cultural logic. It also lends itself to endless allegorizing in view of the region's past and present. Where to start? Much like Theeb struggles to become his own man, the Arab Middle East struggles to become independent and autonomous. Or: an innocent victim gets drawn into a larger conflict. And even, or especially: the true jihad is an inner spiritual struggle. And so on.

Just don't expect Abu Nowar to chime in. "I really don't want to tell people how to interpret it," he said. "You the viewer own the film."

Photo Credits:

Photo 1 (L - R) Jacir Eid as Theeb and Hussein Salameh as Hussein in Naji Abu Nowar's "Theeb." Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

Photo 2 Jacir Eid as Theeb in Naji Abu Nowar's "Theeb." Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

Photo 3 Jack Fox as Edward in Naji Abu Nowar's "Theeb." Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

Photo 4 Jacir Eid as Theeb in Naji Abu Nowar's "Theeb." Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

Photo 5 Photo of "Theeb" director Naji Abu Nowar courtesy of Film Movement.