UK born Jordanian filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar’s sharply focused debut feature “Theeb” (2014) is set in the 1916 Ottoman province of Hijaz (situated West of Saudi Arabia and North of Jordan). The world is at war, although the thought of war seems to be something remote for a young Bedouin boy named Theeb – means ‘Wolf’ in Arabic. He wanders through the blistering desert landscape on a camel with his brother Hussein, sleeping under the stars and strengthening their tribal ties. But, as expected war does arrive at this desert province, which swerves the balanced life style of the arid land dwellers. “Theeb” is pretty much an amalgamation of ‘Western’ genre and ‘Coming-of-age’ genre. It has a very limited story-line, although Nowar provides us with a unique perspective on familiar territory.
Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat plays Theeb as a boy trying to prove his manhood. His father has died recently and now the elder brother Hussein has to lead their tribe. Nowar signals war’s arrival through a stubborn Englishman, who is hellbent on reaching his destination. Hussein becomes the Englishman’s guide, while Theeb willingly follows his brother to take part in the adventure. Alas, the Englishman isn’t “Lawrence of Arabia”, but just an avaricious colonial subject, who is neither fond of the desert people or their stark landscape. The conflict that drives the adults to wreak havoc on each other is never vividly explained, since the story wholly unwinds from Theeb’s perspective. We hear few bits of adults’ conversations in the background, which doesn’t make much sense. Even those interactions are shot from waist height point (i.e., Theeb’s POV). However, as the boy witnesses gun shots and acerbic environment, he remembers the simple lesson from his father to survive: ‘the strong eat the weak’.
The arresting shots of Nowar and the characterizations are wholly different from the perspective of European or American directors. The Bedouin hospitality and way of life are elegantly portrayed. The boy as well as his tribe is going through an irreparable transformation as modernity and destabilization of local economic structures, later turned all these honorable men to full-fledged outlaws. The script stripped off non-essentials, signposts historical details and makes it more like a survival story (of a boy and a culture). The sequences are wonderfully streamlined to showcase the unstoppable transformation of Theeb and his land. When the boy faces an unlikely ally, he is torn off by a dilemma of whether to keep his tribe’s honor or to just survive. In the same manner, the arid land is caught between burgeoning modernity and dispossession.
For a first time film-maker, Nowar impressively draws out simple symbols that have made the Bedouin culture irrelevant. The rail tracks (Bedouin call it as ‘Iron Donkey trails’), the Arab revolutionaries and a corrupt & dwindling Ottoman empire adds more emotional depth to the boy’s journey, making the upcoming onslaughts faced by these dwellers more distressing. The mysterious box carried by British soldiers serves as a spectacular Macguffin, whose purpose seems brutal, when finally revealed. Nowar is more interested in the transforming emotional states, which makes every simple moment more interesting. Although the plot moves in a very straightforward manner, the tight and uncompromising direction fully extracts the subtext of this simple tale. The tense sequences are smoothly integrated without a sense of grandeur. The airtight naturalism of the movie is heightened by the emotionally intimate performances (especially Jacir who played Theeb).
“Theeb” (100 minutes) tells a timeworn tale from a completely fresh perspective and with exquisite emotional depth. It offers glimpses of a culture without being burdened by any political agenda.