UAE/Jordan/Qatar (2014) Dir. Naji Abu Nowar
Arabian cinema is not the most prolific in the world, at least in terms of getting noticed outside of its own borders and into the international market, which is why Theeb (Arabic for “wolf”) deserves attention for not only breaking this tradition but also sees three Arabic countries – UAE, Jordan and Qatar – coming together to make this happen.
Set during World War I, the story is based in the Ottoman province of Hijaz where a family of Bedouin pilgrims reside, the patriarch of which has recently passed away. They are approached one night by a British soldier (Jack Fox) and his Arab guide Marji (Marji Audeh) who need an escort to the Ottoman train tracks. One of the orphaned brothers Hussein (Hussein Salameh) is given the job of escort but his younger brother Theeb (Jacir Eid) tags along against Hussein’s wishes.
The party barely makes it halfway when the journey is deemed too dangerous for Theeb, so the brothers are sent back home, only to witness the British soldier and Marji be shot by Arab rebels. As they escape Hussein is also shot leaving Theeb to fend for himself in the vast wastelands.
When those of us in the West think of World War I we usually remain within our own local frame of reference and conjure up visions of British, German or other European soldiers, with guns, tanks, planes and other forms of artillery creating exciting adventures. Theeb offers us the chance to take a rare look at what was happening across the globe during this period of time and while vastly different, it is nonetheless equally fascinating.
As a coming of age tale this differs from the sentimental or sexually charged type of journey that typically exemplifies the genre here in the West, serving as a gritty and barebones exploration of true survival and maturity in the face of adversity. First time feature length director Naji Abu Nowar keeps the narrative simple, if infuriatingly sparse in terms of exposition (occasionally justified in the latter part of the film), avoiding political favouritism.
With the story being set during the period of the British-Ottoman Empire dispute, the historical and political context may be lost on audiences outside of domestic Arabia, unless one really knows their history. Nowar doesn’t elaborate on this but he is keen to ensure that our interest in peaked enough to encourage us to investigate this issue further. Similarly around this time the Bedouin’s were on the cusp of change as they were soon to be usurped as guides of the desert as the railway system was being introduced into Arab nations.
For Theeb however, he sees no such lines of battle or is aware of impending change, simply going about his peaceful lifestyle with his family and Bedouin brotherhood. His age isn’t given but was can assume it must be around 10 or 11, judging by his rebellious sense of independence yet reliance on the safety of brother Hussein’s company and protection. Once alone, Theeb possesses enough guile and resourcefulness to outwit the pursuing rebels and seek shelter and basic sustenance.
He eventually encounters a wandering camel carrying what appears to be a dead man on its back, which Theeb tends to in order to make his escape. But the man (Hassan Mutlag) is not dead, just seriously wounded and the two form an uneasy alliance in the name of survival, aware that they need each other.
Admittedly the first twenty plus minutes of this film are rather slow and anodyne, with the most spirited act being the Englishman losing his rag over Theeb touching a wooden box in his possession. Bedouin manners dictate that guests are to be treated as royalty, so Theeb is admonished for his persistent curiosity even when the Brit lashes out at the boy. Theeb later shows respect to the mercenary as his senior, although he remains quietly guarded to be sure.
Once the first shot is fired the pace quickens and the interest level in the film goes beyond simply admiring the gorgeous panoramic views of the desert land until the story finally takes hold. Captured with precision and due care by noted DP Wolfgang Thaler, we are presented with glorious vistas David Lean would have killed to have featured in Lawrence Of Arabia, which were actually the sandy landscapes of Jordan substituting for Arabia here.
As many directors have done before him, Nowar uses mostly non-professional actors for his cast and has chosen some fine and promising talent, should they embark on a full time career. As the eponymous protagonist Jacir Eid is superb, carrying the film on his tiny shoulders with the maturity and grace of a veteran. The impetuous wide eyed energy of an innocent child gives way to the steely but vulnerable determination of a boy left alone, and Eid never misses a beat.
Eid’s real life cousin Hussein Salameh plays his on-screen brother which creates a believable and genuine bond between the two, which can’t be recreated once the mercenary arrives, but Eid again is able to form a sturdy adult-child partnership with Hassan Mutlag. I don’t know much about British actor Jack Fox, but apart from physically standing out he doesn’t really have much to do here.
Despite the distinctly Arabic setting and the bespoke beliefs and protocol adhered to, the central story is quite universal, and could be adapted for a Western movie with horses and Mexican bandits supplanting the camels and Arabs. The desert setting certainly creates this illusion while the historical and political subtext can be adapted, played down or excised completely.
I can’t see Theeb appealing to multiplex audiences but fans of world cinema who enjoy taking a risk and experiencing other lands and cultures through film should find this engaging outing to be an enriching way in which to see a timeless subject approached and told through a different lense.