~~Today I saw Theeb, Naji Abu Nowar’s directorial debut and Jordan’s entry to this year’s Academy nominations in the Best Foreign Film category. A first, for sure.
Theeb is a marvelous film in conception, cinematography, and narrative force. Abu Nowar draws on several genres and traditions–the Western, the coming-of-age-narrative, the suspense, even the tourist film. Abu Nowar makes the desert and its inhabitants howl and burn in colors and shades that are as beautiful as they are unsentimental–no colonialist grandeur, no tear-jerking sentimentality. Theeb is violent and cruel, tender and wise, but above all, it is a love song to the desert–beautiful, perilous, unforgiving. But Theeb‘s desert is also its inhabitants, its Englishman, its bandits, its tribal characters, but above all Theeb himself, a dark-haired, almond-eyed lad whose journey into uncharted sands gives the film its pulse and depth, and Jacir Eid al-Hweitat’s portrayal of Theeb its as authentic as it is disciplined. Against the vastness of the Jordanian desert, Theeb the boy slowly becomes its equal, and when he returns to his tribe he has seen the unspeakable and lived the horrific.
Theeb The desert itself is both intimate and enemy, shelter and exile. Those of us who have been in the Jordanian desert know its beauty, its awe, its echoes. And Theeb‘s desert is all these things and more–it can be harsh and heartless but can also offer moments of moral choice, brotherhood, and action. Unlike Lawrence of Arabia’s desert, Theeb’s desert does not carry that sheen of mystery and mystification. In Theeb, the desert is alive with sounds and shades, with a flaming faces and rotting bodies strewn against the white sands through which a railway has recently been built. There is a kind of magnificence in Theeb‘s desert, but it is a magnificence extracted from the wretchedness of the human body in the throes of mortality, survival, tribal loyalties, changing times, a collapsing empire, the intrusive technology of the railway. (The film is set in 1916–in the Hijaz desert).
All this, because at the center of this film is the native himself–a curious, alert boy whose distinctive gaze we will remember for a very long, long time. Theeb is that kind of film.~~