Director: Naji Abu Nowar
Described alternately as a historical thriller, a coming-of-age drama, and a Bedouin western, the acclaimed Jordanian film Theeb is a personal favourite of mine. I first saw Theeb in 2015 at the New Zealand International Film Festival, and I’m glad that my first experience with it was on the big screen. I’ve re-watched it multiple times since, and it continues to impress me, but nothing quite compares to having the sights and sounds of the Wadi Rum immerse you in a cinema setting.
Theeb received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Feature – making it the first Jordanian film to do so. The film is set in 1916 in the Wadi Rum desert – a land on the cusp of modernisation as railways and outposts spring up where once there were only ancient trails and nomads’ camps. The opening scene shows the protagonist Theeb, a young Howeitat Bedouin boy, being taught to fire a rifle by his older brother Hussein. Theeb is brave, independent, and quick witted – much like the child hero Kekec from the Slovenian film in my previous entry. However, he also has an innocent and sentimental streak which puts him at odds with the harsh, unforgiving landscape in which he lives. As well as establishing the loving relationship between the two brothers, the opening scene also gives us the first of many breathtaking scenery shots, and introduces us to the epic sound design and soaring music which heighten the drama of the film’s key moments.
But while the desert offers a great deal of isolation for the nomadic Bedouin peoples, not even they are safe from the ongoing World War. When a lone English soldier arrives at the Howeitats’ camp, asking for help reaching a particular well across the desert by a strategic Ottoman railway, Hussein is chosen to be his guide. Curious and stubborn, Theeb manages to tag along too, and the small group sets out on a dangerous journey by camel toward the vast horizon. The sun is unrelenting, the terrain difficult, and the trail infested with bandits, raiders, and other threats.
The Englishman is something of a novelty to Theeb and the other Bedouin. His exact reason for being in the Wadi Rum is unknown. He struggles to speak their language, politely declines their offered dinner of goat brains, and carries with him a strange wooden box which he strictly forbids any of the Arabs from touching. The story of a white soldier’s adventures in the desert is an obvious cinematic reference to Lawrence of Arabia, as it was with my entry from Libya, Lion of the Desert – another historical desert epic. Both Lion of the Desert and Theeb, however, tell this familiar story from the perspective of the Arab characters themselves – and find a richness, grandeur, and depth in those stories that rivals or surpasses any from Hollywood. Theeb is not about the Great War itself, and the Englishman ultimately plays a much smaller role in the story than one might expect. Instead, it’s an engrossing and beautifully shot coming-of-age film that simultaneously thrums with suspense and violent energy.
To discuss the story’s twists and turns in any greater detail would be to do it a disservice. Theeb is a film that shifts effortlessly from visual spectacle, to nail-biting tension, to believable character drama, within a single scene. It’s a classic adventure film of the sort that is disappointingly rare nowadays – but therefore all the more special when it’s found.