Year of the Wolf: Naji Abu Nowar’s Theeb and the Dawn of the Bedouin Western
Kate Lawrie Van de Ven
The culmination of over four years of work, much of it spent living in the Wadi Rum desert, Naji Abu Nowar’s Theeb is almost certainly cinema’s first authentic Bedouin Western. Nowar, a British-born Jordanian, had explored similar ideas in a script over a decade ago, but was unsatisfied with the result until he re-approached the terrain — figuratively and literally — with producer/co-writer Bassel Ghandour. As they developed Theeb, the team stayed among Bedouin who are the last to have lived a fully nomadic life in Jordan, slowly earning their participation in the project and ultimately incorporating their oral storytelling traditions into the rhythm of the film. The result is a work both hauntingly epic and intimately rendered; one that marks the arrival of new talents (both in front of and behind the camera) and maps old horizons with new voices.
Nowar’s artful direction (for which he received the Orizzonti Award at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year) required his deft orchestration of these traditional histories and Perse collaborators in southern Jordan’s forbidding Wada Araba and Wadi Rum deserts, landscapes punctuated by ominous outcrops of granite and sandstone. With one exception (Jack Fox in the role of a British soldier), all of Theeb’s stars are Bedouin, and first-time actors, including Jacir Eid, whose phenomenal performance in the title role brings wide-eyed life to this story of brutal real-world discovery.
In 1916, in the Arabian desert, a boy named Theeb (which means “wolf”) lives with his Bedouin clan. His father was the group’s leader until his recent death; now Theeb’s eldest brother sits at the lead, and Theeb spends his days emulating the actions of his middle brother, Hussein (Hussein Salameh), a confidant young guide, shepherd and marksman. The younger Theeb is a quick study, already exhibiting the strong will and keen sense of observation that should make him a leader one day and, before long, events catapult him into maturity and force him to assert himself in the world in ways that Hussein will never experience.
As the clan gathers around the fire one night, surrounded by the absolute darkness of the desert, Hussein senses someone approaching. In the film’s first of many arresting scenes, he disappears into the blackness before returning with an Arab guide and a lone British solider. The latter mysteriously asks to be led to a remote well and Theeb’s eldest brother sends Hussein to lead them. Refusing to be left behind, Theeb hies off after them on a donkey.
What follows resembles classical coming-of-age adventures as Theeb finds himself alone and unprepared in the wilderness, but it is also a richly woven account of the vast paroxysms that were to forever transform the lives of the Bedouin. Theeb will endure a vicious attack by mercenaries, broker an uneasy peace with an enemy and glimpse the passing of a steam train, a slow-moving phenomenon that leaves strange tracks in the sand. And he will arrive at an essential, but incomplete, understanding of the international political machinations that placed his desert home at the ragged end of the Ottoman Empire and made it feel suddenly alien. That Theeb survives all that befalls him bespeaks his youthful bravado and the innate courage of his bloodline, but also something of vast historical significance: he is the first of his kind, a new Bedouin child. He has seen beyond his desert and will return home utterly changed, but ready to thrive.
Sun 10/26/2014 18:15 Emirates Palace
Tue 10/28/2014 16:00 Vox 2