Arab film Theeb receives standing ovation at Abu Dhabi film fest

Silvia Radan/staff Reporter
Filed on October 29, 2014

Theeb, directed by Naji Abu Nowar, already screened in the Venice film festival, where it won the Orizzonti Award, as well as in Toronto and London film festivals.

Theeb, considered by many the Arab film of the year, had its first screening at Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF) on Sunday night. Tipped to win at least one Black Pearl Award at the festival this year, even the competition judges gave a standing ovation at the end of the screening.

Naji Abu Nowar

Born in England in 1981, Naji Abu Nowar began his filmmaking career when he was accepted into the 2005 RAWI Screenwriters lab, held in association with the Sundance Institute, to develop his first screenplay Shakoush (Hammer).

He then wrote and directed Death of a Boxer (2009), an eight-minute short film, which screened at international film festivals including the Palm Springs International Shortfest, the Dubai International Film Festival, the Miami Short Film Festival and the Franco-Arab Film Festival.

Theeb is Naji’s debut feature film, which he dedicated to the Jordanian artist, architect and cultural icon Ali Maher, who died in June 2013.

“In 2004 I moved to Jordan and Ali opened so many doors for me, and that is why I dedicated the film to him,” said Abu Nowar.

“He came on the movie set and he did see a trailer for Theeb before he passed away,” he added.

At ADFF, Abu Nowar not only is competing in the New Horizons category, but he was also presented Variety’s Arab Filmmaker of the Year Award.

Theeb, directed by Naji Abu Nowar, already screened in the Venice film festival, where it won the Orizzonti Award, as well as in Toronto and London film festivals. ADFF marked the movie’s Middle Eastern premiere.

“It was the only Arab film to win an award in Venice film festival,” said a very proud Intishal Al Tamimi, director of Arab films programming at ADFF and director of Sanad Fund.

He pointed out that Sanad supported this film financially both in its development and post-production stage. The money was partly used by Abu Nowar in acting workshops, as his cast consists of Bedouins from Jordan, who were on a movie set for the first time in their lives.

“What inspired me to make this film was the rich culture of Jordan’s Bedouins, and also Bassel Ghandour, who wrote a beautiful story about two brothers going on a trip where things go terribly wrong,” explained Abu Nowar.

Ghandour became the co-writer of the film’s script, along with Abu Nowar, and he is one of the producers, too.

Theeb, meaning “wolf” in Arabic, is set in Wadi Rum and Wadi Araba, the sandy valleys of Jordan. It is set in 1916, during War World I, under Ottoman Empire ruling. Theeb is a young boy, the son of a Bedouin shaikh, living with his tribe in the desert wadis.

Having lost his father, it falls to Theeb’s brother, Hussein, to raise him.

Their lives are interrupted with the arrival of a British Army officer and his guide on a mysterious mission. Unable to refuse help to his guests for fear of dishonouring his late father’s reputation, Hussein agrees to escort the pair to their destination, a water-well on the old pilgrimage route to Makkah. Fearful of losing his brother, Theeb chases after Hussein and embarks on a treacherous journey across the Arabian Desert.

Since the outbreak of the First World War, this harsh terrain has become the hunting ground of Ottoman mercenaries, Arab revolutionaries and outcast Bedouin raiders. If Theeb is to survive, he must quickly learn about adulthood, trust and betrayal.

He must live up to the name his father gave him.

“It was a conscious decision to use non professional actors. These Bedouin people know how to live as nomads, so they gave very authentic, naturalistic performances,” said Abu Nowar.

This decision, though, meant no female characters in the movie.

“We tried writing several women characters, but there is a very conservative society in Jordan and women from the Bedouin communities wouldn’t act in a movie,” he explained.

“We did consider bringing professional actresses, but they don’t know the Bedu dialect, so we would have lost the language authenticity.”

In truth, the story was written so well, it did not need any more characters. It dealt with the great theme of survival, both at the individual level, surviving immediate dangers, and the survival of the nomadic way of life, threatened by new cultures and modernity such as the arrival of the “iron donkey” — the railway.

Theeb will screen again today at Vox Marina Mall, at 4pm.

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