Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 13, 2015 2:58 pm 
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A desert tale of a boy has a unique flavor and a quiet sweep

This film is a marvel of lean storytelling and authentic atmosphere, cast in a strange bedouin dialect of Arabic and set at the pace of bedouin custom -- bedouin time, bedouin distance, laconic bedouin conversation. Though slow to ignite, it's an intense action tale, the more scary and chilling for happening in a world of sand, vast space and silence.

Theeb is a film from the point of view of a young bedouin boy in 1916; the title is his name and it means "Wolf." He and his older brother have recently been orphaned by the death of their father, a tribal chieftain. Theeb is played by Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, son of the film's producer, inexperienced in acting, but he delivers a subtle, convincing performance, along with Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen as Hussein, his brother. Theeb has been compared to a Western and to David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia and has a few elements of both, but possesses more unique qualities of its own, notably a much more narrow and specific take on WWI and the desert. There is no eccentric English leader grabbing the spotlight here, only a gruff young blond English soldier who asks some bedouin help in finding an oasis, and then gets killed. Oxford-born Joradnian filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar, who has a distinguished father, recruited and trained a cast that was made up exclusively of real bedouin men.

Theeb hovers between boy and man: he cuddles up playfully when his big brother Hussein is showing him how to fire a rifle, which he is nonetheless eager to learn. There will be plenty of rifle fire to come, but not much time for cuddling. That evening Edward (Jack Fox), the English officer, arrives with a guide, Marji (Marji Audeh). The stranger is received with traditional bedouin hospitality. When the Englishman asks Hussein to be his guide, hospitality requires the request be complied with, despite the danger. When Theeb gets a moment with him he asks him in Arabic (which he seems sometimes to understand but sometimes chooses not to) just two questions: "Are you a prince?" and " How many men have you killed?" When they set out for the oasis, Theeb follows without permission.

When they get to the well, there is horror: pulling up the leather bucket, it's red with blood. There is a corpse below polluting the water, a harbinger of evil. Attackers are hiding on the edges of a canyon to ambush the travelers, killing Marji and the soldier. Hussein and Theeb have to abandon their camels and climb to higher ground where they have a vantage point. The unseen enemies terrorize them all night calling out rude taunts in the darkness hour after hour, the voices bouncing around, their direction indeterminate. Yet they are other bedouin, apparently, like Theeb. And like his people they may have been formerly pilgrim guides turned to marauding after gradually being robbed of their function by the railroad that takes the faithful to Mecca more safely and four times as fast as the old desert camel route. (Like Westerns in which railroads also pose dangers, this film is a tense actioner that hints at historical changes happening.) When they're camped for the night, a slow gun battle to the death ensues.

This is World War I, and the British are working toward the defeat of the Ottoman Empire by destroying their railroad, as Lawrence was doing. But Theeb knows nothing of the war, has not much idea what an Englishman is, and becomes locked into is own struggle for survival and honor. The boy wakes the next day up to a world in which he is virtually alone, struggling for survival alongside a dubious character garbed in black, a mercendary (Hassan Mutlag) who lies slumped over his camel near the well with an arrow in his back and is only able to crawl. It's a Beckettian situation of painful survival where two beings in extremis make slow progress feebly helping each other: the wounded mercenary has the camel, Theeb has the mobility.

This is World War I, and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, through destroying their railroad, as with Lawrence. But Theeb nows nothing of the war, has not much idea what an Englishman is. His struggle is private, in accordance with bedouin values, which are threatened, but timeless.

Reviewing this film in the Orizzonti section at Venice this year, Variety's Jay Weissberg called it "classic adventure film of the best kind, and one that’s rarely seen these days." Young first time filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar, whose accomplishment has given the hitherto negligible Jordanian film industry a shot in the arm, had to fight to get funding, He lived with the bedouin for eight months soaking up atmosphere, also staged acting workshops to develop a qualified cast. Ulrich Seidl's cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler shot the deser, in on Super 16 with an anamorphic lens, so that it seems intimate and breathing with the emotions of the Arab inhabitants. The shooting was done at Wadi Ram, a safe place where the endangered bedouin live in Jordan, standing in for the Hijaz (now Saudi Arabia) as it did in David Lean's epic, and the cast came from this region.

The film has been criticized with some reason for taking too long to get to its main action. But the spare writing feels right nonetheless and the use of setting and authentic actors leaves a haunting, intimate and intense feeling that would not begin to work if young Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat and his cohorts were not remarkably able to hold our attention. Abu Nowar has worked skillfully with all the human and natural elements of his desert, bedouin palette and it is not surprising he plans a sequel.

Theeb/ذيب (pronounced "Dheeb"), 100 mins., debuted at Venice, winning Best Director in the Orizzonti section Sept. 2014, and played at some other big international festivals in 2014 and 2015 including Toronto, London, Abu Dhabi, Singapore and Miami. Numerous other nominations and awards. It was included in New Directors/New Films at Lincoln Center March 2015 but could not be included in press screenings.It was released theatrically in NYC at Lincoln Plaza Cinema 6 November 2015. In the Bay Area (San Francisco, San Raphael, San Jose) 13 Nov. Metacritic rating 80%.

See Laura Blum's article about Theeb on her blog.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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