Jordan’s official Academy Award entry for Best Foreign Language Film has frequently been mentioned in relation to Lawrence of Arabia. An understandable comparison given the sweeping landscapes it employs. Similar to David Lean’s iconic film, Theeb recalls a style of adventure film that is rarely seen nowadays. Despite its nods to the past, it is a film that feels surprisingly fresh and intimate.
Taking place in the Hejaz Province of Arabia in 1916, Naji Abu Nowar’s debut film involves a young Bedouin orphan, Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat), who inadvertently finds himself on a harrowing adventure that will open his eyes to the harsh realities of the changing world around him. Hailing from a well-respected family of pilgrim guides, Theeb, whose name means Wolf, and his older brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen) live a traditional nomadic life. When not playfully fighting the way siblings do, Hussein tries to teach his younger brother the basics of survival, such as learning to aim a gun and knowing whom to trust and whom to be weary of.
When a Englishman, Edward (Jack Fox), and his Arab escort, Marji (Marji Audeh), arrive in the dark of night seeking a guide, Hussein is selected to take them to a specific well near the Ottoman train tracks that locals have dubbed “The Iron Donkey.” Though it is not clear what Edward’s plans are at first, the dangerous nature of the terrain, where bandits frequently lurk about, causes Theeb to fear for his brother’s life. Taking it upon himself to follow his sibling’s trail, Theeb puts the three men in a tough predicament. They cannot leave the boy alone in such a harsh land, but the potential horrors that lay ahead offer no comfort either.
Agreeing to allow the boy to stay, the group’s journey takes a dark turn when they are ambushed in a canyon. Left alone in an unfamiliar environment, Theeb must do whatever he can to stay alive, including potentially trusting a wounded, but deadly, mercenary who mysteriously appears on a camel in need of help.
Although Theeb ’s narrative unfolds at a measured pace, Naji Abu Nowar manages to pull a great amount of tension out of the film. The landscape may be vast, but Abu Nowar keeps the action concentrated. The shootout and subsequent standoff in the canyon carries extra weight as the audience observes the events through Theeb’s inexperienced eyes. The fact that the viewer is given little information about these opposing forces only helps to heighten the childlike fear of the unknown.
Abu Nowar plays this up even further through the film’s wonderful use of sound. The taunts of the unseen bandits, and later the sounds of a cougar type animal attacking its prey, echo through the air like wailing ghosts emerging from graves at sunsets.
By keeping the Englishman’s motives close to the chest, Theeb not only turns up the sense of danger, but also offers some subtle commentary on the conflicted nature of innovation. While the train tracks in the film are a symbol of progress – a month long journey by camel can be done in a week by train – they also represent the ruthlessness of mankind. The train becomes a key battleground in the war between the Ottoman and the British. Edward even cautions the group that if he does not make it to the train station, enemy forces could arrive and take over the region.
One of the great things about Theeb is that Abu Nowar never loses sight of how such advancements impacted the Bedouin lifestyle. In a subtle, but powerful moment, the sounds of a nearby train is heard, like a chorus chanting for violence, as Theeb, who has reached his breaking point, aims his gun while contemplating if he has it in him to pull the trigger. The idea of technology being the downfall for this society is further hinted at when Theeb, while on a camel, decided to no longer ride alongside “The Iron Donkey,” a quiet rejection of the evil that it harbors.
Thrilling and intimate, Theeb is a well-crafted coming-of-age adventure tale. Though the measured pacing will be tough for some viewers to get past, stick with it, Naji Abu Nowar’s examination of a society on the brink of change is well-worth the journey.
Theeb begins its exclusive run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday