“Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
Problems in the clash of European culture with the Middle East are so much grander than the shocking events in Paris last week. There are decades, even centuries of issues to be resolved requiring a massive shift in how we all relate culturally, yet no one seems to truly want to take those steps without violence. As citizens of the planet caught up in the power grabs of government leaders, the best we can do as human beings is try to understand the Other. Though they may not change the world on their own, movies can be helpful in allowing for some of that understanding. With his debut feature film, Theeb, writer/director Naji Abu Nowar, a Jordanian filmmaker who grew up in England, has gifted the world of cinema with an astonishing yet heartbreaking film that offers a heavy lesson with a light hand, especially when it comes to the role of retribution in this world.
Theeb is not so much a political film as it is one of humanism. Told through the eyes of a 10-year-old Bedouin boy, Theeb is a disarmingly simple film that presents a different way of life in a different era. Some have called it a western that happens to take place in the Arabian desert, in 1916. When we meet Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat), which translates to “wolf” in Arabic, his teenage brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen) is showing him how to fire a bolt action rifle. It’s one of several scenes with double meanings, speaking to both Theeb’s fragility and strength. Nowar and co-screenwriter Bassel Ghandour won the Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriting Award earlier this year at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival, and — full disclosure — I was on the jury that bestowed the award on the screenwriters. The script stood out because it not only told a sensitively intimate story from the perspective of this child, but it spoke with deep insight to the tapestry of tribal life and brotherhood in 1916 Arabia as World War I loomed while foreshadowing its dark aftermath.
Theeb doesn’t seem to know it yet, but he is growing up in a tumultuous time in Hejaz Province, a region that is now part of Jordan. World War I is looming, and the British, still in colonial mode, are laying train tracks across the desert. When Hussein is tasked to help a British officer (Jack Fox) carrying a mysterious box through dangerous territory filled with bandits, Theeb sneaks along. The officer,whose name is later revealed as Edward, has little patience for Theeb, and he is clearly annoyed by Theeb’s appearance after they are too far along in their journey to safely turn back, according to Hussein. Edward sees the boy as a burden, and he’s especially annoyed by Theeb’s curiosity. The child can’t seem to keep his prying hands away from the officer’s ornate box. Edward chastises the boy at one point, yelling at him, “Do you know what a king is? Do you know what a country is? This is what people fight for!”
Our young hero never seems to speak much, especially since he doesn’t know English, but Al-Hweitat communicates so much in this film. He expresses a complex mix of shame, confusion and suspicion to Edward. The otherness of Edward is also captured brilliantly by the film’s cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler who shoots the officer at a distance or blocked by adult members of the tribe, allowing for only parts of the man to peek through the crowd, part of his green uniform here, a flash of his pink face and blonde hair there. From Theeb’s perspective, Edward becomes the exotic one. It’s distancing and complex, loaded with the mystery of the stranger.
Nowar’s film almost feels antithetical to Lawrence of Arabia. Though rich in landscape and shot on some of the locations David Lean used in that film, Theeb does not romanticize the Englishman going native. The divide between Theeb and Edward is as vast as the desert, reflected in the shifting sand dunes to cracked, dried earth to the narrow mountain pass leading to the ancient city of Petra. Theeb is a young man alone, and the way Nowar and Thaler capture the vast merciless quality of the desert only makes the boy seem more alone. Theeb and his brother only matter insofar as their duty to Edward, even though, as laid out in the film’s opening title text, to the Bedouins, these boys have a cultural obligation to their guest.
This is also a chaotic land, and the filmmakers capture its forbidding quality with a languorous pace that is broken up with startling moments of violence. The film is slow at times, but it works during shocking pay offs that speak to the dangers of this inhospitable land: bodies in wells, a dead man draped over a wandering camel and finally, a stranger dressed in black (Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh) who has been left crippled after a bloody firefight who considers killing Theeb but says, “Maybe I’ll let the beasts eat you.” This sort of harsh world tends to force alliances between enemies, however. It’s not man versus nature but men versus nature, and Theeb will need to grow up quick as he is confronted by a cynical world of murder, greed and treachery and the pull toward becoming the monster of his namesake.