Miami cinephiles first had a chance to see the movie Theeb at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival earlier this year, before Film Movement picked it up for distribution and it took the Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriter Award at the festival. Full disclosure: this film critic was on the jury with Books and Books owner Mitchell Kaplan and Gary Ressler, the surviving brother of the man for whom the prize is named (here’s a recap of MIFF 32). We all had little doubt about this film’s strength as a debut feature film co-written by the film’s director Naji Abu Nowar and co-screenwriter Bassel Ghandour.
Theeb is currently rolling out into theaters (Theeb presents powerful allegory of post-colonial Arabia through eyes of Bedouin boy — a film review). The timing correlates with the film industry’s awards season, as it is Jordan’s entry to the Oscars for the foreign language film prize. It arrived in Miami for its Florida premiere riding a wave of accolades, including winning the Orizzonti Award for Best Director at the 71st Venice International Film Festival and, at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Narrative Film and the Best Film from the Arab World in the New Horizons Competition. In 2014, Nowar was also honored as Variety’s Arab Filmmaker of the Year. “It’s just been a crazy amazing ride,” admits Nowar, speaking over the phone, ahead of Theeb‘s theatrical roll out.
His debut short film, a documentary entitled “Death of a Boxer,” had its world premiere at the 2009 Miami Short Film Festival (you can watch the short here). It was there that he met Jaie Laplante, former Miami Short Film Festival director and current executive director for the Miami International Film Festival. The prize was accepted that night by Laith Majali, a producer on the film.
The reason Nowar was not present to accept his award during MIFF was because he was attending a screening of the film at a village called Shakryieh, in the Jordanian protected area of Wadi Rum. It was a special event for some of the Bedouin actors who participated in the shoot. For some it would be a first-time film-viewing experience. “They were all basically non-actors,” Nowar states.
The director said he found his actors during a year’s worth of research for the script with Ghandour while travelling around Jordan’s Southern desert region. They met different tribal groups from different areas. They found their actors while spending a couple of months in the ancient city of Petra. “It’s where Spielberg shot Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” Nowar notes. “We were basically casting a tribe, and what we found was a subtribe in the Wadi Rum region — they were the last nomadic Bedouins to be settled — and so we really liked them because the adult men still had the knowledge of how to survive in the desert, of how to track, hunt, find water. They knew how to live the nomadic lifestyle, and they gave us a lot of information.”
Nowar and his crew took their time in both getting to know the tribe and teaching them lessons in acting, a period of time that took almost another year. “We decided to move in with them and to develop the film hand in hand with them and also cast the film there and direct acting workshops,” he said, “and we workshopped them for about eight months in acting workshops. We did that for a year, and we shot the film at the end of the year.”
One of the film’s standout cast members is, of course, the boy who plays the film’s titular character, Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat. “He’s just one of these people who just have it,” said Nowar. “He’s very much a natural talent, and often the best thing to do with a talent like that is to get out of their way and just keep it as simple as possible and just let them be themselves and not try and over-direct them. He’s just a force of nature.”
But he was also a boy. “You just try to keep it simple for him and not give him Pepsi. If you gave him Pepsi,” Nowar pauses to laugh, “you’d lose half a day. He’d go crazy.”
Working with non-actors also forced the filmmakers to work in ways that they wouldn’t with professional actors. “What Wolfgang [Thaler, the movie’s cinematographer] and I both decided was that because we were dealing with non-actors — because it’s very difficult to ask someone with a lack of experience to do complicated blocking maneuvers. Obviously, we’re going for effect, we’re going for certain things, but as much as we could — we were just going to try to capture the performances and move with the actor rather than take the actor away from the move because that would complicate things for the actor.”
This deliberate style of shooting also works on other levels. The movie has several instances of violence that interrupt the scenes in a natural, startling manner, with little editing of the images. Nowar also said that a slower pace is key in representing life in the desert for the Bedouin people, something he came to feel while shooting on location. “When you live there for a year, your rhythm of life adapts to their rhythm of life,” he reveals, “and their rhythm of life is very, very patient and quiet. I think that has a lot to do with not spending a lot of energy because of the heat and retaining water. Then, if they have to act, then they will act very quickly and then snack and then do something, and then they will be back, very quiet and relaxed again, and so I wanted to capture that rhythm of life, and put you in that rhythm of life. It’s very strange to come back to the city after, come back to cars and traffic.”
The last point worth making about this film could be considered a spoiler, so if you have not seen it yet, you might want to stop reading now and scroll to the bottom to get your tickets. The film ends with a powerful change in Theeb’s character. It’s a brutal development that walks a tricky line of revenge and disillusionment. The movie ends with Theeb taking someone’s life. It’s a gesture that gives the film an inevitable ambivalence. It could be misconstrued as a scene of revenge and punishment. But Nowar is too deeply in touch with Bedouin culture to put the act in such a context. “It’s a moral dilemma and an uncomfortable one,” says Nowar about the film’s final scene. “For me, it’s not something you necessarily want to do objectively, but it happens. I think it would be good to be in that discomfort.”
He credits his niece for pushing him to make a leap into Theeb’s perspective with more genuineness than he could have conceived otherwise. He said after he asked her to look at his script, he got some invaluable feedback. “I gave it to my niece, who is a novelist and comes from an original Bedouin tribe, and she said, ‘You know, the problem with this draft, Naji, is you’re writing the story as if he’s you, a nice boy who grew up in Britain and Jordan.’ … [In Bedouin culture] there is no court or police. There is no one to intercede to protect his rights or look after him, and you’ve got to act according to your own conscience. You’ve got to basically take the law into your own hands. That sounds cliché, but that’s the way it was back then. In Bedouin law he has to protect himself, and he has to protect his family, and he has to stop this man from continuing what he was doing. I just didn’t want to shy away from that. I didn’t want to change what would happen in reality to fit our modern sense of civility.”
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For more of my conversation with Nowar, jump through the logo for Miami New Times’ Art and Culture blog. In this part of our conversation, the director reveals why Miami is such an important city for his filmmaking career:
Theeb is currently playing in our Miami area at Tower Theater and the Miami Beach Cinematheque. On Nov. 27 it opens at the Cinema Paradiso – Fort Lauderdale. For other screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. The film had its Florida premiere during Miami Dade College’s 32nd Miami International Film Festival, where I first reported on it in this post. Film Movement and the Miami International Film Festival provided images in this interview.