'Theeb' Looks At Middle East History Through The Eyes Of A Bedouin Boy
The Jordanian movie Theeb has been nominated for a best foreign language film Oscar. It's a beautiful, sweeping story set in 1916 in an area of western Saudi Arabia then known as the Hejaz. The film's director, Naji Abu Nowar, says Theeb covers a pivotal moment in the region's history.
"The First World War is kicking off ... and the war is coming toward this area of Hejaz," he tells NPR's Kelly McEvers. "The British are ... inciting the Arab tribes to revolt against the Ottoman imperialists. And so you're on the brink of a massive change."
The fall of the Ottoman Empire led to the borders of today's Middle East being drawn. But rather than look at that moment from the perspective of Lawrence of Arabia, who famously helped organize the Arab revolt, or a grown Arab fighter, the film follows a young Arab boy. He's the title character, Theeb; and like many in Hejaz at that time, he's a Bedouin, or nomad. One day a British soldier comes to Theeb's family tent looking for a guide to a well, and Theeb joins the trip across the desert.
On telling the story of World War I from a Bedouin perspective
If they remember a time, it's "Oh, the time when it snowed," or, "The time when that famous sheikh died." So for me I thought: Wow, if I could put the audience in their shoes whereby you don't know what year it is, you don't know what's going on, you're just living your normal life; and then suddenly this stranger appears from nowhere and this story begins and you don't know what an Englishman is, you don't know there's a First World War going on. So what would that feel like? And that was really the directorial emphasis on the film. ... Let's put the audience in this boy's shoes and have him really experience what it must have been like — how strange and surreal it must have been.
On a scene in which Theeb and a character called "The Stranger" encounter the Hejaz Railway
They're looking at the railway and Theeb is seeing the railway for the very first time. He's never seen it before and this stranger is telling him, "That's what's destroyed us. ... We used to guide the pilgrims to ... Mecca, and we could do that in a month. But now this iron donkey takes them in a week, so no one wants to come with us."
It's what the Bedouin call The Dark Times. I simplified it for the film to just talk about the pilgrims' route ... to Mecca, but also it's trade. You know, you're talking about part of the famous Silk Road — one of the most ancient trade routes in human history — and the Bedouin — before religion, before civilization — were guarding those trade routes. And when the railway was built, all of a sudden they began intertribal raiding, which became very bloody, and they called it The Dark Times.
On casting Bedouins in the film
We looked around for a year to find the right tribe to make the film with. And we chose this tribe because they were the last tribe to be settled, so all the adult men had grown up as nomads at some point throughout their life. So that was an incredible experience. We went down there, we lived with them for a year in the desert region of Wadi Rum in Jordan. ...
We wanted the film to be [as] authentic as possible because the Bedouin have a very specific culture, specific dialect, so we wanted to use them as actors. So we actually cast the entire film from the tribe using nonprofessional actors and workshopping them for eight months to prepare them to act in the film.
On casting the lead role of Theeb
We had to shoot a mood board. ... It's just like a little kind of trailer to show what the film would be, and then we take it to investors and try and raise the money that way.
And we found the guy that we thought had the qualities to be like a Bedouin producer, so we asked him to find us a boy to play this role in this mood board and his son [Jacir Eid] turned up. And I'd known Jacir for a long time because I was living with them for the first month I was there before I kind of found my own place. And, you know, he was so shy. And I thought this will be a disaster because I didn't think he had any ability to act and I thought he was going to ruin the whole thing.
And then it's that magical thing, you know, you put him in front of a camera and he just lit up the screen. ... Instantly just the way he moved, he started improvising dialogue and he was just a star.
On why he thinks audiences have responded to the film
I think the main reason why that is is because the majority of Arab cinema that gets released is often dealing with political subjects, because the people that fund these films, they only want political subject matters.
For me, I'm about cinema. I love film and that's why I'm doing what I do. I couldn't care less about politics. And I think that the audience has responded to that because it's not about trying to lecture them on an issue or trying to be political. And I think — especially in the region where really it's been such a horrible couple of years with everything that's going on — that people want to escape to the cinema.
On the reaction in Jordan to Theeb being nominated for an Oscar
It's the first time in Jordan's history, so everyone in the country — it's like we've won the World Cup, everyone's going crazy, you know, and everyone's celebrating. It's an amazing experience for us, you know. It's obviously been a very tough year across the Middle East and I often get people coming up to me saying, you know, "Finally we've got something positive to root for, something good going on."