By Ella Ide
VENICE (AFP) – Jordanian director Naji Abu Nowar has brought a powerful first feature to the Venice film festival, a Western-style story of coming of age starring Bedouins living in the desert.
Theeb is set in 1916 in a far-flung corner of the Ottoman Empire during the Great Arab revolt, a period of upheaval which saw Bedouin livelihoods and culture threatened by a newly-built pilgrim railway which ran from Damascus to Medina.
It stars Bedouin boy Jacir Eid as Theeb (“Wolf”), a youngster who tags along uninvited when his older brother agrees to accompany a British army officer on a danger-fraught mission to a water well deep in the desert.
The stunning but inhospitable land has become the hunting ground of Ottoman mercenaries, Arab revolutionaries and Bedouin raiders, and the young Theeb is soon forced to decide whether or not to join forces with a murderer in a bid to survive.
New talent Nowar told journalists in Venice he spent over a year living with the tribe to prepare for the film, a Jordanian, Britain, UAE and Qatar co-production funded in part by the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and Doha Film Institute.
“The Bedouin culture has lots of things that make it a ripe subject for a Western. We filmed near the Wadi Rum valley in southern Jordan — a wild terrain, a lawless place in 1916, where people must take morality into their own hands,” Nowar said.
Risking lives for strangers
The British-born director, who grew up in Jordan and studied screenwriting at the Sundance Institute Lab’s first Middle East program, said he was inspired by Western classics such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in America.
“The railroad cost Bedouin tribes along the route their income because there was no longer any need for them to work as pilgrim guides. And with the creation of the state of Jordan they were forced to settle down, with dire consequences,” he said.
“This is the sort of great upheaval which lies at the heart of Western films,” he added.
After making the well-received short Death Of A Boxer in 2009 Nowar had thought about making “an Arabic Western”, but it wasn’t until he met the Bedouins and heard their stories that the script for Theeb was developed.
He said he had been driven by a desire to portray the Bedouin’s “extreme hospitality”.
“Desert life is so tough that Bedouins would risk their lives for a guest, because one day they might need someone to do so for them in return,” he said.
Britain’s Jack Fox, who plays the army officer and is the only professional actor in the cast, described the difficulties of filming in the desert, risking flash floods and his health.
“I remember pulling up the bucket in the scene at the well and taking a sip of the water. You looked at me like I was mad and made me wash my mouth out with Pepsi for about 40 minutes,” he said to Nowar.
“That’s because a goat had died in there the year before,” the director replied with a grin.