Theeb/Naji Abu Nowar

1916. When an insolent British officer forces a young Bedouin man to guide him on an ill-advised journey, the Bedouin’s younger brother takes matters into his own hands. Based on Bedouin tales, with a nearly all-Bedouin cast, this captivating film is the official Jordanian Selection for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. Click here for the trailer. Availability: Opens November 6, New York City, Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and throughout Canada, with national rollouts to follow. Click here for theater listings near you. Theeb is a nominee for the 2016 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Thanks to Denise Sinelov, Required Viewing, for arranging this interview. A Film Movement release. 


DT:  Can you give us a little background about the film? Then can you tell us why this is the story you wanted to tell?


NAN:  The film is set in 1916, and we’re coming to the end of a four-hundred-year empire of Ottoman rule—one of the biggest empires in the world, part of it stretching over the modern Middle East. The Bedouins in the deserts of Arabia have been living a nomadic lifestyle, a very peaceful, untouched lifestyle, for hundreds of years. Their oral storytelling almost sounds like the Old Testament. All of a sudden the First World War kicks off, and you have the Allied powers—Britain, in particular—fighting against the Ottomans in that region. As you probably know from Lawrence of Arabia, the British start stirring things up in Arabia to take pressure off the major war fronts in Gallipoli and elsewhere by tying up the Ottomans and draining their resources away from the key battle areas. So they’re fomenting revolution in that area, and what happens is that these Bedouin, who really know nothing of the outside world and outside life, suddenly have their first contact with modern industrial powers in a state of war. It was a huge shock for them. Their whole world was transformed.

What you have is the Ottomans being overthrown and the redrawing of the map, the consequences of which we are still seeing today. All these conflicts you’re seeing in the Middle East today? They all in some way stem from, and are caused by, that moment in history, that radical redrawing of the map.


DT:  A peace to end all peace.


NAN:  It’s a vital and crazy moment. From listening to the Bedouins’ stories and studying their history, I thought it was very interesting to tell a film that happens at that point, because it’s such a crucial point in history.


DT:  So that was a point in time that was significant for the Bedouin themselves.


NAN:  It’s the end of their nomadic culture. It marks the extinction of their culture. After that, everything goes downhill for them, and now there are virtually no nomadic Bedouin in Jordan. They’ve all been settled, very much like what you see with the Native American culture in the United States and the aboriginal culture in Australia: social degradation and poverty.


DT:  Your actors were Bedouin.


NAN:  All the actors apart from the English officer were Bedouin. We spent a year looking for a tribe, and these were the last nomadic tribesmen to be settled; they were settled in the late ’90s. The men had the experience of living as nomads, and we chose them because they had that knowledge. After we found them, we moved in with them and I lived there for a year, at first gaining their trust, then casting the film with them. We did eight months of acting workshops to prepare these Bedouin men to be actors, and then we eventually shot the film with them.


DT: The boy who played Theeb did not grow up in that nomadic lifestyle.


NAN:  Being a twelve-year-old, he was born in the village after his tribe was settled, in the territory they used to roam nomadically. In making the film, they were all revisiting their heritage in a way, but it was especially interesting for Jacir, who plays Theeb. For the first time he was learning his heritage. He was learning how to ride a camel and do all those things that had been lost to him. That’s how rapid the loss of knowledge is: The adult males all knew how to ride camels and do tricks on camels, while Jacir, who was born in the village, didn’t. That’s how quickly the culture and heritage are being lost.


DT:  Is there no attempt to pass it on?


NAN:  The onus on life changes. Once you’re brought into a society where you start having responsibilities like paying taxes or getting a job, or you’ve got to shop in a supermarket, survival becomes something different. You immediately start losing all the traits and knowledge you have, like tracking.

There was an old man in the village who could track anything. We used to call him the Bedouin Sherlock Holmes because the police used to call him in to track people’s footprints from a crime scene. He was amazing. Once the crew arrived, he learned all of our footprints, and he knew exactly who was who. He would know if a camel was pregnant just by looking at its track. He knew everything. When he was growing up, it started with human feet and animal tracks, but now it’s car tracks. I thought I was like a Bedouin after a few months of living there, and I got confident and went out driving by myself. I got horribly lost and stuck in the sand, and he tracked me. He tracked the car tracks and found me and saved me.

But none of the younger people can do that. That’s gone. Mothers used to boil the poison from certain types of scorpions, crush the animal, mix it in a powder, and put it on their nipples to breast-feed. That way the baby would be inoculated against scorpions. They’re not anymore. All these bits of knowledge are being lost.

All the props in the film were made by a very old lady in the village who still remembered how to make a water pouch and other things we needed. We hired her, and she created a prop factory with the local women. They made the props, but the younger women had to be taught how. It was interesting, because through the process of making the film, they were reintegrating with their history again, which was really nice. It was a way of actually passing down the information to the younger generations; there are now women who know how to make a water pouch, and Jacir learned many things. So that’s good, but their culture is pretty much done.  Modern technology has taken over, and it’s changing.


DT:  In other interviews, you’ve drawn a parallel between Bedouin culture and the culture of the Wild West in the US, while other people have drawn a parallel between this film and Westerns.


NAN:  For us there was a very clear rule when we made the film. The whole Western thing was a conceptual device at the beginning, then the film took on its own life as we lived with the Bedouin and developed the idea from their storytelling. One of the interesting things was that the Ottoman Empire didn’t interfere in Bedouin life because they saw the Bedouins as savages: The Bedouins were left untouched for so long because no one went there during Ottoman rule. That meant living in a world where there were no codified laws, courts of law, police, government officials. If someone commits a crime here in the US, you call the police, they’re processed through a court of law, and justice is served. In the desert, there was none of that—a world of unwritten law, where each man had to be held accountable to the agreed tribal laws but it was up to him to enforce them on the spot. I’m not an historian, but what I seem to infer from a lot of the Western genre films is that the Wild West was a place where there was a similar kind of situation, where the long arm of the law couldn’t come out and rout you; it was up to people’s perceptions of morality and what was right and what was wrong. So that was a similar element.

A lot of my favorite Westerns deal with two other major contexts or backdrops. One is civilization encroaching on the Wild West, often in the form of the railroad, which was an amazing parallel with the Ottoman railroad. Listening to the Bedouin stories, I often thought, Gosh, that felt so much like a Western. Yet the Bedouins are the ones who told me about it, so we discovered it through them. And obviously both take place during a time of war. That’s primarily why we chose that period of history, because originally we hadn’t decided upon the time frame—originally we were just looking at this concept of a Bedouin kind of Western, then we kept our minds open as we started researching with the Bedouin and listening to their stories.

Through their stories they led us into noticing these things. Often their stories center around a boy’s circumcision ceremony, which takes place at the age of thirteen, when he’s considered to be a man. At that point he goes through a series of organized trials and is circumcised. He’s considered a man and takes on the role of a man in the tribe.

He can be targeted for revenge under revenge law, so he can fight a war. It’s crazy if you think about it, but life is tough out there. The Bedouin stories also center around wells and trials around wells. A lot of it felt very similar to biblical stories, like the story of Moses; this young boy going through rites of passage and growing up to be a man. Basically the Bedouin come from that world; they were living the lifestyle from the Old Testament, and that’s where their stories come from, passed down through the generations. We knew that the main element of the film was the story of a boy going through an experience similar to stories the Bedouin told us, then we found the setting for it at the time of the Arab Revolt, because that was something that was fresh in the memory of the tribe. There were lots of stories about that, and we took many elements from their storytelling and put them in the film.


DT:  From what I understand, the Ottoman Empire used the railroad and controlled the wells in order to protect pilgrims going through Jordan on their way to make hajj in Mecca.


NAN: That was a side business for the Ottomans. At that point in history you’ve got the militarization of countries—the nationalization of militarization, the beginnings of this theory of total war, a kind of Ludendorff theory, though that came later—where you’ve got rapid deployment and mobilization of a nation to go to war, using the railroads to rapidly deploy, and ideas like King and Country and Service to the Nation, which is when you get the total insanity and slaughter of the First World War. Acceptable losses gone insane. They built this railway to maintain control of supplies and troops, but they could also make money on the side, because pilgrims would travel to Mecca on the train. It was quick, but that’s where all the Bedouin tribes lost their livelihood from transporting the vast numbers of people who went on yearly pilgrimage.


DT:  That’s a main theme of the film.


NAN:  Anyone who comes from northern Arabia, Iran, anyone going on that trip is going to pass through these tribes. These tribes would guide them to earn money…so they literally lost their biggest source of income [when the Ottomans built the railroad]. The trade routes, the Silk Road…all of that’s gone now, because everyone is taking their trade on these trains. It really destroyed the Bedouins.

It’s something that’s mentioned in the film when the stranger [played by Hassan Mutlag] refers to the black days, the black period, which is basically the loss of livelihood followed by a period of intertribal raiding. There always was intertribal raiding, but it was more of a game. It became a lot more violent when they lost their livelihood, and then it got really bad afterwards. That might be a subject for the next film. So yes, the railroad had a huge impact on their lives. It’s possible that they were a lot more amiable to the idea of the revolt because they had lost their livelihood.


DT:  Let’s get back to Bedouin storytelling. In addition to the content, was there also a form to Bedouin storytelling that you adopted in the film? Your story was linear, but it had a very, very different feel from Western films, and I was wondering if that was  a flavor you picked up from the Bedouin.


NAN: Absolutely. Obviously the film’s not a musical, but the Bedouin tradition of poetry and song is very, very powerful; a lot of their stories are told through poetry and song. The father’s poem in the beginning of the film—that’s how you would impart that information to your son. You wouldn’t necessarily say, “Don’t do that.” You would tell a story or sing a song or recite a poem. The film does that throughout. You’ve got the poem in the beginning, you’ve got the song of the traveler, which is called a riding song, and then obviously you have the really great ancient poem read by the stranger to Theeb, which has all this subtext about the wolf and the wolf. The wolf story is from that area, and the ancient poem is a real historical text. [In the film] it was adapted to the name Theeb, but it actually comes from a song about the Red Sea. It’s the main melody in the film as well.  They’re all vocal melodies…


DT:  You mean in the sound track?


NAN:  Yes. The Red Sea poem at the beginning is actually a song, and that’s one of the main bases of the film. It’s where the main musical theme of the film comes from. There are two musical themes in the film—the melody and the countermelody. The melody is a real Bedouin melody, and then there’s the countermelody to it. The countermelody is the negative—the loss of the father, a feeling of emptiness and not knowing one’s way—while the melody is the idea of fulfillment and the brotherhood experience, a feeling of completion or coming of age. They’re  used very carefully throughout the film. It’s all based on that, it all comes from that.

Also for me, as I was growing up, my father, who’s a historian and a great storyteller, never, ever in his life told me, “Don’t do this. It’s wrong.” He would tell me a story, and I’d have to work it out myself. This film is very much about that style of storytelling, of telling a story and leaving people to take from it what they may.  That’s a big thing for me, because that’s how my father brought me up.


DT:  It gives the film a very, very beautiful feeling. This is Jordan’s official entry for the Academy Awards. What’s the selection process in Jordan?


NAN:  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe we’re only the second film to be put forward by Jordan. There have been about ten films made in the last ten years.


DT:  In Jordan proper…


NAN:  Yes. The Royal Film Commission of Jordan set up an independent board made of local film people and people of note in the arts to vote on whether or not we should be put forward. Thankfully they decided we should be. Once they did that, they did it officially and applied to the Academy. Thankfully the Academy accepted us, so we got through, which is amazing.

It was really great for us, not just because of the Academy but also to have that happen in Jordan. For people to support us in Jordan meant a lot as well, because it’s great to get recognition at home. Jordan doesn’t have a film industry, and it’s very difficult to make films in the country. I’ve been living in Jordan for ten years now, and we’ve been struggling.

I don’t want to make it sound like the whole country’s going crazy or something, but it’s really touched me that strangers have come up to me, saying, “We’re so proud that you’ve been put forward, we’re rooting for you. It’s been a crappy year, and at least now we have something positive.” Right now Jordan is in the eye of the storm. A lot of bad catastrophes are happening all around us, and we’ve been hit by that as well, living under threat. So I’m not saying it’s everyone, but it’s really cool when people come up and say, “You’ve made us happy. You’ve given us something to root for.” That’s a really nice feeling outside of the artistic element of filmmaking and the enjoyment of making films and being nominated for it. That we’ve brightened up people’s days is pretty cool. I’m definitely proud of that.


DT:  There are theaters in Amman, which is a cosmopolitan capital, but what is filmgoing like in the rest of the country? Are the Bedouin seeing this film?


NAN:  For the premier, we set up an outdoor cinema in Wadi Rum, which is where we shot the film. We invited all the tribespeople, which was a great experience. They loved the film, which was a huge relief for me, because I would have considered it a failure if they hadn’t, regardless of what else happened with the film. I was over the moon that the Bedouin liked it.

Outside of Amman, there are no cinemas in the rest of the country besides one in the north. When we finished the film, we got sponsorship from the King Abdullah Fund for Development, which helped us with going to all the local cultural centers putting up screens, like mobile cinema, and screening it for everyone.  It takes a long time, but we’re slowly moving around the country. We’ve had great reception all over, and particularly in the tribal regions.

It’s also cool because it’s the first time people are seeing cinema. What’s amazing for us is that they’re seeing their cinema. They’re seeing a film from them, in their world and their language. The world premier of the film was nutty, because we took Jacir, Hussein, and Hassan, the three main characters, and the Bedouin producer, who’s also Jacir’s father, to Venice. I got them their first passports, and we got on their first plane, and we flew over to Venice, which is the exact opposite of the desert; it’s made out of water, and literally can’t be more different. They walked into their first cinema for the first time to watch their film in premier, and they got a standing ovation for ten minutes. It almost brings me to tears now thinking about it, because they were so moved that some of them actually started tearing up. If you know the Bedouin, they won’t cry at their parents’ funeral because it’s considred unmanly. So to see them get emotional at that moment was just unbelievable. I love cinema, I devote my life to cinema, I obviously love what I do and am going to continue to do that, but I don’t think I could ever experience a moment like that again. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment that you just cannot repeat, and I’m very, very happy that I’ve lived a life where I’ve had a moment like that.


DT:  I don’t want to sound negative, but do you think there could be any negative consequences to that moment?


NAN:  We were debating for a long time about whether or not we should take Jacir to the festival, because we were very concerned about exactly that, what would happen to him afterwards. But he wanted to go, and his parents wanted him to go, and we decided that to not allow him to come after he’d made the film just wasn’t fair. Still, we were very nervous about what would happen to him afterwards. We had arranged a full scholarship for him to the best school in Jordan, where the king’s son goes, but his family decided they didn’t want that for him. They wanted him to stay at home with the tribe. They don’t want him to lose his culture. We brought up summer camps and things like that just to follow his progress. To be honest, I think they’ve adjusted far better than I have to this post life experience.  A lot of them are getting work as actors. Hassan and Hussein have both done two films since, Jacir’s done one. Hassan and Hussein have also done drama series.


DT:  Within Jordan?


NAN: Within Jordan but foreign films and Arabic stuff. They’re definitely a lot better off than they were before, and they’re definitely not worse off financially or educationally. And we haven’t cut ties. The guys come up to the office all the time or come stay with me, so there’s constant contact. We put things their way when there are shoots in Wadi Rum.  They work with the line producer all the time now when she does foreign films. Which is quite funny, because in the beginning, they hated the idea of working with a woman. Both my executive producer—the boss, basically—and line producer are women, and the Bedouin really didn’t like the idea, because the line producer is the one who pays them and draws up the agreements. Now they work with her all the time.

The crew also has skills now. Several of the Bedouin guys worked on The Martian.


DT:  How did that happen?


NAN:  They’ve got production design skills now, so when The Martian came to shoot in Wadi Rum, they hired them as local crew.  The other day one of the Bedouin guys took out his phone, saying, “I just worked with some big Hollywood star.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He flipped through his phone and showed me a picture of him and Matt Damon, hugging and smiling.  He said, “He’s a big Hollywood star, isn’t he?”  And I said, “Yeah, he is.”


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