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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Naji Abut Nowar | ذيب‎‎ (Theeb)


how to become a wolf
by Douglas Messerli

Naji Abu Nowar and Bassel Ghandour (screenplay), Naji Abut Nowar (director) ذيب‎‎ (Theeb), 2014, USA 2015

Naji Abu Nowar’s Jordanian-made Theeb is a wonder—not only because it is one of the few high-quality Arab films of the past few years—but primarily because of its use of local, unprofessional, Bedouin actors and because before making it, Abu Nowar immersed himself in the Bedouin culture, something few directors might have attempted to do. That, and his complete immersion, for more than a year, in the landscape of Southern Jordan in Wadi Araba, the desert of Wadi Rum, and Daba, where the last scene was shot, reveals his true commitment to Bassel Ghandour’s original script. 
     The real joy of this film is the young boy, Jacar Eid, who played the central figure of this film. Director Abu Nowar admits that, at first, because of his quietude and innate shyness, they did not even consider him for the role; but when he appeared before the camera itself, they recognized his remarkable presence, as he changed into an entirely other being. Seeing him before the camera, there was no question of their casting him as the star.

     In the film he comes off as a somewhat over-curious young boy, who is eager to learn the traditions of his Bedouin culture, but, at the same time, is sensitive to the meaning of what his actions might mean. He has difficulty, for example, in slaughtering one of his family’s goats for dinner; he cannot quite bring himself to kill the man, with gun in hand, who has killed his brother; he is obviously tortured by the death, not only of his recently dead father but of his own brother, whom he is forced to bury in the desert sand.

      Theeb—whose name means Wolf—is anything but the pack-loving killer, ready to destroy—as some of his family members might previously have been—anyone who intrudes upon their community’s space. He is an eager, engaged young boy, seeking constantly to comprehend the world he is suddenly forced to encounter when a British soldier (the only professional actor, Jack Fox) and an Arabic follower (Marji) intrude, during a World War I episode, upon his isolated community, requesting a pilgrim guide lead them to a far-away water
 desert hole, where they intend to meet up with war-faring brothers. Theeb’s brother, Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen agrees to undertake the journey, despite his and others’ stated dangers. The once active route, a former source of financial support for many Bedouin natives, has now been replace by a railroad line, “the iron donkey,” as they describe it, and that the now seldom-used route is filled with local bandits, many of whom previously worked as pilgrim guides in the trip between Medina and Damascus.
      The younger child is, quite understandably left behind. But his insistence on being included—particularly given his intensely close relationship to his brother Hussein, established so effectively in the early scenes of the film— determines that Theeb will follow after, meeting up with the group a day later. Since the Englishman is determined to immediately move forward, the child, despite their deep reservations, is included in the voyage, a decision which will involve him in a series of increasingly dire circumstances.
      At the appointed well, they perceive their soldier friends have not yet arrived, only to discover they have already been murdered and thrown into the well itself, allowing them no relief from their thirst or possible escape; they are already being watched. The crazy Englishman, clearly determined to stroll “out in the noonday sun,” and bit like a very unromantic Lawrence of Arabia, dismisses the two brothers, as he insists a move ever forward to find his own troops. 
      Hussein, the caring guide, realizes that, without him, they will never find the next well, and follows then, with Theeb, despite their rejection of his services. They discover the next well, but, although it remains untainted, they are there attacked, with both Edward and Marji being immediately killed. 
     Hussein, with Theeb, retreats to the higher mountains, killing some of the bandits; but, as night comes upon them, they are seemingly surrounded, and, as in a the old fashioned American Westerns, taunted by the would-be assailants, threatening to kill their camels (their only method of escaping) and themselves.

       Although Hussein comforts his younger brother (“Don’t listen to them.”), he is totally aware of the situation and advises his younger brother to climb even higher into the mountains if the worse happens. But when the villains actually attack, there is no way for escape: they kill Hussein and Theeb is forced into the open, accidently stumbling into the dark depths of the well and possible drowning.

       In fact, the young actor, could not swim, and the director and others had to teach him how swim in order that he might survive the actual filming; even worse, the scene, which did not work the first time round, had to be reshot later, when Jacar had recut his hair for his attendance at a local military school. Replacing his original “hairdo” with a wig, he reshot the film, very convincingly, crawling out of the wall only to face the man who had killed his brother and who tried to destroy him,  Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh. 
       The man, who he again encounters, has been seriously shot in the leg, just barely surviving. The boy is quite understandably terrorized by the man, but he and his previous enemy have no way of surviving without each other, and they gradually form a kind of truce, where Theeb helps the killer in return for food and an possible way out of his own desert death. 
       They both survive, and eventually reach the Turkish-run train station at Daba. But there, when Theeb observes Hassan simply selling the goods he has stolen from the murdered Englishman for a few silver coins—even being himself offered a single coin by the Turkish officer—he suddenly comes alive as a moral figure, shedding all of his childish innocence. As Hassam exits the station with his few silver tokens, the boy, with gun in hand, finally has the courage to kill him, reporting to the Turkish officers simply that the man had killed his own brother.
       As in any American western, justice has been achieved. But, in this case, one can only ask, at what cost? Theeb has not only learned that the western-built railroads have, in part, destroyed his own culture’s major financial source of income, but that the disaffected men of his own world have turned against their own kind. The values of his own family, an apparently highly respected tribe, have been destroyed by the Turks, the warring English, and disaffected Bedouins simultaneously. Although he evidently returns “home,” it is clear that he no longer will have a safe haven to which to return. The young innocent the movie has so brilliantly revealed in the young Eid’s curious actions, has proven, as Edward has warned him time and again as the boy attempts to open the bombing detonation box he carries with him, are more than dangerous: they can, and already have, destroyed everyone’s life.
      Although this film won many international awards, I truly wish such a perceptive and profound Arab-made film might have received the American Academy Award for which it had been nominated. It might have gone a long way to help US citizens realize that culture’s own history and the fears and terrors it still suffers.   

Los Angeles, July 12, 2016

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