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Arab America Exclusive Interview with Naji Abu Nowar, Director of "Theeb," Jordan's Official Submission to the Academy Awards

posted on: Oct 28, 2015

Theeb director Naji Abu Nowar

BY: Adrian Tafesh/Contributing Writer

Theeb opens with scenes of Bedouin life in the early part of the twentieth century, during the Arab rebellions against the Ottoman Empire. Though the desert setting provides plenty of rich imagery for the eye to feast on, the opening moments are not so much about the spectacular as they are about the drudgery of desert life, the day-to-day. We see Theeb, the protagonist, and his older brother getting water for camels, having a shooting lesson, and talking about getting on without their recently deceased father. That evening, they, along with their tribe, welcome two unknown travelers to their camp, without question.

Naji Abu Nowar, director of the film, notes that this is a reflection of a Bedouin practice that has persisted until today. “In Bedouin culture, they put an emphasis on hospitality and looking after guests, it’s not even a tradition, it’s a law, very important.” In the film, Theeb’s brother hears a noise in the desert darkness, gets up, disappears for a few brief moments, then slowly comes back into the light followed by the travelers. He refers to them as guests and they are received well by the tribal members at the camp.

The un-fussiness with which all of this occurs is what is truly remarkable. The setting, the prelude, everything about the moment seems to suggest the sinister. Surely, the encroaching darkness, emptiness of the setting, the relative peace in the moments before are all signs that what is to come is something unwelcome, but the film resists any obvious clichés or pitfalls, and instead plays the natural and honest.

Abu Nowar, along with his co-writer and a few others, lived in Wadi Rum with the tribe for a year prior to and during the making of the film. “We chose them because they are the last settled tribe in the area. Some adult men among them have actually experienced life as nomads.” He continually referred to the tribes sense of hospitality, “I felt very welcomed the whole time, I actually was so well fed that I put on a lot of weight…It was the most fulfilling year of my life.”

This highlights another remarkable fact about the authenticity of the film; every actor, with the exception of one, was a member of the local community. They were given eight months of acting workshops by the film’s team. These involved some training in acting techniques but, according to Abu Nowar, primarily focused on helping the cast members to be themselves and forget the camera filming them. The result is a collection of natural and genuine performances from the amateur cast, performances that would be the envy of many a trained actor.

Notably, women are absent from the film. “What has happened with the Bedouins since their settlement is that they have turned in large part toward social conservatism. Women from the tribe were not allowed to be filmed, though they were originally written into the script.” Abu Nowar noted that he didn’t want to cast any actresses who were not locals, in order to maintain the authenticity that the film achieves. He also mentioned that since the film has been completed the tribe has grown to respect filmmaking and the process, and have pledged that the women of their tribe may be filmed in the future. In a sense this harkens back to a premise central to the film. The social and political landscape that Theeb inhabits is shifting rapidly. Everything around him is on the verge of changing forever, and this idea finds a way to intersect the film again and again.

Theeb was shot by famed Austrian cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, known for his work on a number of acclaimed documentaries such as Dog Days and Import/Export. Throughout the film we feel rather than see his choices, which Abu Nowar says, were all incredibly deliberate. Each gorgeous frame is much more than beauty for the sake of beauty. There is not a wide angle that does not serve to expand the already epic scope of the film. There is not a tight close-up that doesn’t help us to understand the at times painful (literally) minutia of surviving the desert. “We came out early and met and discussed how we wanted to treat the environment, how we wanted to film. The shots have an ethos all their own.” Said Abu Nawar. In the end, Thaler’s work is every bit as significant to the film as the sparse soundtrack, or the reserved performances. And, to use Abu Nowar’s word, they follow a unified ethos. The idea is that less is more. The honesty and authenticity of the world established says so much more than any over-blown movie magic.

So far Theeb has toured numerous countries and has gathered acclaim and accolades along its way. Abu Nowar and his team hope that the momentum will continue and carry over into a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards. The film opens in the U.S. in early November and the hopes are that it will be shown in France and Germany as well.

All in all, no person or entity is being served by the success of Theeb as much as Jordanian filmmakers. “You know in Jordan we don’t have a film industry” Said Abu Nowar. “We really hope to open the world up to Jordanian cinema.” Whether or not this particular film will spark a boom in investment in Jordan’s industry remains to be seen, but for the time being one thing is very clear, with talents like Naji Abu Nowar leading the effort, the future for Jordan certainly looks bright. “Films from the Arab world rarely get nominated” Said Abu Nowar. “We’re hoping to change that.”

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