Exclusive Interview: Naji Abu Nowar Talks Theeb

Naji Abu Nowar leftToday we are very excited to welcome director and writer Naji Abu Nowar to the site in order to talk about his new film Theeb. We at Rumsey’s are pretty big fans of this Arabic coming of age western and can’t wait for you all to see it when it opens in a few days (14/08/15). Read on to learn about how Nowar lived with the tribe he filmed for a year in preparation for the film, how he worked with a cast who had never acted onscreen before and how the project shifted and mutated with the more he learnt…

Theeb is a fascinating project to talk about… can you first give our readers a little context and explain what the film is about in a nutshell?

Theeb is about a young Bedouin boy who experiences a hastened violent coming of age due to the arrival of the Great Arab Revolt (1916). It is about the last days of nomadic Bedouin culture before its extinction and the uncertainty of the world that lies ahead. It is a sort of Arabic western and a love letter to a forgotten and maligned people.  It is as relevant today as it is to the past and I hope it is an exciting, suspenseful and dramatic adventure film. It was created to be a powerful cinematic experience and I hope people will watch it on the big screen.

The film is richly infused with the culture of Bedouin tribes and consequently suggests that you undertook a staggering amount of research. How informed was the initial script and to what degree did it evolve as a result of spending time with the tribe?

When Bassel Ghandour (Co-writer) and I began developing the script we immediately realized how little we knew about Bedouin culture and that none of our problems could be solved by literary research. So we spent a year touring the southern regions of Jordan studying Bedouin culture and looking for nomadic Bedouins. Eventually we found one of the last tribes to be settled (there are practically no more nomadic Bedouins left in Jordan). They had been placed in a village in the late 1990’s and so the adults had grown up as nomads. We lived with this tribe for a year and developed the screenplay with them. They are as much as the authors of the film as us. Our Producer Rupert Lloyd was also there preparing all the other elements of the film with them, so it was collaboration in every aspect of production.

Theeb-ذيب-4Were the tribe quick to respond positively to you and your ideas? Can you give us an idea of the exchange of ideas which took place in those formative first weeks? 

Initially the tribe thought we were crazy, but they’re incredible custom of hospitality prevented them from kicking us out. We knew it would take some time to convince them, so we simply lived with them until we earned their trust and friendship. It helped that they all loved my Producer Rupert Lloyd who they nicknamed Audah Abu Tayeh after the famous warrior from their tribe (portrayed by Anthony Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia). They dressed him in Bedouin clothing and found it very amusing to treat him like the warrior. If there was a tribal meeting over a dispute or blood feud, one of the elders would often interrupt the discussion to suggest they send Audah (I.E Rupert) to make the peace. Then everyone would be rolling around laughing.

Anyway, so no real exchange of ideas occurred during the first weeks, it was more about us getting to know each other and for them to see we had good intentions. The more the Bedouins understood that we wanted to work with them and learn about their culture, the more ownership they took of the film and the more invested they became. They have been portrayed very badly in the Arabic TV Dramas (Soap Operas), sought of the way Native Americans were treated in the early western cowboys and Indians films. So they saw this as their chance to right the wrongs and make a film about their history and culture that was authentic. And so our intentions were perfectly complimentary. As soon as that became evident to both of us the screenplay really flew to another level.

This process continued throughout the making of the film. For instance the soundtrack composed by Jerry Lane was created through using the Bedouin vocal melodies and expressing them orchestrally. I thought Jerry did a great job of extracting the melodies from the vocal recordings and expressing them cinematically.

I’m curious as to what it was like working with the tribe as actors in the film; what challenges and advantages did their lack of formal training bring to the shoot?

We work-shopped the Bedouin to act for 8 months in the lead up to the film and it was a very rewarding experience. Work-shopping is also kind of like a community therapy and we dealt with many issues such as the loss of their identity and knowledge of their Bedouin culture. The film became a way to retrace their steps and learn about their way of life and ancestors.  It became a lot more than just an acting workshop.  It was also sought of a writing lab as well, because many of the discoveries in the workshop were fed into the script.

The advantages were that they don’t have any knowledge of cinema, none of them had ever been into a cinema and few had even seen a film (the first time was at the World Premiere in Venice). So they were not spoilt by ideas about what acting was, they were pure and unspoilt. In fact none of them were actually interested in acting (they liked to hunt in their spare time). We had to make the workshops as fun as possible to keep them interested and coming back. But the more they got into the acting process and the investigation into their ancestors world, the more invested they became and seriously they took the process.  So we were able to attain very naturalistic performances.

Theeb StillHaving the freedom to express the dialogue as they naturally would certainly lends the film an authentic and looser feel, how comfortable where you with deviating from the script’s dialogue? How rigid/fluid a document do you typically see a script as being? 

We developed the dialogue together with the actors in Bedouin Arabic, which is different than classical Arabic (The film is subtitled in Classical Arabic for the Middle East cinemas). I discussed with the actors what I wanted in the scene, we’d sometimes rehearse it and discuss what each of their characters would say. When we came to something we’d like, we’d write it down. Some of my favourite lines in the film come from discoveries made during this process. After we did this for the whole script, we checked it with the elders of the tribe to make sure the Arabic was correct to the old Bedouin dialect and they often came up with great revisions. I then let the actors read it once and then we pretty much took the scripts away from them for the shoot. I told them just to keep in the spirit of what we discussed as I didn’t want them getting stuck on trying to remember lines. There were only a few lines of the film that were very important and had to be memorized; the rest was fine to be in the general area. Because they are not professional actors I didn’t want to give them too much things to think about. I wanted them to live in the moment and be natural, remembering lines or complicated blocking manoeuvres can distract even the most consummate professional actors so I didn’t want to put that pressure on them.

Each film is different and requires a unique flexibility of approach to how you work. I consider the script an extremely important element of filmmaking and take writing very seriously. It is the first element of filmmaking that I learned and in a way my first love. But at the same time, the script is a basis and a film must be allowed to evolve from it, you must be able to develop new ideas and directions during pre-production, production and post-production. But a well-written script liberates you to do that; it allows you to grow in better directions.

Also due to the extremely low-budget nature of the film I had to cut and re-write many scenes during the production so we could survive another day. Because we are a journey film, we didn’t have funds or logistics to return to locations and shoot. So if I made a mistake or didn’t capture the scheduled scenes the film would literally have had to shut down. So I lived under the threat of the film collapsing every day of the shoot until the very end. This meant re-writing scenes and making sure no mistakes or continuity problems occurred, which is especially difficult when you are shooting out of sequence at some points. This was the hardest part of the entire process, because you’re re-writing scenes at night after a long working day in the hot sun and little sleep. If you make a mistake you could destroy the whole film. It was the only moment I was nervous during the making of the film, alone at night re-writing crucial scenes, asking myself if the change I had just made had improved or literally destroyed the film.

Theeb graveIt strikes me that this film could have been placed in many different genres, it could have been written as a western, as an action film or as you did as a classic adventure film. In my eyes Theeb is somewhat reminiscent of the old sea faring adventure stories and thrilling exploration movies, perhaps most obviously harking back to Lawrence of Arabia. What inspired you to write it in the style and genre that you did?

The original concept (and I stress concept, not the final result) was to adapt the western genre to Bedouin culture in a similar fashion that Kurosawa did with his Japanese Samurai films like Yojimbo and Sanjuro.  The film you see on the big screen really came about through us living with the Bedouin, through listening to their stories, their songs, their poetry, learning about their culture and history. If it’s any genre it’s a ‘Bedouin’ genre. I think it feels like an adventure because their story telling traditions are very much like that. A lot of their stories revolve around a young man’s circumcision ceremony. At around 13 years old, Bedouin boys used to be circumcised and undergo tests/challenges to be officially recognized as men in the tribe. These tests often revolved around the desert water wells, which are extremely important to the Bedouins survival and culture. So for instance a Bedouin boy would have to leave the tribe alone at night and find his way to the nearest water well, retrieving the well stone (A smooth round stone weight from the water pouch in the well). Having passed these trials, the boy would be considered a man and would take on responsibilities for the tribe; they could fight wars or be legitimate targets for blood revenge disputes etc. So their stories are often focused on young boys going through an existential crisis to become men.

The tales often remind me of ancient religious stories like Cain and Able, Joseph or Moses. I was also reminded of traditional folklore and fairy tales, like Hansel and Gretel or the Disney films like Bambi.

A Film Critic also suggested it was like Rudyard Kipling. I did love reading his books as a child and am now beginning to question whether or not sub-consciously he was a big influence on this film.

Although the film is set at roughly the same time and place as Lawrence of Arabia and of course I am huge David Lean fan, there was no influence from that film. These are very different films. Obviously Lawrence of Arabia is a dramatization about the experiences of the historical figure but it has nothing to do with the experiences of the nomadic Bedouin in the film (those are almost comically inaccurate, if a little racist), but you let it go because that film is all about Lawrence. I get frustrated by people assuming that Theeb has to be inspired by Lawrence as if it can’t be made otherwise. I understand why though, in the western world people are usually only aware of that period of history through Lean’s film, that’s how they know about it.  But if you come from the Middle East or are half/half as I am, you will associate the period with the most mind blowing catastrophic violent upheaval of the region that caused countless conflicts and cost the millions of lives that we have suffered over the last century and that we are still suffering the consequences of today. So that is why we chose to set the film in that period not because of the movie, although I do like the movie.

And finally, the title of the film itself obviously refers to the main character’s name, but it also refers to the name the Bedouin give to wolves. Can you explain to our reader’s the significance of somebody being called Theeb and why you chose to give that as the title to the film?

The Wolf is a very important animal in Bedouin culture. It is an ambiguous creature both revered and feared, an enemy and a friend. There are many songs, poems and stories surrounding the Bedouin’s relationships with Wolves. Indeed if you are nicknamed ‘Wolf ’ in Bedouin culture you have earned respect as a man of daring and cunning, a person who can achieve impossible feats. Because of this the name Theeb is a standard Bedouin name, similar to other revered animals like the Hawk, Falcon and Lion. The ambiguity of a wolf as hero and villain, both feared and respected is something that attracted me as a name for our character. It is both glorious and tragic at the same time.

And that’s all folks! Are you excited to see Theeb when it opens on the 14th August? Let us know in the comment box below!


  1. […] in to a white, westernised pigeonhole. That said, the film’s Jordanian director and writer uses the phrase “Arabic western” himself in a very helpful and revealing interview, and I do see the point of the comparison – Theeb contains much of the western genre’s […]

    1. Thanks for linking to us!

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