Naji Abu Nowar’s directorial debut is an intelligently presented and emotionally grounded coming of age tale which strikes the fine balance between being richly defined by its culture without becoming impenetrable to outsiders. Theeb tells the story of a young boy Bedouin boy who lives in the Ottoman province of Hijaz during the First World War. He lives a relatively sheltered life with his older brother and his people, however that soon changes when he accompanies his brother and a British officer across the desert on a perilous and secret journey. The ramifications of their success or failure are out of Theeb’s grasp, but he soon must learn to grow up in this volatile and harsh world.
Bedouin custom dictates that you welcome a stranger and house him despite the danger he may bring to you. It is a rule that grew out of a perilous environment in which survival depends upon collaboration and team work rather than individualism and violence. It is something which young Theeb must put to the test during his travels as he must figure out how to balance survival with loyalty in a time of change, betrayal and colonisation. And yet what Nowar does so well here is set his story in a very wide and rich canvas and then narrows his focus right down to a simple adventure story. He trusts that we will read into actions the characters make and understand the implications of events which here feel so self contained and yet which will have far greater impact further on in time. Few filmmakers can trust their story and cast enough to keep the focus small but Nowar is one such filmmaker and his debut is all the stronger for it.
One of the many remarkable things about Theeb is that the entire cast, save for Jack Fox, are untrained locally sourced actors. Nowar and his team spent a year living with one of the few remaining tribes in the area in order to better understand them, win their trust and find the people he could populate his cast with. Everyone hits their notes perfectly however most impressive is Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat (Theeb) and the relationship he holds with Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen (his onscreen brother). Al-Hwietat delivers an excellent performance where he utterly convinces in a role which twists and changes a number of times before the running time is up.
The film boasts so many finely tuned elements from its superb score to the stunning vistas and the keenly emotional and yet unsentimental approach it takes to its various elements. Then there is the sense of adventure and danger; Theeb often plays like a classic adventure film the like of which we haven’t seen in quite some time. However when the danger kicks in you can cut the atmosphere with a knife’s edge. And yet these various elements never compete but instead enrich each other, sitting comfortably alongside each other and weaving together to form a complex and thrilling spectacle. Part adventure film, part periods piece and part American Western with its sense of invading forces and violence in dangerous places Theeb is many things at once. It’s something which is worth celebrating and I urge you to experience it on the cinema screen.
What is the film’s greatest strength? Nowar’s accomplished direction, a seasoned director should be very proud of this achievement let alone a man completing his debut work.
Would I see it again? Certainly, I saw this ahead of time but I would like to see and hear this on the big screen.
Theeb opens in the UK today on the 14th of August. Do you think you’ll be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!