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How the director of ‘Theeb’ created the Oscars’ only ‘Bedouin western’

As eight films battle it out for Best Picture at this Sunday’s Oscars, a stunning contender is lying in wait for the top prize in Best Foreign Language Film.

“Theeb,” a quietly stunning coming-of-age story set in the Bedouin culture of present-day Saudi Arabia, maps a young Bedouin boy’s journey after he is left to care for himself. The film takes place during the Arab Revolt, a period that lasted from 1916 to 1918 during which Arab nations fought to extract themselves from the Ottoman empire.

The NewsHour’s chief arts and culture correspondent Jeffrey Brown called Jordanian-British director Naji Abu Nowar to ask about the film’s particular genre of “Arabic western,” Bedouin culture and history of the nomadic tribes the film references. Check out his answers and a clip from the film below.

A scene from "Theeb," directed by Naji Abu Nowar. Photo courtesy of Film Movement

A scene from “Theeb,” directed by Naji Abu Nowar. Photo courtesy of Film Movement

You’ve described this as an “Arabic western.” I was curious, is there such a genre or did you see yourself working in new territory?

I feel like that was the initial concept for the film and, certainly, I do believe it is a new sub-genre of the Western. I think it is a new element of the genre, but really I hope that’s not all the film is. I think that was a conceptual starting point to the film. But really a lot more of the film is living with the Bedouin and using their people, their storytelling and their history to make a film. So really, it’s a Bedouin film.

What led you to the story?

There are many things. First, as a child, Arab children’s parents will tell them bedtime stories of Bedouin chivalry. That’s kind of our version of an English knight’s tale. My father is Jordanian, and that’s the kind of thing I grew up with, many [stories] told about the chivalrous acts of the Bedouin knights.

Also, becoming a film fan and growing up with an appreciation of cinema, I love what Kurosawa did to the kind of John Ford-style of the Western. And I saw that you could perhaps do that with Bedouin culture. Bassel Ghandour’s screenplay [for “Theeb”] lends itself to this relationship between two Bedouin brothers, and it’s an intimate character drama, and it led me to believe this could be much more than a simple concept. It could be much more about their culture. That led us to want to know more and learn more about Bedouin culture, which then led us to go down to live there for a year with one of the last nomadic Bedouin tribes in Jordan.

And of course it led you to wanting to work with Bedouins themselves, non-actors, right? How did that work?

It was a very practical decision. We have a young passionate group of people in Jordan trying to make films. We don’t really have a well-established film industry. We aren’t like America where we have a whole pool of method actors, and we can get Daniel Day Lewis to come and live with the Bedouin and learn how to speak Bedouin dialect. We don’t have that. So we have to solve for the lack of resources.

I thought it was very important to be authentic and I said, ‘Why don’t we use the Bedouin as actors?’ They already know how to do all the things they need to do in the film like writing and tracking. So we already were intimately part of the environment.

Anywhere in the world, you can go to any community you visit and you will be able to find potential stars in that community, because we are all human. So I knew we could find the people, it was just a question of searching for them.

For example, the young boy who plays Theeb, Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat. He is extraordinary, as powerful as any actors I’ve seen in film this year. Was he a natural?

Yes, Jacir was a natural. And we were looking to make some pre-trailers for some pre-investors, so I asked our Bedouin producer to send us 12-year-old boys so we could shoot this trailer. He [sent us] his son. I knew his son and I thought his son was pretty shy and he wouldn’t be able to act, but when we put him on camera the magic happened. It is one of those crazy things where you can’t buy. You are just born with it. It was really all about making him feel comfortable on camera because it was such an act of talent. I really didn’t have to do anything. I just had to lay the groundwork of what the scene was about and get on with it.

Walk us through one of the first clips, where Theeb is watching his brother and a British soldier about to go off on their mission and then he decides to go and join them. Can you walk us through a little bit of that scene? Why was it important to the film?

This is kind of a pivotal moment in the film. Theeb is watching his brother leaving him, and he has kind of become his surrogate father. His father was the great sheik of valor and is very well known among all the tribes. So it is a very traumatic moment for him because he is potentially losing his new father and he is very concerned about that because he recently lost his dad. It is kind of stirring something inside him to want to follow in the footsteps of his brother, and not lose his brother.

In addition to working with the Bedouins themselves the other thing you are doing is you have that incredible landscape. How much did you know the desert, the mountains, how did you use that and work with it?

We had a wonderful location scout and we lived there for a year, so we knew the area very intimately. We spent a lot of time traveling around with the Bedouins and living in the environment. So that gives you a unique understanding of the landscape. Also I’ve got one of the world’s best cinematographers, Wolfgang Thaler, who was with us all the way and knows how to capture not just the landscape, but the emotion of it, which is a very different talent then just being able to paint a pretty picture. Wolfgang can go in and capture the emotional environment of a place and use it to tell an emotional story.

You are showing us a part of the world that many of us just see for its politics and wars. You yourself grew up and spent a lot of time in England; as an artist as a filmmaker, how are you able to confront that?

It was very important to put you in the experience of the Bedouin. It is a point-of-view film and we want you to experience what it would have been like to be the boy and have this moment in history arise upon him. So that was very important for us.

As someone who grew up between two very different cultures, I’m used to that. That is my natural experience. I don’t really spend a lot of time worrying about it. But certainly I’m very proud. A lot of people in Jordan in the street came up to me and were so happy that something positive was coming out of the region. We are not just about conflict and war zones and death and destruction. Our art and culture hasn’t really been seen, and this is a great opportunity to say, ‘Hey we’re much worth than conflict. We are also artists. We have something other to offer humanity that [isn’t] just conflict.’

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Dominique Bonessi contributed reporting.

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