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Theeb of the West: An Interview with Naji Abu Nowar

Theeb 01

By Amir Ganjavie and Shadi Javadi Abhari.

The future of the western film genre, with its generic pattern, relation to historical narratives, and cinematic form, is a constant source of concern in cinema. Over the past couple of decades, various filmmakers, including Tommy Lee Jones (2005’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, 2014’s The Homesman), have introduced new cinematic language to redefine contemporary western films into captivating genre entries.

One of the latest attempts to bring westerns back to their lost helm comes from the young British-Jordanian director Naji Abu Nowar in Theeb (2014). Although Abu Nowar’s first work, Theeb is astonishing and arguably one of the best of the year. The story has all of the elements of a good western, with the unique setting of a beautiful and mesmerizing Jordanian desert in 1916 among the Bedouin people. Abu Nowar’s subtle, intricate, and sophisticated directorial debut has gained the attention of moviegoers and film festivals alike, such as at the Venice Film Festival and Cameraimage, where he was awarded the prize for best film directing.

What is the significance of the word “Theeb” as the title and name for your main character?

Theeb NowarOkay, Theeb in Bedouin culture means wolf, which is a very revered animal. It’s a pack animal and is loyal to its tribe while at the same time being a hunter capable of surviving by itself. These qualities are very well respected in Bedouin culture and if someone calls you “Theeb” then it means you are a man of cunning and strength, someone who can do impossible feats. That is pretty much the case for the story of a young boy who’s given the name Theeb, which means that his father is placing an expectation of greatness upon him. This film is about someone who is put into a very difficult situation and if he’s going to survive then he needs to be a wolf.

At some points I felt like I was watching a Western movie but instead of Monument Valley the problems were happening here in the Jordanian desert. Otherwise, we saw the regard pattern of a Western with the dichotomy of nature and civilization, the lone male hero, and the question of survival. I even saw the railway issue in the movie, similar to the conflict of nature and culture in some of Sergio Leone’s movies. So I should not be wrong to argue that it is part of the Western genre. If we accept this then how, as a director from a new generation, did you try to redefine the Western genre? How did you combine your local culture with Hollywood demands, and their understanding of the Western?

Well, the initial idea was to make a Bedouin Western. That’s a very important inspiration for the film, and as you quite rightly said, you know, the idea of the Wild West, the expansion of the railroad and the consequences that it has for people’s lives, the idea of living in a time of a great change; in the case of Theeb we are talking about Arab revolt at the end of a four-hundred-year empire, and the similarities between that dynamic and those of other great Westerns. Those are obviously very important things but to me the main focus was not to take the Western genre and impose it on the story. The key thing was to actually make a film that is organic to Bedouin life and culture and storytelling, and to take these traditions of storytelling, and then if there were an opportunity where something paralleled the Western genre to use that. However, the aim was always to try and make it from the Bedouin life and then use similarities or common themes to our advantage.

What shocked me was the ending of the movie since I could not imagine that a child would kill a man who had helped him to survive. I expected a mutual forgiveness and I must confess I even hate the ending from an ethical perspective, but at the same time I liked it because it was so different from the logic of the conventional movie experience. In fact, it even paralyzed me for a couple of minutes. Contrary to some new Westerns, it’s not a wishful story, but one about what happens in reality and the reality of violence in 1916. I want to know about your ending, your philosophy behind it, and its relationship with the logic of the story.

Theeb 02Well, life in the desert is an extremely harsh existence and to survive, the Bedouin have formed a set of cultural laws and those laws are based on that experience, so they’re renowned all over the world for their principle of hospitality and you will never receive a more hospitable greeting than you will in Wadi Rum, the most hospitable people on earth. They really look after their guests and that’s because if you‘re stuck in the desert and you‘re in trouble, you need to rely on the kindness of strangers to survive. At the same time, if you’re someone who is going go into that world and murder someone, and you’re living in a world where there isn’t a government, and there isn’t a police force, and there aren’t codified laws and prisons, basically the only way that you can ensure that people respect your codes is by your willingness to stand against them. You find this tradition of revenge, or let’s say righting the wrong, which comes from living in a world that is lawless, so the Bedouin must enforce their laws, which can lead to blood feuds between tribes.

One thing that happened when we were researching the film was that all the Bedouin acknowledged being heartbroken and touched by the relationship that they had with the stranger. And all of them totally agreed that they would grow to be thankful to the stranger and would grow to love the stranger, you know, for what they’ve done for saving him. But they also said very, very sadly at the same time that Theeb would have to kill the stranger because he could not allow the wrong committed by the stranger to be left unpunished. That is something that is a part of their world. Now if a tribal judge had come from another tribe and had gotten between Theeb and the stranger and ordered the latter to make amends to Theeb and his family for the crime he had committed, then they could probably have let him go. However, Theeb wasn’t in that position; he was by himself and he had to act. It’s a very sad thing, but it is organic to their world and I wanted to make an honest film from that perspective.

I did not want to insert my own fairy tale ending or ethical reasoning into it because at the end of the day, it’s very easy for me as someone who lives in a country with laws – whether I’m in England or Jordan – where there is a police force and lawyers and judges and courts, to impose my sense of morality on that period of time. However, I think that if you’re living in a world where there are no governments or laws or judges, then you’re living in a very different world and I wanted to make a film about how the people there would honestly behave in those circumstances rather than making a film about how I would want them to behave into those circumstances.

What fascinates me is the camera work in the desert. I lived in such an environment similar for a couple of years and I know how difficult it can sometimes be to move in the desert and mountains. Your work captures one of the most inhospitable and hauntingly beautiful landscapes on Earth with its pink sands, vast desert landscape, and endless arid mountains. I want to know more about the meaning of landscape in your work, the problems you faced, and the reason that you decided to use super 60 for such a beautiful landscape.

Theeb 03The landscapes really are incredible and I think you know that film is still the most beautiful way of recording a motion picture. For me, the greatest cinematography is still shot on film and I haven’t yet seen anything else that is as beautiful as the greatest works of cinematography shot on film. Thus, for me it was about my love of the medium of film set, the material of film set to shoot on it, and I think that was the most beautiful way of capturing the landscapes. In terms of the landscapes themselves, they’re incredible and for me it was very important to create, the sense of a maze as the group moves into a new world, so we had to find locations where the ground never touches the sky. There’s always a mountain in the way all 360 degrees around them so we have Theeb they leave the home world and travel while always being surrounded by mountains. He’s in a maze, he’s in a forest. You are right in saying that it’s very harsh terrain and we were always getting stuck in the sand and that’s really about working with the Bedouin and listening to what they’re saying and letting them them navigate to the places where you want to shoot since they know best and they know every inch of that world. It’s very difficult for us since all you see is sand right out of the gate. It’s really about listening to them.

Until the middle of Theeb I didn’t realize that we were watching a movie set in 1916. Do you want to say that this is a problem or that the story unfolding here could happen in any time? I ask because I know that, for example, non-natives know very little about the history of this area. How did you feel about the question of time in your movie? Did you see the story as a perpetual problem that could happen at any moment?

For me, it was related to Bedouin culture since they don’t really care about time like us and none of them even know their own ages. They just never really pay much attention to it but always talk about you know, that there was winter or there was lots of snow, or there was the summer and a certain event happened but it was not really about years. I just felt that the film was told from the point-of-view of a young boy and that the young boy wouldn’t know what year it was and wouldn’t know what was happening in the world. My hope was that as the film went along the viewer would start seeing or understanding what was happening but ultimately this film can easily present the parallels between the past and the present. Obviously, we were filming a movie about the Arab revolt and the Arab Spring occurred while we were shooting so the many parallels between the past and present were very apparent.

Theeb is your first long movie and you had amazing team of collaborators, some of whom had even worked on well-regarded movies in the past. How, as a young person in this area who works in the region but did not have a very strong background in the movie industry, did you manage to gather such an expensive team for shooting?

Well, we didn’t have a lot of money but we did have this incredible team and everyone from the film producers to the runners was exceptionally passionate and committed to the film. And really my philosophy of filmmaking is to approach it as a collaborative process. It’s a team effort and everyone’s opinion is important. Yes, at the end of the day I have to make the final decision, but I want to hear what everyone has to think and I want to work with the best people. You know, I’m happiest if I’m the most stupid and the Ieast talented person in the room because that means I’m working with great people. I want great people around me and I want to hear their ideas and to see them do amazing things. For me it’s all about working with a great team and I was very fortunate in working on this film with such incredible artists and talents. Ninety percent of what you see on the screen is their hard work and creativity, and it’s just about going and chasing the people you want to work with and begging them and hopefully convincing them to work with you. I got a wonderful team for this film and, you know, I respect their talent and I really hope that they want to work with me again.

Thanks for your time and I wish you the very best luck in your future projects. Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes, I’m working on another Jordanian film and it’s kind of going to be my answer to Zulu or Seven Samurai – you know, a big epic. I’m really excited about it, and I’m also going to be working on an English film that I’m developing and for which I’ll hopefully secure the book rights within the next weeks.

Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He has recently co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.

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