Naji Abu Nowar, the award winning writer-director of Theeb sat down for a 45 minute chat to discuss his first feature length movie that took Venice by storm at which he was awarded the best director prize. This coming of age story of a young Bedoiun boy is set against a time of great upheaval in 1916 Arab world that holds strong parallels today.
Today we’re sitting in the plush and expansive Hospital Club for a 45 minute chat about the importance of respecting other people’s cultures, survival and still being excited to talk about a film he made in 2012!
What was the inspiration for the film?
The initial idea was this idea of mixing a genre with a new culture. I tried to write something and it was terrible. It was like a Leone rip-off and my first attempt at writing. 10 years later having progressed as a writer, a friend of mine Bassel Ghandour wrote a short film script that was exactly that: a John Ford style western about two brothers on a hunting trip gone wrong. He wrote an intimate hunting drama and I thought that’s how you do it. So I asked if we could work together and he thankfully said yes and we started this process. The whole idea of a western led us there but what the film really is: our experiences of living with the Bedouin, listening to their storytelling, music and poetry and that’s really where the final film comes from.
How long did you spend living with the Bedouin to refine your script?
We spent a year touring the southern communities looking for the right tribe in Jordan. We found one of the last nomadic tribes to be settled. Now it’s really an extinct way of life and they were settled in the late 90s. We developed a dialogue with the actors for 8 months. They have amazing ways of expressing things. We wanted it in their language because their language is different to normal Arabic so even the film is subtitled in Arabic in the Middle East.
What really struck me – there’s this epic landscape but it’s a really intimate story. Does that intimacy come from spending a year with the Bedouin?
You get to see how many of their customs are coming from that environment. If you can’t receive hospitality from a stranger in the desert then you are going to die. So you see how these things become important. And for me that was very true and I have lasting friendships with all of them. The most minute sounds become amplified because it’s [the desert] like a giant amplifier. You’ve got this mixture between this micro macro – this huge vast expanse and the tiniest details that are very powerful that you pick the rustle of wind between the sand. I very much loved this idea on a character level and on a visual/audio: the vast, epic, expansive and then the minute – the intensity of the juxtaposition between the two.
Those parallels are there in the film showing the 1916 revolt and then in 2012 there was the Arab Spring. Do you want people to see those parallels?
I do believe it was in the zeitgeist. We all felt very frustrated during that time. You live in a mentality of – you need permission to do something. You are not aware you can just go and do something and you always have to get someone’s permission. There was a movement and that in a way is what happened with the film. You very much related to the character and I think subconsciously that is where it came.
What made you decide that you wanted the main focus on Theeb rather than his brother?
In Bedouin culture you become a man at the age of 13. There’s something called the circumcision ceremony around the age of 13 where you are circumcised and then you are given challenges to test your manhood. If you pass then you are officially recognised as a man. You take on all the responsibilities that men do in the tribe including fighting and things like blood revenge. You can now be a target of blood revenge, whereas if you are below that age you can’t. So it is a very important age. Most of the Bedouin storytelling is focused around this journey and this age and the rites of passage.
Within the year you said there was an 8 month actor workshop with the Bedouin. Were they open to being filmed and participating as actors or was there some resistance to that?
They thought we were crazy pretty much but what happened was because we were their guests they were too polite to dismiss us so we tried to make it as fun and as engaging as possible. The thing you have to realise is that they haven’t watched films. They don’t care about films or acting. It’s not like walking up to someone in the street in London and saying “hey man do you want to be in a film, I’m going to make you a star.” They don’t want to be actors. Slowly they started to really enjoy it. As they progressed and they started to respect the art of acting more and see it as exciting.
They’ve obviously seen the finished product, or have they?
Yep they saw it and it was the first time they went into a cinema in Venice. It was a very powerful experience in Venice we received a 10 minute standing ovation at the end and they were overwhelmed by that.
Then we did an outdoor screening in Whadi Rum for the whole tribe. We brought all the tribal people and put up a load of tents and screened it outdoors. It was also their first time experiencing the film.
The Bedouin were all amateur actors. How did Jack Fox to get involved in the project?
Well obviously there was a character – a British army officer that was needed. That was very tough as we were a very low budget film and had one crack at casting. It was tough for Jack because we had to focus so much on the non actors. He often only got one take at the end. He is such a pro and he was able to handle that kind of pressure and never let us down. It was quite a difficult situation of him but he came out on top.
The desert is a character in itself. So how did you go about choosing or meeting your Director of Photography?
The Director of Photography was difficult to find and we had a long list of criteria: no generators due to sound trouble, extremely mobile, excellent director of Director of Photography in limited circumstances, respectful of foreign cultures, excellent at operating the camera himself as we didn’t have much camera experience and shooting on super 16 and working with non actors. and I’ve never seen a film camera and I needed to be able to trust them. Wolfgang [Thaler] has all those things. He is a part time film professor at University of Austria. He’s shot all over the world and his work on Whores’ Glory in the Indian slums at night. It was very important for me as we had these night scenes. The Bedouin loved him. I also have to thank his wife. She told him you do these big films why don’t you give some young people a chance. He said ok and he liked the script.
How do you feel when people talk about Theeb in the same breath as Lawrence of Arabia?
It’s an incredible honour to be mentioned in the same breath as Lawrence of Arabia but the film is not connected to Lawrence of Arabia. I’m a huge fan of David Lean. I understand why people would connect it because if you are coming from an international background outside of the Middle East you’re only reference to that period of history, cinematically is Lawrence of Arabia. But from the perspective of the filmmakers and the team, we’re dealing with a subject matter that’s one of most important moments in our history. We’re focused on it because it changed our whole lives and we’re still feeling the repercussions of it today on a much massive scale. That’s why I chose that period because it defines who I am.
The title – Theeb, what’s the significance of the title? Was that the original title?
No the original title was based on the principle Bedouin law that says if I come to your tent and I ask for your protection you have to give it to me in any circumstance. [This means] even to defend me to the death and even if I’ve killed your brother you have to defend me to the death. As we developed the script we felt that we moved away from that specific law although you feel that in the second half of the film. If someone is cunning, a man, courageous, resourceful they [the Bedouin] will call him a wolf. The reverse of that is the insult is weak dog. The bandits call Theeb a weak dog. It [the film] was about a little dog becoming a wolf and that transition.
How do you want your film to be perceived?
I want people to have an emotional experience. I like feeling the power of cinema. I love sitting in a cinema and feeling like I am having an experience whether it be an emotional or an intellectual one. I really hate telling people what to think and I hate it when people tell me what to think. The worst insult for me is if someone’s ambivalent and doesn’t have any reaction [after seeing the film].
You received the most amazing reception at Venice and obviously an award. Do you feel the pressure for your next film?
Not until you bring it up [laughs]! I keep getting told the next one better be good. I love making films that’s what I’ve done of for the last 10 years without any recognition or support. If you start worrying about industry or how people perceive you then you are going to run into trouble. I would love to come and do some things in England and have started developing one project here. There’s another one in Jordan.
Theeb is released in cinemas on 14 August.
We hope you're enjoying BRWC. You should check us out on our social channels, subscribe to our newsletter, and tell your friends. BRWC is short for battleroyalewithcheese.