Naji Abu Nowar’s Theeb opens with a vivid portrait of Bedouin society, particularly the highly formalized rituals of praise and hospitality that mark the arrival of guests and strangers into their midst. Funded by entities in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, and the United Kingdom, the film marks the feature film debut of the English-born Nowar, who’s crafted a nuanced look at the collision of East and West that occurred on the Arabian Peninsula during World War I, the outcome of which would ultimately bring the triumphs and trauma of modernity to the Arab world.
The film’s eponymous hero is a young Bedouin boy (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat) who’s prematurely burdened with the responsibilities of manhood by the war when his tribe is unwittingly pulled into the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire by an Englishman, Edward (Jack Fox), passing through their camp with his Arab agent. When his older brother is chosen as the visitors’ guide to their mysterious final destination, Theeb sets out to follow them, eventually joining the group over Edward’s vehement protests.
Despite its measured pacing and simple plot, the story takes several surprising turns, confounding viewer expectations. The combination of unhurried exposition and unexpected plot twists attests to the confidence of the filmmakers’ vision and their faith in the strength of the material. Seen from Theeb’s point of view, the viewer overhears snatches of adult conversation in the background that will only make sense retrospectively, endowing the unfolding events with a bracing sense of wonder and terror.
The purpose of the journey seems to reside in a mysterious box, which appears to be a MacGuffin for most of the film, before ultimately revealing its fell purpose. Along the way, the travelers encounter wells full of blood and fend off hordes of bugs, which seem to have a symbiotic relationship in this liminal world with all flesh, living and dead. The film’s airtight naturalism adds to its almost unbearable verisimilitude, lending it a suffocating quality that’s especially striking for being shot almost entirely outdoors.
Like Rudyard Kipling and Jack London’s coming-of-age novels, the film depicts a boy’s initiation into the violent and homosocial world of tribal manhood on the fringes of civilization and empire. For Theeb, which means “wolf” in Arabic, it’s the act of killing that serves as his rite of passage. However, when this moment finally arrives, his world is no longer what it what was when he first set out on his journey, even though he only started it days earlier.
Having participated in an event that will eventually dissolve the multiethnic Ottoman Empire into a group of highly volatile nation-states, Theeb is unknowingly partaken in an irreparable transformation of his world that will lead to the slow decay of the traditional way of life of his isolated Bedouin tribe. Just as the “iron donkey trail” (as the Bedouins call the railroad) has made pilgrim guides obsolete, leading many of them to become highwayman, the coming of modernity and its disruption of traditional local economic and social structures will soon turn the unemployed into outlaws and the marginalized into the dispossessed.
Theeb’s desert setting brings to mind the stark beauty of Monument Valley, where John Ford shot many of the films that defined the western genre during its classical phase. Like those films, Theeb is concerned with elemental themes of survival and revenge, embodied by men as hard and unforgiving as the landscape that engenders them. Set in the same time and place as Lawrence of Arabia, it’s also something of an antithesis to David Lean’s celebrated epic. That film saw the Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire during WWI as the birth of Arab nationalism, a rapid process of unification midwifed and nursed by the English. Nowar’s film is emotionally intimate and politically agnostic, if not revisionist, in comparison.
In a time when totalitarian visions of fascist religious hegemony are on the rise in the region, the film’s skeptical view of Arab nationalism implies a refreshingly dissident, if not outright contrarian, political stance. Timbuktu, which lamented the growth of radical Islam in contemporary Mali, Theeb insists on the importance of preserving cultural difference against the totalizing vision of racial and religious hegemony.