“Theeb” should be regarded first and foremost as a triumph of Jordanian cinema. The film has received near universal acclaim, premiering first at the 71st Venice International Film Festival, where it won Abu Nowar the award for Best Director, and later receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, making it the first Jordanian nomination in any category of the Oscars. That it received such acclaim without sacrificing a distinctly Arabic approach to its characters and narrative is perhaps the greatest cause of celebration.
“Theeb”’s titular protagonist is the youngest son of the deceased Sheikh in a small Bedouin community. His siblings having inherited the responsibilities of their father. He is, at the film’s beginning, innocent. He wrestles playfully with others, curiously handles trinkets and hesitates in killing a goat. When an English soldier requires his brother’s guidance in the desert, he follows, driven by a naive sense of adventure. It is against this innocence that “Theeb” contrasts the violence and brutality of war.
The film, taking place in 1916 Jordan, is set against the historical backdrop of World War I’s Middle Eastern theatre. The story of English soldiers leading Arab regiments against the Ottoman Empire is one that’s been depicted before, most notably in 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” “Theeb” immediately gains high marks in comparison for casting unprofessional Bedouin actors, rather than simply darkening the skin of British actors. Whereas that film portrayed the larger than life character of T.E. Lawrence as a messianic figure fighting on behalf of the Arabs, “Theeb” depicts a much more personalized, microscopic view of the conflict. When the English soldier whom he accompanies talks of King and country, he means to dismiss the importance of Theeb as an individual. Theeb’s ignorance to foreign cultures and world wars leaves him with distinctly practical, human priorities. Had this story been told from a top-down perspective, the loss of life within might seem minimal. Instead, the film’s focused perspective on human individuals, not the institutions which govern them, helps to personalize the casualties of military conflict.
“Theeb” belongs to many genres. Of course, it’s a coming-of-age story, but it also contains traits of historical fiction. The director himself has gone so far as to say that “Theeb” is the beginnings of a new genre, a Bedouin approach to the Western. I can certainly see the resemblance it holds to the revisionist western. Men scale cliffsides and lie around campfires, they ride camelback and stare down rifle-stocks across the barren sands.
The desert is a setting that a million films have attempted to capture, with varying success. Each one has a different interpretation of that environment: an opportunity for reflection, a place of promise or occasionally a wasteland of death. “Theeb” captures the seemingly contradictory notion of the desert as a home with a potential for violence. Throughout the film it is kinship which can make the desert welcoming, and conflict which can make it hellish. The environment in “Theeb” is defined by the actions of the inhabitants.
Ultimately, I find no more satisfactory interpretation of “Theeb” than as a bleak, timeless parable. When the movie opens, it does so with a few measured words of advice, from a father to a son. “When men make their stand, if the wolves offer friendship, do not count on success. They will not stand beside you when you are facing death.” It is a message which resonates throughout the rest of the film, yet, it is often difficult to discern who the ‘wolves’ of this story are. Is it the Ottoman Empire, who has oppressed the Arabs? Is it the English soldier, who would lead young men to war? Even the bandits whom Theeb encounters on his journey are sympathetic creatures, once-legitimate pilgrimage guides who lost their occupations to the newly-built railway, which they spitefully call the “Iron Donkey.”
“Theeb” is a highly recommendable film. Those familiar to the history of the Arab world in the early 20th century might benefit from such a personalized view of the military conflicts occurring there. Those who felt cheated of any real, relatable protagonist in “The Revenant” won’t feel so slighted here. Finally, “Theeb” is a must-watch for any cinemaphile with a particular interest in foreign films, as it represents a major achievement in Jordanian film-making. Even its harshest critics cannot deny its importance as a sign of monumental progress in Middle Eastern cinema. With Theeb, Jordanian filmmaking has for a moment turned to its history, depicting the deeply human characters of a culture often cheated of accurate cinematic representation in the West.