Jordan’s 2015 Oscar Submission is a compelling, World War I story about a wily boy and his brother.
Set in the Arabian desert during World War I, Theeb offers one breathtaking landscape after another of sand and rock and sky. Come for a trip to gorgeous vistas in faraway lands; stay for the character drama. At it’s heart, the film is an adventure story about a sensitive and cunning Bedouin boy, Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat), who gets caught in the middle of a war he isn’t meant to be a part of.
When a white British man, Edward (Jack Fox), shows up at his home, seeking a guide to find water, honour dictates that his family must help the man, no matter what danger it may bring. The task falls to Theeb’s older brother Hussein (Hussein Salaamed Al-Sweilhiyeen), but Theeb’s curiosity leads him to secretly follow his brother despite having been forbidden to join.
Theeb is suspicious of the foreigner from the start. He notices that whenever he goes near the man’s wooden box, he freaks out. The rumour is that it contains gold, but Theeb is skeptical. Hussein is more trusting, willing to risk his life to help his guests, though we suspect that this wouldn’t be reciprocal. Unsatisfied with his brother’s complacency, Theeb tests the waters repeatedly, warning his brother of the possible danger. It’s this clever instinct that ultimately keeps Theeb alive.
The film spends a lot of time establishing the relationship between the brothers before the journey begins, and even on it. When we first meet them, Hussein is teaching Theeb how to shoot a gun — in secret, behind their older brother’s back — before getting into some horseplay. It’s clear that they’re very close and that Hussein dotes on Theeb. Part of why Theeb follows him is because they’re inseparable. Director Naji Abu Nowar captures the brothers in two shots set against the vast and beautiful landscape. It’s as if they’re living in their own remote world, and the film is an exercise in watching that utopia slowly stripped away.
When the group reaches the first well, they find it full of dead bodies. It’s a warning sign that Edward chooses to ignore, insisting on carrying out his mission, whatever the cost. Hussein feels bound to do what he can to help by following. Before long, the group finds themselves surrounded by mercenaries. Hussein and Theeb initially escape, but it’s not long before Theeb is left to fend for himself — possessionless and weaponless, with only his wits to defend him. Soon, one of the men who killed his party arrives badly injured, and they begrudgingly form an alliance to help each other survive.
Abu Nowar shoots the film from Theeb’s perspective. In the beginning, this means we’re always watching from a distance as the adults make plans and discuss options. Theeb is always eavesdropping, lagging behind, and it’s through his eyes that we understand what’s happening. That’s part of why the war itself and the people it’s brought with it is a total mystery until the third act when Theeb must come face-to-face with the encroaching civilization. The mercenary he befriends tells him of the railway that has been built — the Iron Donkey — which is making guides to Mecca obsolete, causing poverty, hunger, and conflict. And it’s not until the very end that we see Theeb on his donkey juxtaposed against the new technology that is causing so much trouble.
Though the script by Abu Nowar and co-writer Bassel Ghandour tells a relatively simple story that unfolds at a deliberate pace, it’s an edge-of-your seat thriller. Al-Hwietat has an expressive, open face, and he carries us through with him on this emotional journey despite very little dialogue. By keeping us in Theeb’s headspace and relishing the beauty of the landscape, Abu Nowar has created a transporting film that will make you ache for lost childhoods — and innocence — and long for adventure. Wolfgang Thaler’s beautiful cinemascope lensing demands to be seen on the big screen.
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