- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 26, 2015

While film director Naji Abu Nowar wants to tell stories about the culture of his Middle Eastern ancestors, the British-born director’s authorial influences come from cultures both west and east of his family’s native Jordan, where he was partially educated as a young man. Among his particular influences were the John Ford Westerns, many of them filmed on location in Utah’s singular Monument Valley.

“I grew up with the Bedouin culture, which is basically the equivalent of knight’s tales in Britain — all about chivalry and derring-do,” Mr. Nowar recently told The Washington Times. “So I thought as an initial premise, wouldn’t it be interesting to take the concept of the Western genre and tell a Bedouin story.”

Accordingly, Mr. Nowar co-wrote and directed the new film “Theeb,” opening Friday in the District at the Landmark E Street Cinema. Co-written with USC film school graduate Bassel Ghandour, the film tells the story of the titular young Bedouin (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat) who embarks on a treacherous desert journey alongside his brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen) and a mysterious English soldier (Jack Fox).

The action takes place in the all-but-lawless Ottoman territory of Hijaz near the tail end of World War I — the finale of which would see the empire carved up into many of the countries still on the map today.

Mr. Nowar mentioned not only such classic directors as Ford but also Akira Kurosawa among his idols. In fact, many of Kurosawa’s samurai adventures were remade in the U.S. by American directors into Westerns. (For example, Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” became the gunslinger epic “The Magnificent Seven” in America.)

By adding his own cultural touches to “Theeb,” Mr. Nowar has effectively rebranded and reinvented the genre: Call it a “middle-Western.”

“The film really comes from living with the Bedouins for a year. We got the real story from their oral storytelling traditions,” Mr. Nowar said of developing the script with Mr. Ghandour of young Theeb’s travels with Hussein — and the brothers’ encounter with a mysterious stranger (Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh) in the lawless Hijaz.

Mr. Nowar came from a military family but said he was far more interested in making films than in following in his father’s footsteps. Most of his free time was spent at the cinema, taking in the works of Stanley Kubrick, Krzysztof Kieslowski, David Lean and Sam Peckinpah.

“I just went, ‘OK, fine, I’m going to do it now.’ And I never looked back,” Mr. Nowar said in his distinctive British accenture.

When seeking out his star, Mr. Nowar found his Theeb — a name that means “wolf” in Arabic — from among the last Bedouin tribe in Jordan that had yet to be assimilated into the macroculture. Young Jacir was a villager whom Mr. Nowar hired to make a short trailer to show potential financiers before hiring him full-time.

“I knew him to be a boy crippled by shyness. He would barely talk to you,” Mr. Nowar said of his leading young man. “I was actually quite angry because I thought there’s nothing I could do with this kid.

“And then that magical thing [happened]. We put him on camera and he just completely transformed. It was really an incredible thing to watch.”

The journey for Theeb and Hussain quickly becomes a travelogue of violent nightmares. Through all of his travails and misadventures, Jacir has to not only maintain the innocence of Theeb’s age but also to make choices that are true to his culture — including a rather harrowing decision near the film’s end.

“We live in the 21st century, [and] whether you’re in Jordan or America, you live in a civilized society where there is rule of law,” Mr. Nowar said. “But even though [Jordan during World War I was] under the Ottoman Empire, the Ottomans [weren’t] policing that area. Really in that desert region it’s lawless, and the peace is kept through the unwritten laws, the codes of Bedouin conduct — the tribal codes of nomadic existence.

“I wanted to put you in a very difficult situation,” Mr. Nowar said of the film’s emotionally fraught conclusion.

Filming in the unforgiving Jordanian deserts presented numerous on-location problems, not the least of which were lack of cellphone reception and incessant hordes of insects, which can be seen on-screen swarming the actors’ faces. In addition, the Hiraz’s setting next to the border with Israel required special government dispensation as it is considered an active military zone.

“What that means is that no tourists or citizens are allowed to enter that area. It’s almost like a nature reserve because it’s untouched,” Mr. Nowar said of the remote location shoot. “The soundman found a snake in his bag, and there were lots of incidents of coming across scorpions and spiders and things like that. You’re always sort of looking where you sat and checking your shoes.”

Sandstorms and flash floods were another concern. Mr. Nowar learned to trust his Bedouin guides when they warned of any such sudden acts of God.

“I learned those lessons hard at the beginning of working with them because I got overconfident and once got very lost,” the director said. “And they tracked me and saved me. From then on we listened to everything they said,” he said, laughing.

While other filmmakers such as Iran’s Asghar Farhadi continue to strike a chord with worldwide festival audiences, the fact remains that Middle East filmmakers remain few and far between and, more often than not, subject to rather strict state censors. Mr. Nowar also bemoans that much of what Westerners believe about the vast diversity of Middle Eastern culture is in fact distilled and homogenized by Hollywood.

Furthermore, the World War I era for the Middle East represented “the redrawing of a 400-year-old map,” Mr. Nowar said. “And all the issues, all the things you see happening today, they all come from the redrawing, from that moment of [the Arab] revolt. That’s why we set [‘Theeb’] during that point — that existential crisis for the region.”

Mr. Nowar said he doesn’t enjoy watching political films that are “preaching to me,” no matter from where their makers hail. Rather, he prefers films with a character like Theeb who have a strong, consistent point of view.

All too often, he said, filmmakers “sacrifice believability of character and [of] their story to fit it into whatever political mess they’re trying to say. My hope for cinema in the Middle East is that it makes way for films that aren’t ‘issue films’ but films just about cinema — telling amazing stories, telling great works of art.”

Mr. Nowar noted that the historical post-World War I redrawing of the Middle East had consequences that still reverberate even today.

“There are thousands of Theebs right now, so I think it’s something that is very relevant to today’s world,” Mr. Nowar said of the connection between his fictional hero and the ongoing situation of people escaping the Islamic State’s persecutions.

Mr. Nowar said so far “Theeb” has received a warm reception both in the Middle East and Great Britain, and he hopes the same for American audiences. Looking ahead, he says he would like to make a film in “answer” to Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” while researching other works to be set in the Middle East as well.

“I go where the story takes me,” he said.




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