Interview: Naji Abu Nowar
For his debut feature Theeb, Jordanian filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar spent a year in the desert, living with and observing the customs of the last nomadic Bedouin tribe in Jordan. Set in 1916 at the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the masterful film is a moving portrayal of history, brotherhood and betrayal, seen through the eyes of its titular protagonist, a young Bedouin boy (Jacir Eid) living within the confines of his community, unaware of the conflicts shaking up the world. Theeb’s secluded existence is disrupted by the arrival of a British officer who needs guidance to reach a remote destination, a request that the hospitable Bedouin cannot refuse. Eager to accompany his older brother, Hussein, who is appointed as a guide, Theeb embarks on a perilous journey across the desert, where the hostility of man and nature will precipitate his rough coming-of-age.
Winner of the Orizzonti Prize at the 71st Venice Film Festival, Theeb screened in New Directors / New Films and continues its tour of festivals as well as an exceptionally successful run in the Middle East. (It opens in New York on November 6.) FILM COMMENT spoke with Abu Nowar via Skype last week about Bedouin culture, his vision of the desert, and the intricacies of making movies in the Middle East.
Theeb takes places during a period of radical change whose impact is still deeply felt today in these regions. Why did you choose that setting and did you have any intention of reflecting on the present through the past?
Obviously, if you’re down south and you’re looking at Bedouin history, then that really is a massively critical turning point. The fall of the Ottoman Empire is what pushed them into being settled. That’s what sealed their fate, as it were. And even after that, the collapse and the drawing up of the borders made things much worse. So that was an important thing, and you can see that when you’re talking with them, with the old men, and hear the stories they have about the revolt. That worked very nicely in terms of this idea of a western at the beginning of the project. I think it moved away from that as the project went on, but it was something I was thinking about a lot.
All the great westerns are set at this time of great change. You know, in the Kurosawa films, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjurō, it’s the end of the shogunate era. Also Leone’s films, the expansion of the railroad in Once Upon a Time in the West, all the civil war in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and the same thing with the American westerns—John Ford’s The Searchers is at the end of the civil war, The Outlaw Josey Wales is at the end of the civil war; perhaps in more indirect ways even in Straw Dogs, the L.A. riots have happened and something bad has happened to him back in L.A. or back where he lives, and he’s escaping from it in the Cornish English countryside. I like that and so obviously, that was an immediate resemblance. I wish we could have said that we had great foresight and knew that the Arab Spring was coming. But I think it was in the zeitgeist. It was more an instinctual than an intellectual choice.
What I found unique about Theeb is how subtly the historical context is handled. It’s never emphasized too much and that gives the story a kind of timelessness.
That was essential for me because it’s a point-of-view film. And one of the things I really liked about it being a point-of-view film was that they don’t really have a concept of time in Bedouin culture. They don’t really mark things by the day or the year; most don’t even know their birthdates or exactly how old they are; it’s just not important in that culture. And so I liked imagining what would happen if you lived in that period or how you would experience it as a Bedouin, so I very much liked the idea that the boy wouldn’t know there is a First World War going on, he wouldn’t know who the Englishman was and how strange that would seem if this strange man turned up. The same thing with the Ottomans—he would have never encountered an Ottoman before. So that really fascinated me, just following his journey and not giving you information that he doesn’t experience, as in we’re really putting you in that world.
A wonderful moment that illustrates this is the scene of the Englishman’s arrival, in which Theeb watches the men’s encounter with a mixture of awe and fascination. Could you talk a bit about that scene, which captures Theeb’s aspirations beautifully?
I really love that scene. It was one of my favorite things to do. When you’re writing and directing, there are certain scenes that you don’t know how you’re going to do until you get with the team and you work it out. And there are certain scenes that, maybe even before you write, you know are going to happen. When I think of a story, I’ve usually got an image or maybe one scene or a line of dialogue that keeps rattling around, and those are usually what make you want to do the film and they’re usually what end up also staying in the film, when they’re that powerful. And certainly this idea of that whole scene of Hussein disappearing into the dark and reemerging with this Englishman, was something we had very early on and I knew exactly how I wanted to do that. And also Wolfgang [Thaler] did some wonderful lighting there.
The cinematography in that scene also reinforces our identification with Theeb. The camera is on the ground, at Theeb’s level, and the men’s bodies are colossal next to his, obstructing his view. In fact when the Englishman enters, Theeb has to push them away to see—he’s like a spectator in a movie theater.
Yes, that was very important. The scene is doing a lot of things. One, it’s a boy trying to join the world of men. He wants to play in the man’s game. It’s this intimacy of the family which we’re going to counter and make dangerous. So there’s always bodies in the frame around him, which for me would then accentuate, when Hussein walks into the darkness and they’re separated from them, this idea of the elder brother not really being aware of things in the same way that Hussein is, and Theeb and the other tribesmen not being aware of things as Hussein is. So it’s also setting up this idea that Hussein is someone who’s pretty skilled and knows what he’s doing and is aware of his surroundings.
I was also thinking about the desert, and how you can see everyone coming from miles, but at night you can’t see a thing. And that’s how the Bedouin used to attack people. When the Bedouin do tribal raids, they’ll come just before dawn when it’s still very dark, because you get the element of surprise. So for the Bedouin, that’s an extremely tense scene as well, because in their vocabulary, that is really predicting an attack. I hope that any audience would feel that there’s potentially an attack coming, but for the Bedouin, it really is that way.
Your panoramas of the desert have a disquieting effect. We’re outside, in the middle of this vastness, and yet it feels like we’re trapped indoors. There’s a sense of pressure in the frame.
You do feel like that in the desert. If you’re not in a car, once you’re in the desert, the vastness of it is quite intimating, and you immediately get a sense of how fragile life is and how fragile your life is. And also to traverse or move in that environment, if you’re not on a camel or in a car, is mind-blowing. There’s that sense of distance. You think something’s close but once you start walking, you realize just how far a mountain range or an object is away from you. It changes your sense of perspective. The other thing is, we were very interested in this idea of micro and macro, and one thing that you experience when being in such a vast place, is that your immediate sensory experience is heightened. Because it’s often very quiet, sounds become very heightened—you’re alert to the minute things around you. So you do kind of feel trapped in that sense.
You’ve mentioned the influence of Kurosawa and John Ford. I also saw the influence of Peckinpah’s films, and even Antonioni and the Dardenne Brothers, in your way of filming landscapes and bodies.
Probably subconsciously Antonioni is an influence on me. I’m ashamed to say that living in Jordan, unless you buy pirate films, you don’t often get a chance to see films, and I don’t buy pirate films so I haven’t seen any Dardenne Brothers films, so they’re definitely not an influence. [Laughs] Peckinpah is definitely a big influence. Straw Dogs is a big influence on the film. But there are also many subconscious influences that you don’t know anything about—I suddenly realized that in one sequence I had almost ripped off entirely four shots from Peter Weir’s Master and Commander. There’s a sequence where they discover the French ship on the other side of the coast, the Galápagos islands, and it is almost an exact rip-off of four shots after each other in the film. And I had no idea I had done it, I really honestly had absolutely no idea I had done it.
Were you influenced by any painters? The night scenes, with that intense chiaroscuro created by the torches and campfire, have the effect of a Caravaggio painting.
Oh you’re wonderful to talk to! I’m always surprised that the film critics or journalists don’t seem to have noticed anything. But yes, Caravaggio is very important, specifically in the night scenes. We studied him a lot, and that was the thing that I brought to Wolfgang. I said I really want you to try and achieve that. And obviously, it’s an easy thing to say to a cinematographer, and it’s an entirely different thing for a cinematographer to be able to go out and do it. And I think he did an absolutely incredible job. We studied the films of some of the best and biggest directors in the world today, and in the night scenes, there’s always a kind of fake moon glow going on in the background. But I think Wolfgang shot some of the best night scenes that I’ve ever seen, in Theeb, not because it’s my film, but because I’m really proud of his work, I think it’s really exceptional. And I think if you put it next to certain films, you can really see the difference, and he did it with very minimal equipment.
Wolfgang Thaler is Ulrich Seidl’s cinematographer, right?
Yes, and Michael Glawogger’s.
Are you familiar with Seidl’s cinema?
I love Ulrich Seidl’s cinema. One of the reasons why I wanted Wolfgang though is: have you seen Whores’ Glory? Have you seen the section in the Indian slum? The way he shot those nights as well, the way he captured that, obviously we knew that he had limited grip equipment because it’s documentary and it was in the real location. So that really impressed me. And one of the reasons why I really wanted Wolfgang is that he had worked with non-actors before because Seidl has done that, he had worked in very difficult situations all around the world, he had done that with Seidl and with Glawogger, in far-off places and in different communities. So he’s used to getting along with people from very different cultures and environments. That was very important to me because he had to really get along with the Bedouin and they had to trust him. And they absolutely loved him. He’s one of their favorite people in the team, and when I go down to see them now, they continually ask about him.
You workshopped the Bedouin cast for eight months. Since Theeb is quite a physically driven film, I wonder what you focused on in your work with them. What sort of training did they get?
I studied situations where this had occurred in the past and we bought the books of people who had done this and anything we could get our hands on related to this topic. One of the people we studied was Guti Fraga and his workshops and what he did with the favela kids for City of God. And there is an actress who does workshops in Jordan called Jana Zeineddine and she gave me all her books, which led us to discover people like Augusto Boal, who’s another guy who does workshops in communities to resolve problems or issues. And we also studied more conventional people like Meisner, and then through Scandar Copti, we found the acting coach on Ajami, Hisham Suleiman. We got Hisham to come four days at the beginning of the workshop and four days at the end of the workshop and he helped me design the curriculum. He taught us how to teach as well. So we’d go through like a lesson plan as it were.
What it involved was basically two major things. On a technical level, getting everyone used to the camera and a crew. So there was always a camera. The key thing for me was for them to get so bored of the camera they just didn’t care it was there, they didn’t care the crew was there, and they’d get used to performing in front of people. In a way, we kind of did the opposite. We waved the camera everywhere and we would just continue on with our lesson, and it’s good because it helped people to build focus as well. And obviously the key thing was to develop them as actors. And because the Bedouins don’t care about film, they’ve never been to a cinema, it wasn’t a situation where we were like: “Hey, guys, we’re going to make a film.” and everyone was like: “Oh, great! Can I be in it?” It was more like: “Please come to the workshop.”
And was there any special preparation with Jacir Eid, who plays Theeb?
It was very difficult with him, because although he’s an exceptional talent, he’s very shy. In Bedouin culture, if you’re a young boy, you’re seen but not heard. And so he was with all elder men. So he also felt very shy because of that. We had to reprogram him to do the opposite, which is to contribute and perform. And then the only issues we had was that he was very nervous and shy and intimated by Hassan [Mutlag, who plays the stranger] because Hassan comes from a different sub-family of the same tribe—these tribes are really big so a sub-family is like another country to us in a way. So we spent a lot of time trying to make him comfortable with Hassan and also in order for him to play those scenes where he’s really got to have problems with Hassan. That was very difficult for him obviously because that’s very rude in that culture; you know, you shouldn’t be hitting an elder man. So he had a teacher that was very mean to him in school and who would hit him with a ruler, so we used that and that became the basis point for all the direction for him with those scenes with Hassan.
Was that something he shared with you?
The benefit of living with the community for a year before we made the film, was that you get to know everyone and then you can use that when you’re directing them. I remember something that Elia Kazan had talked about a great deal. He would take the actors out for dinner and he would get to know them and that would help him be a better director. If they know you and you know them on a deeper level, then it’s a lot easier to express an idea.
You mentioned Hassan Mutlag who plays the bandit. That character was probably the most intriguing one to me because of his ambivalent nature. Obviously, he’s not the most likable character, but at the same time there’s something very tragic about him: he seems to be a victim of his time, displaced and marginalized by the forces of modernity. How did you develop that character?
I always try to understand people, and I don’t like it when you have very one-dimensional bad guys or good guys, so for me it was fascinating to have a character like that. And the story demanded that because you’ve got a situation where these two people help each other to survive, they’re being forced into that situation, even though they essentially want to kill each other. So there had to be interesting things about that character, and that really just comes from the storytelling of the elders of what happened to them. The hard thing was really finding someone who could play him, and when we met Hassan, one of the things we noticed in him was that he’s obviously a strong man and he was in the army, so there’s a power to him, but also something very sad happened in his life, and when we first met him in our interviews, we’d ask a question like “What’s the saddest point in your life?” just to see if people will share information with us, to see how open they are to communicating, because for me that’s one of the signs they potentially could become an actor. And he shared with us this really tragic story, and he was almost brought to the point of tears, which is very rare for the Bedouin, to express emotion like that, and he definitely almost had us in tears. And I thought “Wow!” you know, he’s someone who seemed very intimidating when he first walked through the door but he’s also capable of creating that emotion within us, so he has this duality that we need.
It’s hard to believe that it’s his first time acting because he portrays that character with such confidence.
Out of everyone, he really became passionate about acting, and he became passionate about the craft of acting. And he started doing things by himself to develop his role and to perform in certain scenes. And it was really wonderful to watch someone fall in love with that craft. He’s my John Wayne! [Laughs]
You’ve said that for you, Theeb is really the story of a boy coping with his father’s death. In fact, you open the film with the father’s words to Theeb: “He who swims in the Red Sea cannot know its true depth. And not just any man Theeb, can reach the seabed my son.” I thought that those words informed a lot of Theeb’s actions and gave the father a continuing presence throughout the film.
Yes, that’s the essential backbone of the film. And in some ways in the deep background of the film, it’s sort of a fairy tale. And it’s about this boy moving between surrogate fathers as he’s trying to cope with the death of his father and understand what his place in the world is and how to readjust to life in the wake of losing his father and what that means. So you’re not supposed to notice—I hope it’s more experienced than a conscious thing—but a lot of the design of the film is running along that theme. The music cues are all related to those moments in the telling of that story—all about the father and the moments where Theeb is dealing with those issues. And that’s something that myself and Jerry Lane, the composer, worked on very carefully.
The music is based on Bedouin melodies, and the key melody for the film is one surrounding a song about the Red Sea, and that is what inspired the poem which a Bedouin poet wrote for the film. The poem is all about the Red Sea as a metaphor for life in the Bedouin culture, so when you hear that main theme, if you’re Bedouin, you know it’s about the Red Sea and you know it relates to the father’s poem. It’s something that’s probably lost on the rest of the world, but it was very important to me.
Maybe this hints at the idea that Theeb is like a record of or a testimony to a dying tradition.
Yes. Jacir was the only one that was born in the village. The rest had spent their childhood as nomads. It was really strange in a way because the adults were reconnecting with that way of life a bit, and Jacir was learning about it the first time, and they all found it very interesting. When we did the premiere in Wadi Rum with the community, one of the things that a lot of the elder men came up to me and said was how happy they were that we had made the film, because it’s a chance for the young people to learn about their culture, because that’s becoming lost now. And I don’t know if everyone else feels like this, but certainly I do in my personal life. When you’re in the Middle East and every news day is filled with death here, death there, bomb there, war here, war there, there’s a kind of longing to break free, to escape somehow. I hope that when people experience the film, wherever they’re from, there’s a kind of catharsis or exhale at the end of the film.
Theeb has had an incredible reception in the Middle East. How do you feel about the movie getting as positive a reaction in your homeland as in festivals abroad, which does not happen very often with a film like this?
It feels really fantastic because what I have been dreaming to do was to make the kind of Arabic film that I wanted to watch, and that my friends and colleagues wanted to watch. But at the same time, you don’t know if it’s going to work. You don’t know if people will feel the same way. And it was a huge relief and a huge joy when the audiences responded the way they have, because it gives us permission to keep doing films. Also when you talk about this festival issue, one thing that I find that happens a lot is that when these films are made, they’re kind of art-house films. They go to the festivals and they’re very popular, but when people watch them here, it’s got nothing to do with our world, present or past way of life. People don’t see themselves in them or recognize anything to do with a lot of these films. And I think that’s because a lot of them often have to, and it’s not the directors’ fault—it’s because the system for making movies in the Middle East is so difficult, depend on funds and people outside of the Middle East, who want a certain box ticked. I feel like that hurts the films’ authenticity, and I think that’s why they don’t go well in the Arab world because people are not seeing a world they recognize.
You grew up in England. Did you also study there?
I’m half-half, and I’ve lived almost exactly half of my life in both countries, not in two blocks, but going back and forth the whole time. I was born in Oxford and grew up there until I was 10, and then I moved back to Jordan, and then I moved back to Oxford when I was 15 or 16, finished the last two years of school, moved back to Jordan, moved back to England again, did university there, moved back to Jordan. And I’ve been living in Jordan for the last 10 years.
Did you study film?
No, I always wanted to study film, but I just didn’t think it was in the cards. It wasn’t immediately obvious to me that I could become a director because I come from a military background and both of my brothers and my father and my uncles served in the air force and the military. So I thought that was something I would have to do—well, not have to do, but I just thought that that was what life was. I never wanted to go into the military, but at university, I studied War in King’s College, which was kind of the philosophy, sociology, politics, and history of war. It was really fascinating, and because it’s ultra-disciplinary, it also taught you to look at things from different angles or theoretical frameworks. So it was extremely useful. But then when I left university, I saw that some of my friends were going into film and I went: “Oh, you can just do that, can’t you?” And I’ve always loved cinema, I’ve always wanted to do it, and I was independent obviously, so I just tried. But by that time, I couldn’t afford to go to film school. I wanted to go to the National Film School in London and romantically, I wanted to go to Lodz, the incredible Polish film school, that produced Polanski, Zanussi, Wajda, Kieślowski, but I couldn’t.
And did you always want to go back to Jordan to make films there?
I always wanted to make movies, and it’s not that I think of it in terms of the countries. Really what happened was, I was trying to learn how to write by myself. Actually, the first thing I wrote was a Bedouin western. It was like a rip-off of a Leone film, it was terrible. And I was also trying to write other things in England. But I got into the Rawi Sundance Screenwriters Lab that is run between the Royal Film Commission of Jordan and Sundance Screenwriters Lab, and that really changed my life. The people that taught me there—one of them is a very prominent filmmaker called Ziad Doueiri and the other one is Zach Sklar, who’s been an incredible mentor and supporter since. So there I developed a philosophy of researching and exploring things for writing, and that really just led me to stay in Jordan. I wrote a B movie, a western with a feminine hero, about a lady whose family is trying to kill her in the name of honor and she defends herself. But right now, I just got the rights to a book that I can’t talk about just yet, and I’m also working on a Jordanian film. It’s really whatever takes the fantasy.
So will you continue to go back and forth between England and Jordan making films?
Yes, and one day I would like to go to space. [Laughs] I would love to do a sci-fi one day, but I don’t think I’m ready for that yet. One of the things I learned during the making of Theeb is how little I know as a filmmaker and as a person. So I’m trying to constantly grow and improve myself so I can try and make better films. I know that I’ve got a long road ahead before I try and make a real sci-fi movie that’s not only epic, but perhaps deals with some deep philosophical issues that I can’t really get my head around yet. So I’m hoping that I’ll get smarter or at least have more knowledge by the time I do it.
A sci-fi western with a Bedouin cast.
Yes, the first sci-fi western. [Laughs]