Bedouin coming-of-age drama, Theeb, vying for Oscar

Bedouin coming-of-age drama, Theeb, vying for Oscar
Society: Already winning hearts - and awards - could Jordan's first Oscar contender, the story of a Bedouin boy during the Arab Revolt, be the boost Amman's film industry needs?
5 min read
25 February, 2016
Earlier this year, director Naji Abu Nowar and producer Rupert Lloyd won a BAFTA [Getty]
A coming-of-age drama set among Bedouin tribesmen roaming the desert is the first Oscar contender produced by Jordan's nascent film industry.

["Wolf"], set in 1916, tells the story of a playful 11-year-old Bedouin boy of the same name who gets caught up in his tribe's alliance with the British against Ottoman rulers during the era's Arab Revolt.

Billed as a "Bedouin Western" and an authentic portrayal of Bedouin culture, Theeb is one of five movies nominated for best foreign language film. The decision will be announced at Sunday's star-studded awards ceremony.

For the amateur cast from a Bedouin clan, and for two young Jordanians writing and directing their first feature film, making Theeb has already been a wild ride, climaxing in the 2014 world premiere at the Venice Film Festival.

That marked the first time the actors had ever left Jordan - or even seen the entire film.

"They got a 10-minute standing ovation," said director Naji Abu Nowar, who won for best director in the "Orrizonti" (Horizons) category in Venice.

"The Bedouins, it's a very macho culture, and you never see anyone cry, even the children... and to see tears coming out of some of their eyes [during the premiere] was a really powerful moment," he said, speaking from the Palm Springs International Film Festival, a last pre-Oscar opportunity to promote foreign films.

Filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar talks about Theeb
in New York City last year [Getty]

Earlier this year, Theeb's Abu Nowar and producer Rupert Lloyd won the British Academy of Film and Television Award for outstanding debut by a director or producer. Abu Nowar is also British.

The actors have since resumed their lives in al-Shakriyeh, a small Bedouin village nestled among striking rock formations rising from the desert floor of the Wadi Rum, a protected landscape just north of the Red Sea and one of Jordan's main tourist attractions.

Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, who played Theeb, is now 15, attends 10th grade and has revised his career plans, from police officer to actor.

"I'm a celebrity among my friends now," said Jacir, who has morphed from a boy with a sweet smile into a guarded teenager.

His cousin, Hussein Salameh al-Sweilhiyeen, who played Theeb's brother Hussein, is back to racing camels and working as a tourist guide.

Since Theeb, he has appeared in a German TV documentary about Wadi Rum and a Jordanian tourism commercial, and said he would like to do more acting.

Al-Sweilhiyeen said being involved in Theeb made him aware of the need to protect traditions.

The Bedouins, it's a very macho culture, and you never see anyone cry, even the children... and to see tears coming out of some of their eyes (during the premiere) was a really powerful moment

Bedouin lifestyles in the area have changed dramatically in the last few decades, with nomads settling down, trading their camels for pickup trucks and living off tourists instead of goat herds.

"Sometimes I say the old life was better," said al-Sweilhiyeen, sitting on the floor of the carpeted family diwan, a traditional reception area for guests.

"The desert teaches you how to depend on yourself. Now we have good services, but we need to protect some old customs."

The desert teaches you how to depend on yourself

Jacir's father, 42-year-old Eid, still remembers the old ways.

He was born in a tent and as a boy rode camels over long distances as his family wandered the desert before settling down about 30 years ago.

He dropped out of school as a 15-year-old, taught himself English, began guiding tourists and recently sold his last camel, saying he no longer had the time or space to care for them properly.

Al-Hwietat became the local point man for the filmmakers, Abu Nowar and Bassel Ghandour, who produced the film and co-wrote the script.

The pair lived in al-Shakriyeh for most of 2012, soaking up Bedouin culture, rewriting the script and holding acting workshops for the local cast.

Theeb was filmed over five weeks by veteran Austrian cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, the most experienced crew member - and praised by all involved as the bedrock of the production.

Ghandour said Thaler used super-16mm film in part because it captured the desert's harsh sun and deep shadows more naturally.

, also released commercially, was "definitely low-budget", Ghandour said, but wouldn't reveal how much it cost to make.

Half a century before Theeb, scenes of the Oscar-winning epic Lawrence of Arabia, about maverick British army officer TE Lawrence, were also filmed in Wadi Rum, just minutes from where Jacir and his family live.

See in Pictures: Movies filmed or set in the Middle East

Jacir's grandfather was part of the local support staff for Lawrence, also set during the Arab Revolt, and the tradition continues.

Jacir's father, Eid, has worked on international productions, most recently as a location manager for The Martian, a 2015 science fiction film starring Matt Damon.

Damon was unpretentious during the shoot, greeting everyone at the start of each day, said al-Hwietat.

Providing locations and crew for foreign films remains an important part of Jordan's film work, said George David, general manager of the Royal Film Commission.

Major films shot in Jordan also include Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and The Hurt Locker (2008).

At a time of growing conflict in the region, urban centres in Jordan, seen as relatively safe, are standing in for Baghdad or Beirut, he said, adding that "we have also become the go-to location for Mars and the moon".

At a time of growing conflict in the region, urban centres in Jordan, seen as relatively safe, are standing in for Baghdad or Beirut

Over the past decade, the commission has offered workshops on all aspects of film-making, including an annual screenwriters' lab in consultation with the Sundance Institute.

However, budget cuts have forced the closure of a film school, and the commission has had to reduce training.

"If we, as an industry, tackle the funding issue, I think we will be seeing more Theebs," said David. "Whether it wins or not, we are already very proud of what it has already achieved."

Jacir and local resident Hassan Mutlaq al-Maraiyeh, who plays the film's villain, will be attending Sunday's ceremony, along with the director, producers and cinematographer.

Jacir will be wearing a traditional Bedouin robe on the red carpet, albeit one made by a Jordanian fashion designer, said Ghandour.

"We want the star to get all the attention," said Ghandour. "Because he deserves it."

See the trailer for Theeb here