‘Brotherhood is more important than your railway.’
A beautifully filmed coming of age story about a desert journey undertaken by its central character, Theeb makes for a thoroughly engaging experience. The plot is integrated seamlessly with events and encounters not just between protagonists but also with the desert environment.
A hundred years ago in the Ottoman area of Hiza, Bedouin boy Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat) wants to grow up and learn how to become a responsible man within his tribe. His brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen) teaches him the principles – from fetching water from the well for the family and, importantly, their camels, to aiming a rifle and using a knife. One evening two strangers approach the the tribe’s camp. They are Marji (Marji Audeh) who is accompanying English officer Edward (Jack Fox) and they need assistance to guide them across the hazardous desert to their planned destination. Hussein is given the task of accompanying the two on the journey using his skills and knowledge of the region. But Theeb wants to join the expedition across the desert, so follows the three and catches up with them, eventually riding on the back of his brother’s camel when his trusty mule is no longer up to the journey. Theeb is fascinated by the foreign employer, his cigarettes, his unusual gun and, particularly, a secret wooden box that he is fiercely strict about protecting. The party and their camels need sustenance in order to survive in the desert. Any people encountered on the journey could bode for good or ill; they could be raiders and bandits, rebels or simply pilgrims on their journey to Mecca. There is another prospect that has been perceived in rumours that Theeb’s tribe are aware of: that of the ‘Iron Horse’, the recently completed railway which can significantly reduce journey time across the desert, but at what cost and for what gain to the Englishman? Theeb’s situation changes from an exciting adventure to a fight for survival when a gang of bandits attack the group, killing all but the boy. He faces a dire situation where the only possible aid that arrives could have been responsible for the death of his brother.
Theeb is a period piece primarily about the coming of age of its titular character and filmed in a way that is naturalistic despite the shock incidents and encounters, mixed motivations and revelations that occur as the narrative progresses. Survival depends on the availability of safe water and the importance of using wells is a consistent theme throughout the film, from Theeb providing water for the camels at the start and the party’s need to find water throughout the journey. Edward finds blood and corpses in one well, realising that his comrades’ slaughtered bodies are decomposing inside its depths and later Theeb, trying to prevent execution from bandits, hides inside a well.
The contrast between day and night is essential for the cinematography to reflect the setting of this film – the naturalistic lighting increases the sense of place beyond the sumptuous natural backdrop that is intrinsic in this widescreen depiction of the vast and inhospitable desert. Also of note is the use of soundtrack in the environment and background, enhancing the sense of time and motivation. Composed using traditional instruments, the use of songs is a significant addition to the score and helps the characters retain their sense of humour whatever the diversity of their situation – ‘Where can you find shelter in a foreign land?’ is sung in a reflexive manner. Similarly, but from a slightly a different perspective, the means by which Theeb acknowledges his tribe and background is important to the story, a tribute to his ancestors etched out in a triangular symbol which become a recurrent motif throughout the film.
Naji Abu Nowar has created a period desert adventure that is as engaging in its implementation as its narrative, focussing on its central character and his personal dilemmas. What is manhood to a growing boy in a conflict environment where ‘the strong eat the weak?’