Echoes of Rudyard Kipling adventure yarns and Hollywood’s more pessimistic classic Westerns permeate Theeb, the directorial debut of Jordan-based filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar, whose film was also shot in that region and features non-professional actors from one of Jordan’s last nomadic Bedouin tribes to settle down.
It’s 1916, and in the Hejaz Province of the Ottoman Empire, Theeb (Jacir Eid), a recently orphaned young Bedouin boy, is learning survival skills from his elder brother, Hussein (Hussein Salameh). Their location means they remain ignorant of the various upheavals taking place in the world at the time, the plotting of British officer T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Prince Faisal to establish an Arab kingdom among them. It is only when a Bedouin guide (Marji Audeh) and a mysterious British officer (Jack Fox) wander into their tribe’s camp one night that the fringes of the outside world come crashing in.
There is a Bedouin custom that states that guests cannot be refused aid. As such, Hussein is assigned to accompany the two strangers to their destination; Theeb is not invited, but tags along anyway. After a certain point, the uppity officer is keen to ditch the two boys, with hints that his presence there is to initiate train line destruction in the region. Things don’t go according to his plan there, and then events take a particularly catastrophic turn for all involved.
It is at this pivotal point, roughly 40 minutes in, that Theeb becomes a remarkably different beast to what has come before, and considerably more unpredictable. The exact nature and catalyst for the narrative upheaval are best left unspoiled, though the meaning of Theeb’s name (‘wolf’) might give some clues as to what situation the lead might find himself in; the film gets much mileage of that potent idea of how to survive in the company of your enemy.
A coming-of-age tale framed within an Arab Western, while also offering a very different perspective on the era of Lawrence, Theeb is a simple but very effective adventure. It is a grand mission statement from its first time director, while his first-time stars (excluding established actor Fox) show great promise, particularly Jacir Eid as Theeb, who embues the character with more subtle nuances than many established child stars bring. Eid and Salameh prevent the show being stolen by the genuinely stunning scenery, beautifully captured by cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, a regular collaborator of director Ulrich Seidl. It’s a strong balancing act for a film where there is richness in both character and the historical implications of each setting its players visit.
— Josh Slater-Williams