One of the inevitabilities surrounding the Jordanian film Theeb are its comparisons to David Lean’s formative 1961 epic, Lawrence of Arabia. This is a mostly sound comparison, both films feature Ottoman railways, Bedouin desert guides, a blonde English officer and tribal conflicts in the First World War’s Middle Eastern theatre. The resounding similarities aside, Theeb is actually a remarkably different film, indifferent to David Lean’s western romanticism and outsider perspective. Theeb instead opts for the perspective a young boy, whose weaning outlook on the surrounding environment isn’t affected by prejudice or pessimism but rather an innocent, developing curiosity.
Theeb is not what you would call a traditional anti-war film; it’s not persuasive or overtly political, that’s primarily because the film is told through the perspective of a child. Theeb, the title character, is a spectator in this movie. His world is defined by a thirst for knowledge, stemming from his isolated and modest Bedouin homestead. Because of this, the film is deceptively simple. The plot wanders and observes without making any informed judgement, but its emphasis on a child’s curiosity is what makes the film introspective. It’s more nuanced in its perception of history and absolutely compelling in its dramatic composition.
Theeb’s director, Naji Abu Nowar, has cited classic John Ford westerns as well as Akira Kurosawa as his primary influences. This is an apt comparison, considerably more than David Lean, as both Ford and Kurosawa reflect cultural histories in a similarly engaging fashion. Appropriately, Nowar’s action-western elements are muted to preserve a more atmospheric quality, to maybe pay homage to the beauty but also the unpredictability of the Bedouin landscape and, more unnervingly, the unpredictable people residing within it.
The film’s initial premise is ultimately sold by its mystery. It follows Theeb as he, his older brother and another Bedouin pilgrim lead a British officer to an ancient Roman well, acting as a specific rendezvous point with an unknown party. What begins to shape the narrative are not big dramatic reveals or plot twists, but a much more pronounced contextualization of history through character drama. Theeb doesn’t care too much about the primary conflict, it certainly doesn’t go out of its way to understand the geopolitical implications involved or the what they might mean for the world stage.
The character Theeb, a child with no such predilection toward politics, no concept of warfare, is essentially thrust into a world where savage behaviour not only exists, but is required to survive. This is proven at the film’s conclusion, a gritty and powerful revelation, where justice is not defined by morality, but by matching one’s savagery with your own (“the strong eat the weak”). The emphasis of a young protagonist in Theeb’s narrative is both nuanced and striking. The film speaks to our inner-child, one both confused and in fear of the world’s violence. But with little to distinguish between right and wrong, the eyes of a child become the most powerful subjective device, not-yet-polluted by ideological conditioning.
Naji Abu Nowar’s Theeb is a debut feature, which is startling. It certainly doesn’t resemble one. It’s a film loaded with period detail, interpreted through subtle hints that only barely register on a first watch. But it’s also war film that makes no presumptions on morality, but from the eye-level view of a child, seeks to interpret them. Theeb is a brilliant historical drama, thoughtful in its interpretation of history, utterly captivating in its qualities as a fictional narrative. Theeb has the appeal of classic Hollywood cinema, a thrilling and moody (Bedouin) western that sets asides America’s manifest destiny for Middle Eastern globalization.