As World War I rages to the west, a young Bedouin boy becomes embroiled in a plot to destroy the Iron Donkey, a newly completed railroad to Mecca that has rendered his tribe’s livelihood as pilgrim guides all but obsolete, instead acting as something of a boon to the budding rebellion, leaving the recently deserted Hejaz desert in the hands of renegades.
Theeb (Jacir Eid), alongside duty-bound older brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh), naively escort a British soldier (Jack Fox) to a nearby well, only to be ambushed by Ottoman bandits when they stop to drink. Separated from his convoy by circumstance, and stranded in an isolated canyon without a camel to carry him home, Theeb joins forces with an injured mercenary (Hassan Mutlag) as each tries to find a way out.
The film has very little interest in Western concerns, even if Theeb himself does seem preoccupied at times with the visiting Brit’s unusual belongings, instead choosing to focus on the guides’ own reasons for undertaking such a potentially perilous journey: this is a story about family, honour and Bedouin culture, each of which hangs in the balance as the winds of change begin to blow through.
The often quoted dichotomy between Western individualism and Eastern collectivism was obviously as problematic in 1916 as it is today, but it’s still refreshing to walk into the wilderness with someone other than a self-important narcissist or a money-grabbing gunslinger.
Instead, Theeb provides a child’s eye view of a complex and largely uncontextualised conflict that is a threat to much more than even his own survival, let alone his self-interest. As such, British screenwriter Nowar’s directorial debut is more than just a travelogue or Middle Eastern; it’s also a truncated coming-of-age story, a historical drama and a high-stakes thriller.
Look beyond the sandy setting and the film that Theeb most closely resembles is perhaps Apocalypto, featuring as it does a civilisation on the brink of ruin and a young man forced to do everything in his power to protect himself and his family.
Newcomers Eid and Salameh — real-life Bedouins, and cousins — are both exceptional, affording their characters and customs an authenticity that sells their relationship from the very get go. The cast might be comprised primarily of non-professional actors (though you might recognise Fox from TV) but the film feels remarkably poised and practiced regardless; the score is rousing without being intrusive, the camerawork is sweeping without ever letting the spectacular scenery overshadow the intimate drama, and the script is understated without leaving anyone unschooled in the finer aspects of Arabian history scratching their head.
It’s almost impossible to overstate just how impressive or impacting Theeb is — even the opening titles are evocative — and it’s really no wonder that Nowar walked away with the Best Director prize at Venice Film Festival. Eligible also for Glasgow’s inaugural Audience Award at GFF 2015, his film would once again make a very worthy winner.
Theeb is everything you could possibly want from a film, from stand-out central performances to heart-stopping set-pieces and thought-provoking themes. Sometimes it’s not about the destination or the journey; for some it’s just a matter of surviving another day, another night, another generation.
Theeb is out in cinemas now