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    Theeb (2015): Movie Review

    "A silently impressive story of a young boy's survival."

    A young Bedouin boy plays the deadly game of survival and betrayal in Theeb, the debut feature of British-born, Jordan-based filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar. Set in 1916 western Arabian desert, this coming-of-age film parallels a boy’s adventure to its part-historical and part socio-political backdrop.

    Theeb (Jacir Eid), meaning “wolf” in Arabic, is the third and youngest son of a recently deceased sheik. He is raised by his adult brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh) who is second in line. Coming from a family of pilgrim guides, the brothers live a traditional Bedouin life. Their innate cultural values are tested when desert guide Marji (Marji Audeh) and English soldier Edward (Jack Fox) appear out of the inky desert night to the tribe’s encampment. The duo asks them to be accompanied to a Roman-era well which has been abandoned since the establishment of a nearby Ottoman train track. The rules of Bedouin hospitality leave the family no other option but to send Hussein as their guide.

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    However, Theeb secretly trails behind the trio and soon they are forced to take him along the journey when they discover him. The desert soon becomes perilous for the small caravan as the terrain which once frequented by pilgrims is now inhabited by marauders, mercenaries and insurgents. Suddenly, riders in black appear on the horizon, ambushing them, killing Marji and Edward, and forcing the brothers to seek refuge on higher ground. The shooting ensues the following day and Hussein is also killed. Young Theeb is left alone to survive and his fate is further challenged when one of the enemy shooters (Hassan Mutlag), apparently seriously injured, shows up with a promise of helping him.

    Almost faithful to the point of view of the title character, Theeb keeps a very small and tight cast. The boy is almost always in every frame and audience is given the impression of perceiving the situations in his shoes. His interactions with the handful of characters are vivid and elaborate. While Theeb is consistently warm-hearted, witty and playful, his relationships with other people vary. With Hussein, there is a certain air of brotherly protectiveness, while towards Edward, there is distant curiosity. For the black Samaritan, he is cold and cautious.

    The film is an honest realism, gracefully portraying its survival theme with both individual and historical context. Superficially, it is Theeb’s personal battle to survive. After witnessing his brother shot and killed, the protag must then brave the merciless desert and its hidden perils. He is trained in the ways of the nomads and his knowledge is practically put to the test. His family’s and clan’s honor is also in the line here. An unwelcome help comes from someone who belongs to the group that shot his brother. This is another survival game for Theeb as he balances his suspicions and desire to live. As the lead is a young boy, there is such an innocence and purity in his ways that matters of honor and revenge is cleverly clouded with uncertainty.

    The film is set during the period known as Arab Revolt. While the Arabs seek independence from the Ottoman Turks, the Bedouin culture also faces radical shifts. With the construction of railways that go all the way to Mecca (appropriately nicknamed as the Iron Donkey Trail), it would eliminate the need for pilgrim guides like Hussein and the tribe. Thus, it has become a survival for the way of life of the Bedouins, that the future of traditional nomadic lifestyle is coming to an end, and young Theeb is a witness to these changes.
    Shot entirely in Jordan, the movie beautifully captures the wide-open desert. It breadth is imposing and its aridity is overwhelming. Textures and patterns are striking, from the lonely expanse of endless sands to the vertigo-inducing canyons and grooves. But more than the physicality of the location, it is the way it is framed to stir emotions and intensify the struggles that make the film truly commendable. Plus, the musical scores perfectly synchronize the tones and moods of the moments.

    Newcomer Eid is brilliant as Theeb as he genuinely delivers the bravery, self-absorption and sly of a boy forced into unforgiving conditions. His rapport with Salameh as Hussein is also warm and winning.

    Theeb is a slow-burning story of survival. It is a thorough study of a little savage driven to summon his natural instincts to endure silent perils. With its humbly yet impressive cinematography and music, it is an awe-inspiring movie, Jordan’s worthy entry for the Best Foreign Language film at the 88th Academy Awards.

    Production companies: Bayt Al Shawareb, Immortal Entertainment, Noor Pictures
    Cast: Jacir Eid, Hassan Mutlag, Hussein Salameh, Marji Audeh, Jack Fox
    Director: Naji Abu Nowar
    Screenplay: Naji Abu Nowar, Bassel Ghandour
    Producers: Bassel Ghandour, Rupert Lloyd
    Executive producer: Nadine Toukan
    Co-producers: Nasser Kalaji, Laith Majali
    Director of photography: Wolfgang Thaler
    Production designer: Anna Lavelle
    Costume designer: Jamila Aladdin
    Editor: Rupert Lloyd
    Music: Jerry Lane


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