The first thing you notice about Naji Abu Nowar is his plummy British accent. In fact, he was educated in London, and picked up the coveted BAFTA Sunday night for outstanding debut by a British director for "Theeb," which won the director's first prize at the 2014 Venice Horizons section, and eventually landed the Jordanian Oscar entry an Oscar nomination.
Because "Theeb" is set among nomadic desert Arabs during the same troubled period as "Lawrence of Arabia," it's easy to cite the influence of David Lean, but while Nowar admires the director, "he was not an influence on this film," except as to how not to shoot day for night scenes. "Lean shot on sand, which reflects light with a blue twinge that I didn't like," Nowar told me on the phone. "We discovered that with black basalt volcanic rock in the desert, you don’t get the reflection in the day for night scenes. That's the only time we looked at 'Lawrence of Arabia.'"
The World War I period in the Arabian peninsula was "hugely important historically," said Nowar. "It was the end of the 400-year empire and a beginning as new borders were being set. We're still feeling those changes. That's why I set it at that time." The movie captures a tension, a sense of unease that Nowar wanted to portray. "It's in the zeitgeist," he said. "It's very unsettling for me as an artist, because the time is aways bloody unsettling in the Middle East—I’m not going to claim I knew the Arab spring was coming, we didn't, but it was in the air."
Set in the Ottoman province of Hijaz, the movie tracks young Bedouin boy Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat) and his older brother (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen) when they are thrown into a dangerous desert journey to guide a mysterious British officer on a secret mission.
Raised in a military family to studying war in school, Nowar took an unconventional route to being a filmmaker, from being a script editor on one short to directing "Death of a Boxer" and now his first feature. "I just learned through making mistakes really," he said. "My short films of 25 minutes ended up at 8 minutes because I lost half the sound. I haven’t had any training. I'd always loved cinema, but I never thought it was something it would ever be possible in my life to do."
Nowar grew up with friend Rupert Lloyd, who was leaving university to pursue film. So Nowar followed him, waiting on tables and doing manual labor while he wrote at night and tried to break into the film industry. Finally, he got accepted by the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in the Middle East.
"That changed everything for me," Nowar said. "I had an amazing mentor, Zack Sklar, who wrote "JFK," and a Lebanese director from West Beirut taught me a lot. Then I started out properly trying to develop my craft as a writer and make short films." The workshop helped him to develop the authentic Bedouin dialogue, collecting sayings, poetry, songs, and vocal melodies he used on the soundtrack.
Nowar developed the story after spending time with the nomadic tribe: "I quickly realized that oral storytelling is folkloric, as old as time. I wanted to feel folklore and fairytale at the center of a coming of age story. In Bedouin culture when you are circumsised at age 13 you become a man, legitimately—and are held accountable as an adult. We centered the story on a challenge around a well. The disaster of the first World War, which brought the iron railways, was a massively interesting period to set an existential crisis of the character and the region, when things were happening on multiple levels."
The movie is elegantly crisp, shot on super 16 anamorphic film with Hawk lenses by cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, who shot most of Urich Seidl’s films. "He has vast experience on difficult terrain, often shooting non-actors and documentary subjects," said Nowar. "We had no grip or lighting equipment, because we can’t transport it in the desert. He'd do wonderful things with a twilight scene, he'd recreate a Caravaggio painting with chiaroscuro lighting."
Casting non-pros was a challenge. All the actors came from the local Bedouin community south of Jordan, where the last nomadic tribe settled; "that nomadic way of life is extinct in Jordan," said Nowar. "We moved in and lived with them for a year. We didn't have any money. I was writing the script, living with the Bedouin as we raised money and tried to do a mood board for the trailer to show this thing we wanted to do."
Nowar asked a local Bedouin producer to find a 12-year-old boy to play Theeb. "The lazy guy sent his son along," said Nowar. "I was
upset: 'I know him, he's very shy, he never talks.' I thought it was a disaster, put him on camera, he was amazing." The rest of the cast took a long time; they were all non-actors from the tribe that Nowar watched in workshops, including the Al-Hweitat's real-life cousin Hussein. "Their relationship was so natural, I just thought, 'repeat that on camera.' I got what I need, it was all about making them comfortable on camera, naturally."
During filming the crew (experienced from working in Abu Dabi on such films as "Star Wars: The Force Awakens") was living in tents, without a lot of money. "I had to make sure the crew morale was high," Nowar said. "We were bringing in running water in tankers, and sometimes we'd run out after a long day—you can’t have a shower. I hand-picked the crew for the kind of people who are strong and tough and could handle it. It was a wonderful experience with a tight-knit crew of like-minded people helping each other out. If the production design team had a problem developing the set, the camera operator and costume assistant would help them to prepare, that was important to survive the film. We had a flash flood and the well set had to be evacuated; the set was destroyed in minutes, it was very dangerous. We always listened to the the Bedouin: "'it’s going to rain, get out of here immediately.'"
Nowar brought the Bedouin cast into Venice —obtaining their first passports for their first plane flights—for the world premiere under the stars and their first cinematic experience. "It was magical," said Nowar. "Venice is the opposite of the desert. It's on water. We got a ten-minute standing ovation." The movie is the longest-running film in Arab history as the Oscar nominee is being released a second time across the Middle East. "It's like we won the World Cup."