Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Wolf Cub In the Desert


Theeb (2014, directed by Naji Abu Nowar) finds its title character, a young Bedouin growing up in 1916, roped into a grand adventure. For its first half, Theeb plays like an answer to Lawrence of Arabia. It views its Lawrence figure from the point of view of the Arabs. It's not necessarily a flattering picture--this film's British officer is vaguely dismissive of his hosts and brittle and bossy--but it's not necessarily critical, either. This narrative strategy proves to be a feint. It's not really what the film is about. Half-way through the film, there's a turn of the plot that transforms the film into something completely different. The film remains a coming of age story, but it's a coming of age story set in a crucible of violence and revenge. It becomes more of an Arab translation of the Western than a David Lean-ish epic. In both halves of the film, its politics remain personal.

The story follows Theeb, whose name means "wolf," and his brother, Hussein, both the sons of a Bedouin sheikh. When we meet them, Hussein is teaching his little brother the ins and outs of Bedouin masculinity. He teaches him to hunt, to shoot, how to find water, etc. Their father has died, and soon, Hussein must take on the mantle of sheikh. Into their camp comes a British officer and his guide. By custom, Bedouins must never refuse hospitality to a guest, and when the officer requests a guide to take them to the next well on their mission, Hussein is nominated. Theeb tags along, much to the consternation of both Hussein and the British officer. The territory is occupied by Ottoman patrols and bandits, neither of which would view the officer kindly. When they find that the first well has been poisoned by the rotting corpses of the officer's allies, they're obliged to move through even more dangerous territory. They urge Theeb to return home, but he persists in tagging along, hanging from the back of his brother's camel. At the next well, they encounter catastrophe, and Theeb learns the price of his obstinacy as he falls into the hands of his enemy. By happenstance, both Theeb and his enemy need each other to survive...


Theeb is a film that's in touch with genre, and like many great genre films, it's ultimately about regeneration through violence. It is not an ethnographic film, although it includes ethnographic detail as part of its visual and cultural texture. It casts non-professional actors from one of the last remaining Bedouin tribes of southern Jordan in its principle roles, after all, and is set in their territory among the hills and deserts near Petra. For all that, it might as well be set in the Monument Valley. It uses its landscape in similar fashion to a classical Western, casting its bandits as a mysterious "other", whether Indian or bandito. Many of its scenes are more symbolic than naturalistic, then. The British officer and his guide come to Theeb's tribe out of the darkness, under cover of the night, like some harbinger of doom, while the corpses in the first well are a grotesque foreshadowing of the violence that will come at the second well. The filmmakers deploy these elements with a keen cinematic intelligence, and the film is stylish and attractive even when it is most grotesque.

Theeb sets a hell of a narrative hook. Once the concerns of the film narrow to Theeb and his relationship with The Stranger, a bitter enemy, it sheds most of its historical or political baggage (for good or for ill). Its scope becomes purely concerned with the survival of this one little boy, in company with a man who would kill him at the slightest provocation. This part of the film is more suspense film than action film. We've already seen the action film, which tends to place the conflict of its last act under an all-pervading threat of violence. We don't see the climax of the British officer's mission, for instance, but we see the aftermath of bodies scattered across the landscape. There's an elision in this part of the movie that the culture and the identity of the Bedouins is under threat by the encroachment of the modern world. It is the railroad that has turned The Stranger into a bandit. It is the clash of nation states and empires that will determine the world in which the Bedouins will live in the 20th century. This film is a crucible not just for one little boy's coming of age. Just off-stage is a coming of age for an entire region of the Earth.


That action sequence mid-film is a doozy, by the way, a shoot out in a classical mode. No shakey-cam here. It's followed by a terrifying trip into the underworld for our young hero as he falls into a well, perhaps fortunately given his circumstances. This part of the film breaks from the meditative, almost languid pace of the first act. The third act, after its primary conflict has been set, returns to that pace, but after Theeb emerges from the well, that pace is less meditative and more charged with menace. The desert seems more desolate, the sounds of the world more alarming. When, at the end of the film, Theeb emerges from his situation, he is no longer a child.

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