Award-winning first time director Naji Abu Nowar talks making his debut, blending the Western genre with Bedouin storytelling and surviving flash floods, sandstorms and ‘creepy-crawlies’.
Mixing genres in film is a common trend in Hollywood. Romances crossed with crime pictures, or sci-fi flicks peppered with dashes of horror have entertained cinemagoers over the decades; classics such as Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) are impeccable examples of movie fusion that many have tried, and often failed, to emulate. But, in Arab film, genre lines are typically far more rigidly defined. That is, until now. British-born Jordanian filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar’s first major feature cleverly combines the established trope of a coming-of-age drama with a Western. Set in 1916, in the Ottoman Empire, Theeb tells the story of a young boy and how his community is affected by the start of The First World War. The film took almost two years to complete and is shot in Jordan’s Wadi Rum. We sat down with the fledgling director and asked him how he managed mixing the Western with the Eastern.
You co-wrote Theeb with Bassel Ghandour. How did the story come about?
The idea came about because I wanted to make a Bedouin Western. I always thought about Bedouin life and stories that offer up rich material for drama and constitute a distinctive landscape for filmmaking. This idea went well with Western and Eastern cinema, [in a similar way to] Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, who mastered the art of presenting films inspired by Westerns, and John Ford’s filmmaking style in particular. Then Bassel Ghandour showed me his short film script about two Bedouin brothers on a hunting trip that goes badly wrong. The intimate nature of this character drama was a revelation to me and we set to work on developing it as a full-length feature.
Why did you want to mix these two distinct styles?
I felt they complemented each other in a way that provided for exciting and dramatic storytelling. It’s the exploration of a new world, new characters, new story, but also has an anchor that an audience is familiar with and can grasp hold of. And by the end of the process [I think] they are not actually two separate things, but one whole – something new.
How closely did you work with local Bedouins when you made the film?
From the start we knew that we couldn’t make the film under normal circumstances, as some of the pressures of production might clash with the Bedouin way of life. We accepted this and engineered our working methods to complement their culture rather than work against it. All our crew members were taught the most important laws and etiquette of Bedouin life and, to their credit, they never faltered. This was extremely important for me as I wanted to make sure that everyone got along and that we left their world as we found it.
I wanted our friendship to last after the production wrapped, and I am happy to say that it has.
How did you cast the film?
I wanted authentic actors who knew Bedouin culture and closely resembled our characters. It was important they spoke the Bedouin dialect in the Bedouin accent. Jordan doesn’t have a film industry, let alone a tradition of film acting. We believed the best way to gain that kind of realism was to develop the locals into actors. So, in early 2012, we invited people from the villages surrounding Wadi Rum to an open casting call. We interviewed about 250 people. With the exception of Jack Fox (Edward), the entire cast were non-professional actors.
Theeb was already making a name for itself when you won the Variety Arab Filmmaker of the Year award. How do awards like that help?
Arab filmmaking lacks a genius distributor who can take the film across the Arab world. So festivals and awards fill the gap by initially introducing the movie to its audience. Before I won Variety’s award, I won the Best Director award in the Orizzonti (New Horizons) Competition at Venice Film Festival for Theeb. This win helped us gain the attention of critics and audiences alike.
What kind of reception has Theeb had in Bedouin communities?
We held a premiere for Bedouin tribes at Wadi Rum. It was their first time watching a film and attending a screening. It was a complex experience for them because the movie highlights their environment. They were part of it, and what really caught their attention was the genuine illustration of their customs and traditions.
How was shooting in the desert?
It was very tough, from a logistical standpoint. We had sandstorms, flash floods and plenty of creepy-crawlies. Many of us got stuck in the sand or lost, but we were always saved by the Bedouins, who were wonderful.
What was the biggest lesson you learned making the film?
I learned how little I know about making movies. I have a lot to learn, but I look forward to new challenges ahead. I think the artist who thinks he knows everything is dead.
What are you working on next?
I hope to make a sequel, or at least a new film dealing with the next period of Bedouin history – the 1920s.
Theeb is out now in cinemas across Dubai.