There's no clearer sign of film's capacity for bridging cultural divides than the steady stream of Arabic language movies that have found receptive audiences in the West over the last several years. The latest work to fit that description is THEEB, the first feature directed by British-born Jordanian filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar and a film that has been widely and reasonably described as the first Arabic Western.
The winner of 10 major awards at film festivals across the globe, THEEB has been "short-listed" for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, which means it is one of nine films from which the year's five nominees in that category will be selected. (Oscar nominations will be announced Jan. 14.) An Oscar nomination would not be a stretch for THEEB, as it draws directly on both Sergio Leone's beloved spaghetti Westerns (such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and Sir David Lean's Best Picture winner Lawrence of Arabia — all while remaining true to the cultural specifics of its subject, the semi-nomadic Bedouins of the Arabian Desert during the 1916 Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, which was part of World War I.
Despite the specific sociopolitical context, THEEB is not concerned with the particulars of the Arab Revolt's conflicts and allegiances. Essentially apolitical, the film focuses on the struggles of a young boy named Theeb ("wolf" in Arabic) as he struggles to survive one of the world's harshest environments — the vast desert in what is now western Saudi Arabia. In the film, bandits and mercenaries make the area more treacherous.
As the story begins, a British army officer and his Arab guide appear at a remote Bedouin community and ask for an escort to a distant well along a perilous and little-used pilgrims' trail. Bedouin culture requires the accommodation of visitors' needs, even when they cause great danger and hardship, which is what happens to Theeb and his older brother Hussein. In simpler times, this custom helps ensure mutual survival in harsh desert surroundings.
To prepare for THEEB, director Nowar and co-writer Bassel Ghandour spent a year living with the last remaining nomadic Bedouin tribe in the Jordanian desert. With the exception of British actor Jack Fox as the army officer, the entire cast consists of nonprofessional Bedouin actors from the tribe — most of whom had never seen a film or had a concept of acting before Nowar's arrival. Nowar made collaborators of the Bedouins, resulting in an organic film that depicts Bedouin culture with grace and authenticity.
THEEB adopts a time and place familiar from Lawrence of Arabia and echoes that film's emphasis on the stark beauty of the setting. Shot in Jordan's Wadi Rum desert with a minimal budget on 16 mm film, THEEB is a far grittier film than Lawrence of Arabia. The elegance and simplicity of THEEB's story recalls the Hollywood Western (with camels filling in for horses) while the minimalist screenplay and moral ambiguity of its conflicts evoke Leone. But THEEB generates a cinematic world all its own.
Nowar's emphasis on cultural immersion (and the methods he used to achieve that), a story told from a child's perspective and a remarkable central performance by a charismatic, pint-sized first-time actor (Jacir Eid) also recall Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild. There's no faster way to dissolve cultural barriers than through the relatable presence of a child.