Theeb director Naji Abu Nowar plans desert return for follow-up film
Award-winning Jordanian desert drama Theeb has enjoyed undreamt-of success since I last spoke to its director, British-Jordanian filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar, at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in October 2014.
And the good news for those who were captivated by the incredibly atmospheric film – a coming-of-age tale about a young Bedouin boy battling to survive a trek across the Wadi Rum desert during the First World War – is that he is working on a follow-up.
Two years ago, Nowar was a fledgling writer-director who seemed happy simply to see his debut feature film, Theeb, screen at international festivals (it had its world premiere in September 2014 at the Venice International Film Festival).
Since then, it has become the first Jordanian film to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, at this year’s Academy Awards, while Nowar and producer Rupert Lloyd won the Bafta this year for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer.
Perhaps more importantly, the film has enjoyed a successful, critically acclaimed run of screenings at cinemas around the world.
Nowar had previously hinted that he had some ideas for a follow-up and now he has revealed that work has started on “Theeb 2”.
“Theeb has been more successful than I can imagine,” he says. “We’ve just finished the research on the new film. I mean, a lot of research. There will be a separate book published, just on the research. I’m going to write it, and hopefully I’ll get the investment.
“It’s set roughly 10 years after Theeb, and it’s basically my homage to the Seven Samurai. It’s about a historical event – and it could even be a Theeb 2. If Theeb was the poem of the father, this could be the poem of the mother. And a lot of people are going to die in it.”
A sequel sounds like a tantalising prospect, marking the culmination of an exciting two years.
“It’s been an incredible ride,” says Nowar. “When we picked up the Oscar nomination we suddenly picked up all these territories that wanted to screen the film that we never thought we would get. France, Greece, Columbia – it’s just been growing for two years.
“I’ve spent most of it just going to festivals and hustling my film. And suddenly you’re in Oslo and someone buys your film. I can’t really explain it, but it’s kind of been like that.”
To those outside the film industry, it might seem like an Oscar-nominated film such as Theeb would sell itself, thanks to its profile boost. Nowar says this is not the case at the low-budget end of the filmmaking scale and he is still expected to do much of the promotion and selling.
“A lot of those Oscar films, even the foreign-language films, have big studio support,” he says. “They’re putting in a lot of money, which is important.
“When you’re part of that first batch of 81 films on the longlist, just to get people to watch the film is really tough. So if you don’t have that kind of money behind you, you just have to go out and push your film.
“I was probably in America four or five times in the run-up to the votes, but it’s what you have to do. If you can’t pay for an ad in the paper, just go and do a question-and-answer session – so that’s what I did.”
Nowar seems remarkably unfazed by his Oscar-nominated status.
“When you talked to me at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, did you think I’d be Oscar-nominated?” he asks. “I was just pleased to be there – and that kept going. I think I’ve been to about 60 festivals now, and there’s never been one where I could say the crowd didn’t like the film.
“There was a riot in Cairo because the cinema sold out and the crowd were trying to break down the door.
“They’re doing Theeb tours in Jordan now. Tourists are coming and asking for tours. I don’t know what to say.”
It’s not only Jordan’s tourism industry that has benefited from Theeb’s success. The film’s young star, Jacir Eid Al Hwietat, who was just seven years old when the film was made – and like most of the cast was a local Bedouin with no acting experience – has received a scholarship from the Jordanian government to study “anywhere in the world”. A career in acting, however, may not be his first choice.
“Education is most important,” says Nowar. “He’s already done acting. The whole group [of actors] have played a couple of other roles. They’re now doing a documentary about the Arab Revolt.
“A lot of the Bedouin crew worked on [director Ridley Scott’s Hollywood movie] The Martian – they’re working a lot. A lot flew over to Abu Dhabi to work on Star Wars. You’ve probably noticed that a number of UAE films have been shooting in Jordan [including Majid Al Ansari’s Zinzana, and the upcoming The Worthy].
“We were funded by Sanad [Abu Dhabi’s development and post-production fund] – that gave us legitimacy. I think there’s a lot of cross-referencing at the moment. Sanad helped us all the way through to the Oscar campaign, just ringing people up, going: ‘Come on guys, watch this film.’”
Nowar hopes that the Oscar nomination is only the start of his filmmaking adventure.
“I suppose I’m about to find out about this,” he says. “I don’t think it’s changed my life but the difference is that now when I knock on a door, it might get opened. That doesn’t mean anything will work, or I’ll get given funding, but at least the door will open. I’ve been in every major studio, with every major studio executive in Hollywood and England. If I fail, I fail. At least the door was open.”
Updated: April 25, 2016 04:00 AM