Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 September 2019

Theeb film could make Academy Awards history for Jordan

The acclaimed Bedouin coming-of-age drama, which was backed by Abu Dhabi’s Sanad fund, could become the first Jordanian movie nominated for Oscar.
Jacir Eid Al Hwietat, right, and his cousin, Hussein Salameh Al Sweilhiyeen, who starred in Theeb. They have now have returned to their lives in the Jordanian desert but would like to continue acting. Raad Adayleh / AP Photo
Jacir Eid Al Hwietat, right, and his cousin, Hussein Salameh Al Sweilhiyeen, who starred in Theeb. They have now have returned to their lives in the Jordanian desert but would like to continue acting. Raad Adayleh / AP Photo

The makers and stars of Theeb, the coming-of-age drama set among Bedouin tribesmen roaming the desert, will find out tomorrow whether their film has become the first produced by Jordan’s fledgling film industry to be nominated for an Oscar.

Set in 1916, the film – which received funding from Sanad, the development and post-production fund of Abu Dhabi’s twofour54 – tells the story of playful 11-year-old Bedouin boy Theeb (which translates as Wolf), who finds himself in danger as a result of his tribe’s alliance with the British against Ottoman rulers during the Arab Revolt.

Billed as a “Bedouin Western” and an authentic portrayal of Bedouin culture, Theeb is one of nine movies shortlisted for the best foreign language film Academy Award. The final five will be announced tomorrow.

For the amateur cast, selected from a Bedouin clan, and the two young Jordanians who were writing and directing their first feature film, making Theeb has already been a wild ride with incredible high points.

The first was the world premiere of the film at the Venice Film Festival in 2014. The cast was there to enjoy the moment, which was the first time they had left Jordan or seen the film.

“They got a 10-minute standing ovation,” says director Naji Abu Nowar, who won the best director award in the Orrizonti (Horizons) category in Venice.

“The Bedouins, it’s a very macho culture, and you never see anyone cry, even the children ... and to see tears coming out of some of their eyes [at the premiere] was a really powerful moment,” he said at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, a final pre-Oscar chance to promote foreign films.

The film screened at many international festivals – including the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2014, where it won two awards: best film from the Arab World and the FIPRESCI Prize for best narrative feature. Abu Nowar was also named Variety’s Arab Filmmaker of the Year.

The film has been released commercially around the world.

The actors have since resumed their lives in Al Shakriyeh, a small Bedouin village near Wadi Rum, a protected desert landscape north of the Red Sea and one of Jordan’s main tourist attractions.

Jacir Eid Al Hwietat, who played Theeb, is now 15, in 10th grade and has changed his career plan from police officer to actor.

“I’m a celebrity among my friends now,” says Al Hwietat.

His cousin, Hussein SalamehAl Sweilhiyeen, who played Theeb’s brother Hussein, is back to racing camels and working as a tourist guide. He has also appeared in a German TV documentary about Wadi Rum and a Jordanian tourism commercial, and says he would like to do more acting.

He said being involved in Theeb made him aware of the need to protect traditions. Bedouin lifestyles in the area have changed dramatically, with people who were once nomads settling down, trading their camels for vehicles and earning a living from tourists instead of goat herds.

“Sometimes I say the old life was better,” says Al Sweilhiyeen. “The desert teaches you how to depend on yourself. Now we have good services, but we need to protect some old customs.”

Jacir’s father, Eid, 42, remembers the old ways – he was born in a tent and as a boy rode camels over long distances as his family wandered the desert before settling down about 30 years ago. He dropped out of school at the age of 15, taught himself English, began guiding tourists and recently sold the last of the camels.

He became the main local contact for the filmmakers, Abu Nowar and Bassel Ghandour, who produced the film and co-wrote the script.

The pair lived in Al Shakriyeh for most of 2012, soaking up Bedouin culture, rewriting the script and holding acting workshops for the cast.

Half a century before Theeb, scenes from David Lean’s Oscar-winning epic Lawrence of Arabia were filmed in Wadi Rum, close to where Jacir and his family live.

Jacir’s grandfather was part of the local support staff for that film, also set during the Arab Revolt. Eid, has worked on international productions, most recently as a location manager for last year’s The Martian, starring Matt Damon, which won two Golden Globes on Sunday.

Providing locations and crew for foreign films remains an important part of Jordan’s film work, says George David, general manager of the Royal Film Commission.

Other big films shot there include Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and The Hurt Locker (2008). “We have also become the go-to location for Mars and the moon,” he adds.

The success of Theeb, meanwhile, signals the development of domestic film production.

Over the past decade, the Royal Film Commission has offered workshops on all aspects of filmmaking, including an annual screenwriters’ lab in consultation with the Sundance Institute. It helped to promote 25 feature films and documentaries made in Jordan between 2010 and 2015.

However, budget cuts have forced the closure of a film school and the commission had to reduce training.

“If we, as an industry, tackle the funding issue, I think we will be seeing more Theebs,” said David. “Whether it wins or not, we are already very proud of what it has already achieved.”

Back in Al Shakriyeh, the Theeb cast play it cool, despite what appears to be a mild case of Oscar fever. If Theeb is nominated for an Oscar, four of them plan to travel to the awards ceremony in Hollywood – Jacir, his father, cousin and the film’s villain, played by Hassan Mutlaq Al Maraiyeh.

In true celebrity style, the group already knows what they will wear: traditional Bedouin attire, in formal black, instead of the everyday beige, says Eid.

* The Associated Press

Updated: January 12, 2016 04:00 AM