Theeb conquers Venice
Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones and The Hurt Locker represent a reasonable CV for any country’s film industry. Indeed, ever since David Lean arrived in 1961 with Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif and industrial-sized refrigerators to keep his filmstock from melting, Jordan has attracted a steady stream of filmmakers seeking out the otherworldly landscapes of its desert south.
What Jordan hasn’t managed, though, is to cultivate a home-grown industry able to tell its own stories in its own language – Jordan, in other words, as the subject not just the backdrop.
Theeb, the feature-length debut of director Naji Abu Nowar, represents a major step in addressing that. Filmed in Wadi Rum and set on the brink of the Arab Revolt in 1916, the story follows a young Bedouin boy and his brother as they seek to make sense of the changing world around them.
With a largely amateur cast drawn from the local tribes, and a script shaped by the stories they shared over many months with the director, Theeb has made an instant impact with both critics and festival juries. Not only was it included in the programme at the 71st Venice Film Festival in September, earning a prolonged standing ovation from the audience after it had done so, but it helped Abu Nowar scoop the Orizzonti Award for Best Director.
For a 32-year-old director whose previous works had been a couple of low-budget shorts, it has been a startling transformation: from pitching scripts and scrambling for funds to parading up the red carpet, winged lion statue under one arm, festival invitations in the other – including one from Abu Dhabi later this month.
Here, Naji Abu Nowar shares his Venice experience, from trying to find passports for people who’d never left the country to meeting his cinematic heroes:
Theeb bascially invaded Venice. Many of our crew travelled at their own expense to join us and accreditation office manager said that she had never seen so many attendees from a single film. The festival is situated on the Lido, which the team soon colonised.
When we were first invited, we were determined to bring some of the Bedouin involved with the film with us. We managed to arrange for 12-year-old Jacir Eid, who plays Theeb, his fictional brother Hussein Salameh, Hassan Mutlag, who plays the Stranger, and our associate producer Eid Al Sweilheen who is also Jacir’s father, to travel to Italy for the premiere.
However, none of them had ever left Jordan before. Not only didn’t they have passports, they didn’t have of the necessary documentation to get passports – no one even knew their actual age. That was a lengthy process in itself. In Hassan’s case, his family papers had been burnt in a fire at the local authority office years before and he could only travel with a special waiver.
When we arrived, Venice blew their mind. They’d travelled on a plane for the first time and then immediately got on a boat – another first – to a city where the roads were made out of water. They were in awe of the ancient buildings, the elaborate architecture, even the crowds – although they did bring their own tea!
The Festival itself was very intense. Most days I was running between different media interviews, official dinners or promotional events. I’m still a film lover first, so whenever I got a spare hour I would try to catch a film, but it was pretty frustrating being in a festival and not being able to see more of the films being screened.
Theeb’s world premiere was in the Sala Darsena, a newly refurbished 1,200-seat cinema that was close to full. I was extremely nervous going in to the premiere as the Venice crowd are not afraid to tell you how they feel. The previous night I’d witnessed 200 people walking out of a screening in front of a horrified cast and crew; there were actually people screaming at the screen. I certainly didn’t want the Bedouin to experience that and spent the most of the film dreading everyone’s reaction.
Thankfully, no one walked out. In fact, at the end they started applauding. We got up to acknowledge it and it grew louder and everyone rose up out of their seats and all turned in our direction. A standing ovation. They proceeded to applaud us for about 10 minutes, maybe more. It was the most incredible, surreal experience of my life – and certainly the best.
None of us suspected there’d be an award. In fact, I didn’t even know there was a best Director Award, let alone expect to win it – we were just overjoyed and incredibly proud to be attending the festival at all.
The award ceremony a totally different world. Firstly, there were hundreds of photographers all shouting at you to look down their lens and then, before the press conference, you are put in a room with your heroes. There was Elia Suleiman and Tim Roth, there was Alexandre Desplat, one of the greatest film composers who ever lived. And most importantly, there are all your fellow winners and you all look at each other with a huge grin on your face, knowing exactly what the other is feeling.
There wasn’t really room to dwell on the success. The next day I had to fly to Toronto for the North American premiere of Theeb and even my Lion had to be sent back to Amman as the producers didn’t trust me to take it with me – which was probably a reasonable call.
Many doors have opened that will hopefully allow me to achieve my dream of having a life career as a filmmaker. Cinema is the only thing I have ever wanted to do and the only thing I ever will do. The interest expressed by production companies, producers, agents and funds, should mean that my second film will become a reality.
I still have a huge mountain to climb if I want to make this my life. But so far I loved climbing.
Theeb will have its Middle East premiere at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival on October.