Theeb opens like any nondescript village picture: a desert well, camels, a boy’s target practice with his brother, etc. But rookie filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar is determined to show us a “Bedouin western” with his stylized tale of the title juvenile (non-actor Jacir Eid) growing up in a hurry in dusty Hejaz Province, Arabia, during World War I.
Young Theeb, whose name translates as “Wolf,” listens with intense curiosity as his older brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh) is directed by their father to accompany a British Army officer (Jack Fox) and his guide (Marji Audeh) on a strategic trip to locate the Roman Well, several days’ journey away across spectacular arid scenery. That obligation comes from the law of Dakheel, which requires a Bedouin to protect a stranger seeking refuge, no matter what.
The headstrong Theeb initially tags along at a safe distance but fate eventually brings him to center stage.
In those days of the Arab Revolt, the territory in which Theeb and his tribe are camped is a crazy quilt of overlapping animosities involving British Imperial forces, the opposing Ottoman Turks, warring Arab factions, and renegade Bedouins. The scrapes the little party get into recall John Ford or Zoltan Korda adventures of seventy years ago, or perhaps Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns — ambushes and double-crosses, sharp knives of crude steel, “iron donkey” train tracks, animal cries in the night, camels that seem to never require food or water. Theeb offers an observation: “The strong eat the weak.”
British-born director Nowar, who co-wrote the film with producer Bassel Ghandour, doles out the bloodshed sparingly, with impeccable timing plus the visceral supporting acting of Hassan Mutlag as a bandit raider. According to Nowar, the production faced difficulty finding actors, mostly due to prejudice against the performing arts in Jordan, where the project was filmed. Nowar overcomes every obstacle in style. He’s an upcoming talent to take note of.