Director: Naji Abu Nowar
Starring: Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, Hussein Salameh AL-Sweilhiyeen
Out of the United Arab Emirates and filmed in Jordan comes Theeb, a film nominated for Best Foreign Language Feature at the 2016 Academy Awards. ‘Theeb’ means ‘wolf’ in Arabic, and is the name of our main character, as well as a point of metaphor throughout the movie. You won’t fail to be impressed by this look into another world, nor will its impact miss the mark for many. And yet while its differences are its strengths, they are also its weaknesses, the delivery of the story so unlike what we are used to seeing that they catch our attention only to make us feel somewhat unwelcome here.
Theeb is a young boy, the son of a sheik, from a Bedouin people deep in the deserts of the Ottoman Empire. Times are changing as war rages outside, the Ottomans choosing sides, many rising up against them, the British stepping in to take command as usual. One English officer requests the aid of Theeb’s brother to guide him to the railway many miles across the barren landscape, through dangerous terrain. Theeb follows so as not to be left behind, shadowing the brother that he loves so much and who he can’t stand to be parted from.
Theeb will experience the world in a way he never imagined, growing up on the sand while the harsh truths of survival prowl around the outskirts of the party’s campfire. Tribes war with tribes, bandits roam the arid countryside, wells are prized possessions, and no one is safe traveling in small groups, yet Bedouins are fiercely proud of their survival skills, and absolutely dedicated to those they decide to guide along treacherous paths. When the group is attacked, Theeb will have to take care of himself in a land that knows no pity and can kill with rapid, unthinking precision.
The landscape is by far the greatest positive about this film, and some of the visuals will blow you away. It’s not that this is a big-budget, Hollywood picture with amazing cinematography, it’s that the movie transports us directly into the heart of a beautiful land, but one that is also unimaginably difficult and stark. Some of the shots of the canyons and deserts are breathtaking, made more so by the simplicity of the story around them, the focus on being present in the moment instead of forcing us to pretend that we’re in Jordan. We are there with the characters naturally; those emotions don’t need to be manufactured.
But I’ll go back to try to explain the point I was trying to make in the introduction; what makes this movie special also makes it a bit unreachable. The style is unique, at least to what we are used to, paring down the dialogue until you barely need it at all, making the film about an area and less about any one specific person. Theeb is the focal point, but he’s also simply a vehicle for us to travel around in. It’s so barren, the set and the story, that you’re left with the lonely feeling that I think is one of the points, but that becomes a negative as well as a positive. It would be hard to say that this film inspires love; it’s uncommonly transportative, but its lack of drama can’t be seen as an undoubted asset.
Video – With an aspect ratio of 2.39:1 Widescreen and shot using an Arriflex 416 camera with Hawk V-Lite 16 lenses, the video quality of the disc may be its strongest feature. The landscape is stunning, it’s something we don’t see very often, and then never quite like this, like we are in the desert with the characters, not on some movie set with celebrities’ trailers just out of sight.
Audio – The DVD was done in 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround, with an option of 2.0 Stereo. Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish. The film is in Arabic, which is an amazing language to sit and listen to, the movie flowing so well that you barely need subtitles at all. Also, the music of the movie is surprisingly solid, with a nice recurring theme used throughout.
Extras – There are plenty of special features available on the disc if you’re interested in learning more. First, there is a bonus short film entitled Waves ’98, a 15-minute animated movie about a teenager in Beirut. In the bonus menu, you can access commentary by director Naji Abu Nowar, as well as six Film Movement trailers: My Love Don’t Cross That River, The Best Intentions, Wondrous Boccaccio, Breathe, Secrets of War, The Dark Valley. Lastly, a paragraph to teach audiences a little bit about Film Movement.
Recommended. Theeb is a film to see, if not exactly a film to buy. It’s a sensory experience more than it is a cinematic one, or at least that’s the impression it left upon me after a viewing, like I witnessed something and was taken somewhere, but not like I would remember it forever. The story is simple, the action muted, even the violence more realistic and less dramatic, which, again, is somehow both a weakness and a strength. The film is almost too real for us to want to add to our collections, if that makes any sense at all, while also being one of the best snapshots of this time period since Lawrence of Arabia. The video is special in what it reveals, if not exactly in quality, the audio is strong, and there are some special features for those who want to look deeper, so the technical aspects pull their weight. Enjoy for what it does right and attempt not to hold it up to the American projects that we have become accustomed to, and you might find a gem.
☆ ☆ ☆ – Content
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ – Video
☆ ☆ ☆ – Audio
☆ ☆ ☆ – Extras
☆ ☆ ☆ – Replay