Interview: Naji Abu Nowar, Director Of 'Theeb' The Oscar-nominated film is set in 1916 Saudi Arabia, a pivotal time in the region. Director Naji Abu Nowar says he wanted to explore "how strange and surreal it must have been" for the Bedouins.

'Theeb' Looks At Middle East History Through The Eyes Of A Bedouin Boy

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The Jordanian movie "Theeb" has been nominated for best foreign language film at the Oscars. It's a story set in 1916 in what's now western Saudi Arabia and was then known as the Hejaz. The film's director, Naji Abu Nowar, says that time in that place was a pivotal moment in history.

NAJI ABU NOWAR: The First World War is kicking off, and the Western sort of alliances - you know, Britain and France - are fight sort of the acts of Germany and the Ottoman Empire. And the war is coming towards this area of Hejaz. The British is starting the Arab revolt and inciting the Arab tribes to revolt against the Ottoman imperialists. And so you're in the brink of a massive change

MCEVERS: The Ottoman Empire would fall. The borders of the current Middle East would be drawn. But rather than look at that moment from the perspective of, say, Lawrence of Arabia, who famously helped organize that Arab revolt, or from a grown Arab fighter, the film follows a young Arab boy. He's the title character, Theeb. And he, like many at the time in Hejaz, was a Bedouin, or a nomad. One day, a British soldier comes to Theeb's family's tent asking for someone to guide him to a well. Theeb tags along on a trip across the desert. There are chases. The group is ambushed by raiders. Naji Abu Nowar, the director, says he wanted to tell the story of 1916 the way the Bedouin would tell it.

NOWAR: If they remember a time, it's, oh, the time when it snowed or the time when that famous sheikh died. So for me, I thought, wow, this is - if I could put the audience in their shoes, whereby you don't know what year it is, you don't know what's going on, you're just living your normal life, and then suddenly this stranger appears from nowhere, and this story begins. And you don't know what an Englishman is. You don't know what - you don't know there's the First World War going on. So what would that fee like? And that was really the directorial emphasis on the film, was let's put the audience in this boy's shoes and have him really experience what it must have been like, how strange and surreal it must've been.

MCEVERS: This film is set at the very end of the Ottoman Empire. One of the symbols of that empire was the Hejaz Railway. It was meant to go from the seat of empire, Istanbul, all the way to the holy site of Mecca. It didn't quite make it, but that's where this railway goes through the Hejaz and where the story takes place. Let's listen to this clip from the film about the Hejaz Railway.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, foreign language spoken).

JACIR EID AL-HWIETAT: (As Theeb, foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, foreign language spoken).

MCEVERS: Can you just translate that for us roughly?

NOWAR: Yeah. He's just saying, that's what destroyed us. They're looking at the railway, and Theeb is seeing the railway for the first time. He's never seen it before. And he's - this stranger is telling him, that's what's destroyed us, you know, it's the iron donkey trail. And we used to guide the pilgrims to the Hajj and...

MCEVERS: To Mecca.

NOWAR: Yeah, to Mecca. And we could do that in - you know, in a month. But now this iron donkey takes them in a week, so no one wants to come with us. It's what the Bedouin call the dark times. I simplified it for the film to just talk about the pilgrim - the pilgrims' route to the Hajj, the Mecca. But also, it's trade, you know? You're talking part of this - the famous Silk Road, one of the most ancient trade routes in human history. And the Bedouin, before religion, before civilization, were guarding those trade routes. And when the railroad was built, all of a sudden they started intertribal raiding, which became very bloody, and they called it the dark - the dark times.

MCEVERS: You and the writer of the script, Bassel Ghandour - is that the right way to say his name?

NOWAR: Yeah, yeah.

MCEVERS: You went to live with the Bedouins in southern Jordan, not far from where this story is set. And that is where you met the young character who plays Theeb. Tell us about meeting him and casting him.

NOWAR: Yeah, so we looked around for a year to find the right tribe to make the film with. And we chose this tribe because they were the last tribe to be settled, so all the adult men had grown up as nomads at some point throughout their life, you know? So that was an incredible experience. We went down there. We lived with them for a year in the desert region of Wadi Rum in Jordan. And so we - what we wanted to do - we wanted the film to be authentic as possible because the Bedouin have a very specific culture, specific dialect, so we wanted to use them as actors So we actually cast the entire film from the tribe, using nonprofessional actors and workshopping them for eight months to prepare them to act in the film. And that's where we found the lead role of Jacir, who plays Theeb, by luck, really.

MCEVERS: And I read somewhere that you thought - at first he was really shy, and you didn't think he was going to really, you know, work in the film.

NOWAR: Yeah, I didn't actually - we had to shoot a mood board to try and raise money because we had no money when we began this project. We just went down and began work.

MCEVERS: What's a mood board, really quickly?

NOWAR: It's just, like, a little kind of trailer to show what the film would be. And then we take it to investors, and we try and raise the money that way. And we found a guy that we thought had the qualities to be, like, a Bedouin producer, so we asked him to find us a boy to play this role in this mood board, and his son turned up. And I'd known Jacir for a long time because I was living with them for the first month I was there before I kind of found my own place. And, you know, he was so shy. I - you know, so I thought this would be a disaster because I didn't think he had any ability to act, and I thought he was going to ruin the whole thing. And then we put - it's that magical thing, you know? You put him front of a camera, and he just lit up the screen.

MCEVERS: You know, film has been very popular in the region. I mean, it's been out for some time in Arabic. And I wonder if one of the reasons that's true is because it is so nostalgic. You know, it does look back on this time when things were - were more pure and more simple, you know, when you were known simply by the reputation of your father, for instance, as Theeb is in this film. People say, oh, I know your father, you know? Do you think that's why? I mean, do you think people want to know about this culture in the region?

NOWAR: I mean, I think so. I mean, you know, the majority of Arab cinema that gets released is often dealing with political subjects because the people that fund these films, they only want political subject matters. For me, I'm about cinema. I love the film, and that's why I'm doing what I do. I couldn't care less about politics. And I think that the audience has responded to that because it's not about trying to lecture them on an issue or trying to be political. And I think, especially in the region where, really, it's been such a horrible couple of years with everything that's going on, that people want to escape to the cinema. And people, you know, they want to watch a movie.

MCEVERS: So as we mentioned, the movie is nominated for an Oscar in the category of best foreign language film. How do you feel about that? Like, what - you know, you say you went with - you went down to the desert to start this process with no money. I mean, how surprising is it, I guess, that you are here now in this position?

NOWAR: I mean, it's amazing. You know, it's the first time in Jordan's history, so everyone in the country - it's like we've won the World Cup. Everyone's going crazy, you know, and everyone's celebrating. It's an amazing experience for us. You know, it's been - obviously been a very tough year across the Middle East, and I often get people coming up to me and saying, oh, you know, finally we've got something positive, you know, to root for, something good going on. So yeah, I mean, we're all - we're all just having the time of our lives.

MCEVERS: That Naji Abu Nowar. He's director of the film "Theeb," which has been nominated for an Academy award for best foreign language film. Thank you so much, and good luck.

NOWAR: Thank you. Thank you very much.

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