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Film Review "Theeb"

"Theeb" Arabic-Jordanian Film

There is an Arabic-Jordanian film of 2014 that describes Bedouins’ life and contradictions between the Western trade alienation in the Arabic world and oppressed people. Instead of professional actors, the producing team invited real Bedouins. This approach is a popular technique in cinematography. For example, it was used in the Salt of the Earth movie as the atmosphere of the film required a maximum authenticity. Purportedly, the film has modest textual but vast traditional Arabic emotional fulfilling, which could not be reproduced by professional actors but only by real habitats. There has biographical relation to its author, Naji Abu Novar, who presented historical and social motions to both middle school and older age viewers. The paper provides a film review in the context of the Islamic conceptual meaning in Theeb as a cinematography attempt to recreate the authentic Arabic world.

The plot of the film is simple and understandable, events go smoothly from one to another, and no specific effects are noted. Scenes have been shot at the real Bedouin closets and desert, under the hot sun, so all events look realistic and encourage more empathy. The desert wind and all other details are well arranged. Thus, sometimes, it seems to be not a film, but a reality show. A young boy from a Bedouin tribe, named Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat), joins the journey of his older brother, Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen), who agrees to guide an Englishman to the well nearby the train line in order to explore it. Their way is interrupted by few Arabs, who have business with the train, and a Turkish. After the gunshots and night of staying in the cold well, Theeb stays alone. The destiny united Theeb with the man from the opposing party: Hassan (Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh) is one of those, who killed his brother and the Englishman, Edward (Jack Fox). Nevertheless, Theeb saves him. In the end, the boy witnesses how Hassan sells the dynamite box, which is meant for exploding the train line, to a Turkish man although he is the enemy of the Arab Bedouins. At last, Theeb kills him and starts his long way back home through the desert.

On my personal level, the film is interesting as the product depicting historical transformations that were taking place in the Arab world that suddenly became the subject of my attention. The drama-thriller of 2014 depicts the events of 1916, which was the period of the Great Arab revolt. It was a time when the Arab world strived for its independence from Turkey. Besides few professional actors, the majority of the cast includes real Bedouins. Even their real names were not changed. I believe that this approach is the peculiarity of the film; even non-professionals behave naturally; thus, the working approach was proper. Jacqueline Frost convinces, “It is important for the cinematographer to be in tune with the actor’s performance without letting equipment or technology get in the way” (15). This concept was implemented not only in the play but also in the authentic clothes of people and all details of appearance (Turkish mustache, equipment for horses, dresses, halal food, and even bread baking).

In terms of the social theme, the film depicts contradiction between Islamic followers and extremists, which is actually even nowadays. The film was produced when a number of terroristic acts had occurred in Europe. These events had impacted the people’s mindset about Islam and Muslims. Theeb shows that in the society, Islam promotes the value of brotherhood and encourages protecting the family to death. Hussein and Theeb embody this principle. A good example is a scene when Theeb makes a tomb for Hussein and buries him like a real Muslim. In contrast, extremist Islamism was shown as a business agreement between self-proclaimed defendants of Islam, whom Novar depicts in a negative meaning. In one of the scenes, the stranger tells Theeb that in his surrounding, nobody respects brotherhood. In his turn, Theeb adds, “The strong eats the weak” (“Theeb”). Another stranger tells Theeb’s brother, “We have own business on that rail” (“Theeb”). Hence, it becomes obvious that the stranger’s friends left him alone to die in the desert with wounds and no water. I compare it to the opposite thoughts that Marji tells the Englishmen when they all are trapped, “I will die before I abandon them [brothers]” (“Theeb”). Another issue that Novar only particularly touches in the film is the family, which is not only a brotherhood. It is a significant scene when the Englishman opens a medallion in order to see the photo of a woman. When Hussein asks who she is, the man responds, “My wife” (“Theeb”). After this event, a viewer gets to know that Hussein also has a girl that he would be happy to marry. It is a sentimental and sensitive point that stays on the background of greater events. Thus, in terms of the social organization, Novar demonstrates strong interpersonal tights that are based on the vital instincts of a human being.

From the historical perspective, Theeb depicts the period of the Great Arab Revolt of 1916 when Sheikh Hussein bin Ali (probably, the father of the main character) declared the will of the Arab people to live independently from the Turks. To my particular disappointment, the film is too localized and does not fully reflect the role of the British Empire in this struggle. For instance, the viewer does not know why Britain is interested in delegating a soldier to explode the railway. Only one’s background knowledge of contemporary history helps understand that Turkey was the British enemy in World War I. Thus, the English were interested in weakening Turkey through the support of the Arab revolt and destroying Turkish strategically important objects. Remarks by Polly A. Mohs are rather helpful; she asserts that the statement of the British administration about the policy in Cairo is that they “could begin a campaign of covert support and funding of Arab opposition movements as their official strategy against the Turks (19).” To my opinion, even a small remark in a dialogue about this issue could enrich the historical relevance in the film.

The analysis of visual elements of Theeb requires considering some background issues that have affected the process of film producing and making decisions on what and how to show. Naji Abu Novar is the film director and the primary initiator who was inspired by stories told by his parents, who were military immigrants that moved to England. Particularly, the cinematography is not even Novar’s main area of activity since he concluded peace studies. However, he used this knowledge and experience in depicting details of the military strategy and tactics, holding guns, and behaving in extreme conditions.

In terms of the scenario and dialogues, Theeb reminds another movie named Season of Migration to the North, the dialogues, in which are modest but accurate and have no burdening effect. Some allusions to the Arab quotes empathize only those moments, which attract Novar. The music is also modest: a few Arab tones took me to the world of the Arab revolt and Bedouins’ pilgrimage with the duduk tone and rare slow melody. Novar pays attention to natural sounds, including the noise of flies or silence of the desert. However, the author rather applies to the broad auditory than to a specific group, even though the film may be interesting to those who are interested in Arab studies. The plot and film play is simple, even the duration of one hour and a half is not much for such a serious film. However, some scenes of violence should be avoided by children and teenagers.

Among the Jordanians, to which Novar belonged, there are many Muslims that confess Sunni Islam that strongly values and supports the concept of brotherhood. This concept is clearly stressed throughout the film. In such a manner, Theeb begins with the key citations from the Arab literature. They define the main messages the director wants to communicate to his audience. It says, “In questions of brotherhood never refuse a guest. Be the right hand of the right when men take their stand. And if the wolves offer friendship, do not count on success. They will not stand beside you when you are facing death” (“Theeb”). Notably, the whole movie is in Arabic; Novar did not want to interrupt viewers’ cognition of the authentic world with multilingual interpretations. It is one of the cinematography methods of psychological convenience. In such a manner, through authentic linguistic dialogues (and not only in Arabic but also in perfect British English, as well), the author passes more information than it could do with any translations.

However, the author makes his character tell the Englishmen a phrase in his language, not in Arabic, so it is clear to everybody, “Brotherhood is more important than your railway” (“Theeb”). In this case, the film is emotionally stronger since Novar consciously, but not openly, appeals to the Islamic canons. One of the brightest examples is the final scene. When Theeb kills the Stranger, the Turkish man lets him go when the boy reviles that that man killed his brother. Islam allows for the blood revenge for abusing a relative; thus, such an outcome is the most realistic considering the time when the story takes place.

Thus, the film, Theeb, has a range of specific qualities that are typical for motion pictures with deep meaning and understandable content. This combination makes the film interesting for different viewers and simultaneously communicates the message about noble Arab qualities that Novar wanted to demonstrate to people. The technical issues like costumes, cast, music, and film play have a successful combination and fully represent the epoch, as well as military and cultural environment. Novar’s attempt to create a quality film product as a remembrance of the own story and a part of the Arab independence history, in particular, is successful in terms of its background application to the Islamic canons. The concepts of the Muslim brotherhood and tights as the highest value that is above even the natural instincts are the central point of the film.