Nomination: Best Foreign Language Film - Jordan
David Mackenzie’s exceptional Hell or High Water has received a great deal of praise for revitalizing the western, but with all due respect to this worthy entry into the genre’s pantheon, the film was a just a little late to earn this distinction. Naji Abu Nowar’s Theeb is in some ways an unconventional western, replacing the American Southwest with the Wadi Rum and Stetsons with head scarves, but in all of the ways that count it is very much in the tradition of the best of the genre. More importantly, it is a beautiful and thrilling film with elegant performances and keen direction.
The film centers on young Theeb (Jacir Did Al-Hwietat), a Bedouin child recently orphaned who finds himself alone in the Wadi Rum during World War I. Theeb is forced to partner reluctantly with his enemy in order to survive as the aftereffects of the Great Arab Revolt surround them.
All of the conventions of the western genre are here - some in perhaps slightly altered forms - yet in the context of the story and location these conventions feel entirely new. The remarkable cast is made up almost exclusively of non-professional actors, and Naji Abu Nowar hit the jackpot in finding his star, a young man with a strong presence and deeply soulful eyes who gives an honest and compelling performance. He is surrounded by an equally talented cast, and the performance of these untrained individuals speaks to the director’s talents.
Of course, any film set in the Middle Eastern theatre of World War I and filmed in Jordan lives in the shadow of Lawrence of Arabia. Theeb can be thought of as a worthy companion piece, but it also very much stands on its own. In recent years several talented filmmakers have attempted to reenergize the western with great films (see True Grit, 3:10 to Yuma, Django Unchained, et. al.), but after watching Theeb, I’ve never been more confident that the future of the western is in good hands.