“Only two kinds of creature get fun in the desert. Bedouins and gods”, the exquisitely cynical diplomat Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains) tells T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), “and you’re neither.” He could have added a third category of desert tourists: directors. The desert is a supremely photogenic location and filmmakers as diverse as Bernardo Bertolucci, George Lucas and Anthony Minghella have all basked on the shifting sands and now Brit-born Abu Nowar joins their ranks with Theeb (2014). It’s 1916 and the world is at war but that feels very remote to Theeb (Jacir Eid), a young Bedouin who lives with his brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh) and his tribe.
The boys’ father has died recently and their elder brother leads the tribe. But the war does finally intrude when a young blonde English soldier (Jack Fox) stumbles into the camp with his Arab escort Marji (Marji Audeh) seeking hospitality and safe passage. The soldier is far removed from the Lawrencian prototype, a hothead in regulations uniform, he passes around cigarettes but there is an anxious dislike of the Arabs bubbling under the surface and he makes no attempt to understand either the language or their culture. When Hussein is tasked with leading the pair across the desert to their rendezvous with a far-off British regiment, Theeb surreptitiously tags along for the adventure.
It’s soon apparent that they have underestimated the dangers of the situation and when ambushed at a waterhole, Theeb is left alone and surrounded by an unforgiving environment and hostile bandits, he must muster his resources as best he can. Nowar shoots the human interactions from Theeb’s waist height point of view, and we are given the impression of history being glanced from the margins, obscured by the adults standing in the way. The conflict is not explained, but Theeb slowly comes to realise that his father’s lesson – “The strong eat the weak” – is a motto to hang onto. It is this perspective that makes the film special. The relationship between Theeb and Hussein is touchingly developed very early in the picture, as they tease and play with each other, and Jacir Eid’s naturalistic performance (Eid is a non-professional actor and the pair are real life cousins) gives the core of the film an emotional depth, making the terrible onslaught and dangers of the period all the more distressing.
When Theeb finds an unlikely ally in a pilgrim guide turned bandit played by Hassan Mutlag, he is presented with a genuine dilemma: honouring the bonds of family and risking death, or forging a new pragmatic alliance which might unalterably change who he is. It’s a credit to the filmmakers that they don’t soften, or seek compromise. Filmed in many of Lean’s favourite locations, Theeb implicitly dialogues with that sun-drenched classic of western cinema; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Lean’s Hamlet. All those characters who were ciphers to British-French geopolitical ambition and to some extent bit players to Lawrence’s own mythic self-invention are here fully realised as human beings whose lives are shattered and whose families are destroyed by those wielding pencils over maps, and those who aren’t Bedouin or deity thinking it fun to spend some time in the desert.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty