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People in Film: Interview with 'Theeb' Director Naji Abu Nowar

Dec 01, 2014

Tomorrow, 2 December at 5:30 PM is a red-carpet screening of Naji Abu Nowar’s wonderful Bedouin tale, ‘Theeb’. We caught up with the director at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, right on the heels of his Venice win for Best Director in the Orrizonti section.

Doha Film Institute: ‘Theeb’ feels very organic in many ways. At the same time, it relies to some extent on the traditions of the Western movie. How did you bring these elements together?

Naji Abu Nowar: The way it start with me is that I find a concept that gives me an adrenaline rush and I get very excited. It’s usually very simple: ‘Bedouin Western’. I had that idea back in 2003. It was the first thing I ever wrote, a terrible, terrible screenplay. It was awful! I abandoned that, but the idea was always in the back of my head. Then Bassel Ghandour showed me a short script, a character drama between two Bedouin brothers, and I loved that. Then I was in the desert and I got that rush. So that was the trigger. Then we needed to get out there and find out about the Bedouin.

DFI: So you went where?

NAN: To Wadi Rum, in southern Jordan, where one of the last nomadic tribes to settle live. From listening to their stories and learning about their culture and the rules of their world, we found the story. And we also found how it relates to Western themes – which was very important to me, because I didn’t want to force genre conventions on the subject matter. I don’t want to fix on a genre and then adhere to those conventions; you have to recognise how it can work and decide what to use. I think that’s why it has that organic feel.

DFI: You went and lived with the tribe. What was your relationship to the Bedouin prior to that? And how was that experience?

NAN: It was amazing. I remember driving down there in the car thinking, ‘This is exactly how I want to make films, this is exactly what I want to do in life’. It was a very liberating moment. Abderrahmane Sissako was in Abu Dhabi in 2010, and I asked him for advice, because he’s done a fair amount of this kind of work. He said, ‘Just get to know them, let them get to know you, and let it happen. Don’t force it.’ The villagers had no real idea of cinema – they see soap operas on TV, but they’ve never really seen any films. So I showed I wasn’t there to take advantage of them or abuse their culture – they hate the soap operas because they feel really misrepresented. When they realised I was listening to what they were saying, and it was going into the script, they became more invested. I walked with them, basically, and that’s what earned their trust.

DFI: So how long did this go on for?

NAN: We visited on weekends for a couple of months, then I lived there for a year, at first doing nothing but listening to stories and getting to know them. Then we held a meeting with the tribal elders to explain the plans and the story, and got permission to shoot. From there we hired a few team members – associate producer Abu Jacir produced the Bedouin side of things. We started casting, going to different villages and interviewing people, then did workshops and production design. Then we did about a month of pre-production.

DFI: So the people you were living with are the people who worked on the film.

NAN: Yes. I haven’t got the exact figures, but the producers tell me that during pre-production and production, we changed the unemployment rate in the village from 80% to 30%. One of the matriarchs started a production design factory – she knew how to make the water pouches, the saddle frames, saddle bags, everything, as they were made in 1916. So she employed the women of the village. There were quite a lot of side things like that that were really good.

DFI: Is the story completely fictional?

NAN: The framework is historically accurate. It was important to me to build an accurate world and then tell the fictional story within it. So the English guy is an amalgamation of two British officers who were on the ground, the guys actually conducting the operations and blowing up the railroad. I thought, ‘OK, that’s the history, these are the real guys: what if there was a guy before all that, a guy who failed?’ He’s my pre-actual-history-failed-attempt guy.

DFI: You did a lot of research into the music as well.

NAN: Yes, I love their songs and their poetry and the theme music of the film is Bedouin melody, a song about the Red Sea that is very like the poem that opens the film. So we took the Bedouin melodies and adapted them for the film score. We found the poems the same way.

DFI: ‘Theeb’ is also a film about a culture that is fading away.

NAN: Yeah. In my view, there are really no more nomads, so it really is gone. The old men in the village know how to track, but Jacir, the main actor, doesn’t. There’s one man in the village, he’s like Sherlock Holmes – the police call him if there’s a crime and he knows everyone’s footprints. I was actually saved once – I thought I was being clever and I went out for a drive, got stuck in the sand, and got found at the end of the day because they knew the track of the rover I was in.

DFI: Will you take the film to the village to show the people who made it with you?

NAN: Yes. We have the sponsorship in place, we just need to sort out the time to do it. There will be a village community outdoor screening in Wadi Rum. It’s going to be awesome.

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