Naji Abu Nowar impresses with this tense and striking directorial debut
Naji Abu Nowar's debut feature is a blisteringly tense coming-of-age story. Set in the Ottoman Empire at the time of World War I, it captures the delicate balance of desert life 100 years ago, when strong tribal ties, travelling by camel and sleeping under the stars were part of everyday life.
Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat is the endearing Theeb (meaning 'wolf'), a young boy who dotes on his big brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen), and whose oldest brother has become the sheikh of their Bedouin tribe after their father's death. When a visitor arrives with a British soldier (played by Jack Fox, son of James), Hussein is tasked with guiding them on the dangerous road to the next well, with Theeb surreptitiously following them on their ill-fated journey.
Fox's screen-time is limited, but his status as the acting dynasty's latest rising star has likely helped catapult this deserving film to a wider audience. Al-Hwietat is pitch perfect as Theeb, the obstinate little boy determined to prove his manhood, and the story – written by Abu Nowar and Bassel Ghandour – is just the right side of historically rich, signposting details without over-explaining.
But perhaps Theeb's most arresting quality is its cinematography (courtesy of Wolfgang Thaler). Filmed on location in Jordan – in Wadi Rum, where Lawrence of Arabia was also shot – Theeb's journey through the desert takes in some truly otherworldly scenery. Gnarled mountains with exquisitely layered rocks are awe-inspiring, and make for a striking backdrop to the harrowing events that force Theeb to grow up all too quickly.
The story could benefit from some development: the ending is abrupt, and Theeb's ultimate decision feels too quickly arrived at. But stylistically, Abu Nowar's first film is an impressive effort, one that's artfully nail-biting and that shows a keen eye for picking out natural beauty in the most desolate of landscapes.
Selected release from Fri 14 Aug.