Cinephilia: Theeb is a Western set in the East

Theeb is a Western with guns, outlaws, and savages, depicting a world on the brink of change and gentrified order — a frontier moving toward industrialization. The narrative centres on a foreigner with secrets and a quest across the desert all interspersed with a few shootouts. The only thing missing is the iconic tumbleweed, something that is hard to come by in Bedouin deserts.

Submitted by Jordan for the foreign language film Oscar, Theeb is actually an “Eastern.” Art-house festival pickups are usually the only Arab films that get distributed outside their domestic fortresses. The ones that escape are typically controversial and held on a pedestal by liberal western critics. Theeb seems to be an anomaly: western critics and Arab audiences both love it. This film is an endearing testament to the power of classic Hollywood storytelling and its ability to cross the boundaries of race, religion, and rigidity.

Additionally, through the film’s detailed portrait of Bedouin tribes in a remote portion of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, Naji Abu Nowar, Theeb’s first-time feature director, crafts a twisted world: a Wild, Wild East. Amidst the vast expanse of the desert and picturesque sand, bandits and revolutionaries overrun the trails. Rather than idealize nature, Nowar views it as dangerous and oppressive, budding with pesky flies and bugs. The landscapes are something you could see in a John Ford classic, and the plot might resemble the typical Western formula, but don’t be misled; Theeb is a masterfully layered story dressed in an accessible and familiar package.

Despite some similarities to True Grit and a prop that is almost used as a McGuffin, Theeb’s uniqueness lies not only in its appropriation of the Western genre to tell an Eastern story, but also in its unique perspective on the Ottoman Empire during the Great War.

The film mainly centers on Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat), a boy coming of age, as he accompanies his older brother who is directing a mysterious Englishman (probably one of TE Lawrence’s men) and his Arab companion. Theeb is frightened yet enchanted by the English. He knows nothing of the war and has presumably never seen a white man.

The way the film handles their relationship is masterful, balancing a kind of subtle playfulness with a lurking sense of dread. In one of the film’s best moments, Theeb puts his ear to the British man’s watch as he curiously listens to it mechanically tick forward. Time will move on. Modernity will progress forwards. And it will be the English who help to disband the Ottoman Empire and alter the region’s historical trajectory.  

A large part of this film’s success is owed to the nearly wordless performance by the non-professional child actor Al-Hwietat, who plays the boy like a young Clint Eastwood, internalizing all his emotions and silently hinting at a development towards the predatory nature that his name implies (Theeb means wolf).

Theeb is a delightful surprise. It’s not boring. It’s not shallow. It’s not predictable.  Watching this film is like opening a generic Carlton card to find powerful and poignant poetry written inside.

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