Theeb: a Bedouin story

Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat and Hussein Salameh in the film Theeb.
Meet the Bedouin who traveled from the deserts of Jordan to the red carpet of Venice Film Festival. Thomas Cunningham reports.

Bedouin people have navigated the deserts of Jordan for hundreds of years.

The desolate and arid landscape, of sand and mountains, is their home.

They are rarely unaware of their surroundings.

But when a select few found themselves under the bright lights of the film festival circuit, they could not have felt more lost.

For Hussein Salameh the limelight came fast. In the space of not much more than a year, he and fellow tribe members went from working as guides and herders to starring in the Oscar nominated film Theeb.

The 2015 BAFTA award winning film, directed by Naji Abu Nowar, is the first Jordanian movie to have been nominated for an Oscar.

Except for British actor Jack Fox, the cast was made up entirely of Bedouin people, many of whom had never acted or even seen a film at a cinema before.

The film is set during World War One and the Arab Revolt. It is a story about a young boy named Theeb, which means wolf in Arabic. Hussein plays Theeb’s brother, and together in the film they guide two travellers through the desert.

For the making of the movie, Naji and writer Bassel Ghandour spent a year living in the Shakriyeh village, in the south of Jordan. They worked with the tribesmen to learn about their lives and to conduct acting classes.

They did this to try and create an authentic depiction of the Bedouins.

Naji says he wanted to bring the story of these people to the international stage, in the same way Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, brought the Samurai to the world, in films like Yojimbo and Rashomon.

Speaking through a translator, Hussein says, the locals were initially perplexed by the idea of being on film, and some in the tribe didn’t think acting was something Hussein would ever want to do.

But Hussein says the tribe was very supportive of him, and of Naji and Bassel’s vision.

It took time for the two parties to build a rapport, but as the Bedouins got more used to the filmmaking crew, they began to accept their visitors.

Hussein says that he and the crew formed a strong bond during the filming.

He describes a moment when he was having trouble with a close-up shot and the cameraman laid a hand on his back and calmed him. From then on he was completely comfortable in front of the camera.

Everyday Bassel and Naji would sit with the Bedouins. Together they would look over the day’s film and scripts. Bassel says there were really three writers – himself, Naji and the Bedouins. Hussein’s 80-year-old father even contributed traditional poetry to the script.

Naji says, “I don’t believe in the auteur system of film making. I think it’s a fabrication. Film is really made by a community of people.”

The film debuted in the very village it was filmed. A makeshift cinema was made, and all the locals and the crew attended. As it began to get dark and the film started, Bassel says the atmosphere was magical.

There was singing, dancing and tears. A little girl even had to be taken away briefly by her mother. Having never seen a film before, she thought each scene was real. At the end the tribe expressed its approval, something Naji regards as the highest of all the honours the film has garnered.

Almost a year after the film’s Oscar nomination, things in the village remain much the same as before. The film crews are all gone now, and the people go about their day-to-day work.

Their idea of cinema has changed though. Hussein says, “the people now think of film as a message” and Theeb as their message.