It is the eyes, the eyes of young Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat) which compel the viewer as they search from under long black lashes, wide open, absorbing the stark, blunt, weathered outcrops and desert of Hijaz. His gaze misses nothing, drives his roving curiosity to join his brother (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen) who was charged by the new Sheik, to guide an English officer (Jack Fox) to a Pilgrim’s Well. He, with an interpreter (Marji Audeh), appeared one night at the Bedouin campfire. It was Theeb’s eyes which moved inquisitive fingers to investigate the foreigner’s battered wooden box only to be explosively rebutted. ‘Are you a prince? How many men have you killed?’ Theeb asks him.
The dialogue is sparse, as is the way of the Bedouin, whose lives are depicted by their own people, not trained actors. It is this respect for authenticity which makes this film truly remarkable. Yes, there is a plot, a story of the honour of the now departed Sheik, punctuated by resonant songs sung from the Bedouin belly by the campfire. But it is one that shatters the desolate yet stunningly beautiful rocks and shifting sands by the spitting of rifle fire, killing Theeb’s party in seconds, leaving him tumbling into a well to be left for dead by bandits disguised as Pilgrim Guides. ‘The strong eat the weak’ was the old Sheik’s mantra, and as Theeb – which means Wolf – buries his brother’s body in the sand he learns the meaning of family honour.
Through eyes now bloodied and no longer innocent he watches, flies crawling over his eye lids and open mouth, poking a thin stick into cracks on the desert floor. But seeing his brother’s death exchanged for the cheap coins of the military, Wolf turns wolf and using the foreigner’s pistol he shoots Hussain’s murderer. Theeb fades into the desert, now a man. Theeb won the Orizzonti Award for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival this year. Abu Nowar, the producer, said in Venice that he spent over a year living with the tribe to prepare for the film. It’s a Jordan, Britain, UAE and Qatar co-production funded in part by the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and Doha Film Institute and had its premier in Wadi Rum.
Theeb continues at FACT until Thursday 27 August. Book your tickets here.