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"Theeb was to delve into Bedouin life and create something organic from within it"

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Naji Abu Nowar • Director


- VENICE 2014: Interview with Naji Abu Nowar, who just received the Orizzonti Award for Best Director for his film Theeb, which depicts the life of Bedouins during World War I

Naji Abu Nowar  • Director

Last weekend, director Naji Abu Nowar received the Orizzonti Award for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival for his first feature-length film Theeb [+see also:
interview: Naji Abu Nowar
film profile
. Theeb
is a story about a young Bedouin boy, whose coming of age is greatly hastened as he embarks on a perilous desert journey, during World War I, to guide a British officer to his secret destination.

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What is the significance of the word Theeb [Wolf] as a title and the name of your main character?
The Wolf is a very important animal in Bedouin culture. It is an ambiguous creature both revered and feared, an enemy and a friend. There are many songs, poems and stories surrounding the Bedouin’s relationships with Wolves. Indeed if you are nicknamed ‘Wolf ’ in Bedouin culture you have earned respect as a man of daring and cunning, a person who can achieve impossible feats. Because of this the name Theeb is a standard Bedouin name, similar to other revered animals like the Hawk, Falcon and Lion. The ambiguity of a wolf as hero and villain, both feared and respected is something that attracted me as a name for our character. It is both glorious and tragic at the same time.

The Bedouin were included in the creative process?
Absolutely. From the very beginning my producers and I agreed that the only way to make Theeb was to delve into Bedouin life and create something organic from within it. In order to achieve this we moved to the Wadi Rum desert of Jordan to fully immerse ourselves in the world of our story. We spent a year in the village of Shakiriya with some of the last Bedouins to have lived a nomadic life in Jordan. Newly settled, their lives were drastically changing just as the characters in our film. Whereas the elders knew how to ride, track, hunt and find water, the youth were mostly ignorant of these skills, reliant on four-wheel drives, roads and modern plumbing. They grew passionate about our project because they saw it as a way of preserving their culture. So we formed a partnership with the Bedouin where we developed the story together based on our mutual desire for authenticity. As we learned about their folklore and traditions, the drama and depth of our screenplay evolved. Their contribution pushed us past the confines of a formulaic film and into a living, breathing world.

How was it working with Non-Actors? What was your philosophy?
The Bedouin were only curious but not passionate about acting at the beginning. Their world is about their families, hunting and camels and the cinematic experience held little attraction to them. So it was important for us to make sure the Bedouin actors enjoyed the process and became passionate about the project. To achieve this we began the workshops with fun acting games that made us all laugh and imbued the group with positive energy. We would then slowly raise the level of concentration and effort required to tackle some of the more demanding elements of acting. 

How did the acting troupe respond to learning lines?
Some of the cast were illiterate or had little formal education so I knew it would be hard for them to memorize their lines. We concluded that we should give them the general direction and allow them to speak with ease in their own way. This also helped me to achieve the spontaneity and naturalistic performances I was after. 

Would you have never thought of winning this prestigious award (Orizzonti Award for Best Director)?
I never imagined we would win this incredible award. Being accepted to the Venice Film Festival was the greatest honour of my life. Then when we got a 10 minute standing ovation in the premiere, I felt like all my dreams had come true. To now win an award and share the same honour with so many incredible filmmakers is mind blowing and I think it is going to take a long time for this to sink in and to actually understand what has happened. All I can do is thank the Jury and entire festival team for the most incredible experience of my life.

To whom do you dedicate this award?
This award belongs to the community of people who came together to make this film. They range from the Bedouin tribes, to young entrepeneurs who invested in the film, to crew members who worked for free on the film, to businesses who sponsored us and funds who gave us grants, to family and friends who did so many different things to help. There are so many people who gave their hearts, passion, time and money to this film. I can't name them all now but they all know who they are and that they own this award just as much as I do. I hope we will all get to work together again in the future. I know who really makes a film and I value the talents of the artists that I work with in every field. So this is their award.

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