The Bedouin Desert has its own rules, and young Theeb (Al-Hwietal) has learned them well, although he also has a streak of the rebel and is eager to become a man. His older brother Hussein (Al-Sweilhiyeen) steps in after they’ve lost their father, and shows patience with Theeb, dutifully teaching him adult responsibilities like hunting and caring for the camels. Theeb is intensely curious, and when a sheikh and a British officer arrive for a visit, Theeb can’t keep his hands off the British man’s possessions—and the Brit has none of the patience of Hussein. He really comes unglued when Theeb touches a mysterious wooden box rumored to contain gold.
It turns out the visitors are headed to a certain well in the desert and a railroad depot farther on and want Hussein to be their guide as they travel through dangerous territory. It’s agreed, and the three men set off into the desert on their camels. They do not know that Theeb intends to join them, trying desperately to keep up on his donkey, and using their footsteps in the sand for guidance. It is nightfall before he catches sight of them again at their camp. It will be the first of several times that Theeb is urged to return home, but he is determined, and the trip turns out to be his own hero’s journey and coming-of-age venture.
The plot is slow-paced, but fascinating in its tale of desert life during WWI when the English are fighting the Ottomans and are in the process of building a railroad through the Wadi Rum desert—to the dismay of many of the local Arabs. Jordanian writer/director Naji Abu Nowar’s story and his production is impressive in its depth and scope, highlighting different points of view, cultural tensions, and the influence of moral codes and blood ties, with the central theme being the hopeful transition of a young naïve boy in the desert into a much wiser young man.
The film is Jordan’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards, having previously won best director for Nowar at the Venice International Film Festival. For his actors, Nowar drew from local Bedouins in southern Jordan. Young Jacir Al-Hwietal seems to be a natural in his portrayal of a boy who must project strong emotional turmoil, pleasure, and satisfaction on his difficult, life-threatening and sometimes tragic journey.
A fine, intricate coming-of-age tale in the Jordanian desert.
Grade: A By Donna R. Copeland