05 February 2018

The understated brilliance of Theeb

I just watched the award-winning (and -deserving) 2015 Jordanian film Theeb.

Briefly: it’s both a Western film and a bildungsroman. The film recounts the story of the younger son, Theeb, of a Bedouin chief of al-Hijâz, during the Arab Revolt and the Ottoman theatre of World War I. His brother, Husayn, is tasked with guiding a British officer on a secret mission, through dangerous bandit-filled routes formerly used by pilgrims en route to Mecca. The fearless Theeb accompanies them – and is forced by a series of bandit attacks to fend for himself in a desert where trustworthiness is something scarcer than drinkable water.

Just from an artistic viewpoint, Theeb is a truly amazing work of cinema, and it was done on a shoestring budget. But the cinematography is utterly gorgeous, with sweeping landscapes of the rocky barrier desert lovingly rendered and dwelt on. (Also the ubiquitous flies at oases.) The dialogue is spare, and therefore effective. The characters are deep and their relationships touchingly portrayed. Even through the terse, brusque dialogue between Theeb and his brother Husayn as the latter teaches the younger boy the survival skills he will need (how to use a gun and a knife, how to slaughter a sheep), you can feel the brotherly affection there. The story of Theeb’s fight for survival in the desert, and the dangerous game he has to play when he depends on one of the bandits who attacked him to escape the desert alive, is simple but gripping.

But boy, I tell you: if I hadn’t been reading up on the history of the Arab Revolt in WWI, there’s an entire dimension of the film and its deeper intellectual, historical and thematic meaning that I would have straight-up missed.

Typically of films in the Western genre, it foregrounds a confrontation between modern technology and traditional lifestyles in marginal environments. You’ve got the Ottoman railway, which is every bit as symbolic of modern progress as it would be in an American Western: destroying the careers of the old Bedouin pilgrim guides, who then turn to banditry. But at a deeper level, Theeb shows the main character – the eponymous Bedouin boy – being torn between two very different moral visions.

The traditional demands of hospitality, brotherhood, debt, honour and vengeance stand on the one side. These demands are all very concrete, very immediate. Even for a ‘foreign’ viewer like me, the touching relationship between the two brothers, and the natural ethic of hospitality of the Bedouins (even for a British outsider) are rendered in a very easy-to-understand cinematic language. They’re visceral. They can make themselves felt in a ruffle of the hair, in a proffered coffee cup, in a handshake, in the placement of a tombstone or in a narrowed gaze filled with personal hatred and desire for revenge. These are all values that make themselves felt on the merely-human level.

On the other hand stands the very ‘modern’, very abstract demand of Arab solidarity and patriotism. The irony was clearly not lost on the screenwriters, because the only time this demand is given explicit voice in Theeb, is when the English soldier Theeb and Husayn are supposed to escort gets into an argument with his Arab translator about ‘king and country’ being things worth dying for. He does it in English, a language that Theeb and Husayn can’t understand. And even his translator finds himself seemingly at pains to explain what would drive an Englishman to undertake such a crazy and seemingly-suicidal mission in a corner of the world that isn’t his own.

But these ‘modern’ values are making their impression on Theeb all the same. They come with the changing landscape. Theeb comes into successive contact with the railway, with the Arab revolutionaries and with the Ottomans, and is forced to keep company with a pilgrim-guide turned bandit. Without spoiling the plot, there is one critical moment where Theeb has to choose between the traditional mores he knows, and the modern ‘national’ feeling which he’s only just begun to sense and understand. He chooses the latter – but when confronted about it, he justifies it in the ‘traditional’ language of brotherly honour and vengeance. Whether this is out of self-preservation or because Theeb himself finds his own actions easier to explain in this direct and visceral way, is left ambiguous. It’s not an accident that as Theeb rides his camel off back home, he crosses the ‘iron donkey trail’ where a train has just departed.

Keep in mind, too, that all of this action takes place in a few sparse-lined, understated scenes. But along with the grandiose desert vistas, it has all the tension and focus that make for truly great film. The film says a lot by speaking but little.

I can’t help but love Theeb; even with such a bleak story, it’s just so exquisitely done. I can’t possibly recommend it enough. And it makes me want to go back to exploring some of the old traditional films in the Western genre here.

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