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Naji Abu Nowar: Q&A With Variety’s Arab Filmmaker of the Year

Even before Naji Abu Nowar took home the director prize at the 2014 Venice Horizons section, his feature debut, “Theeb,” was one of the most talked-about films on the Lido. Born in Oxford and educated in Jordan and the U.K., Nowar has helped spotlight Jordan — not for outside crews seeking spectacular locations but for local talent telling local stories. “Theeb” is a stunning, intimate epic set in a Bedouin community during the Arab Revolt (the same period as “Lawrence of Arabia”), presenting a society on the cusp of change and tipping its hat to classic Westerns even in the way it toys with questions of moral absolutes.
Nowar is the latest recipient of Variety’s Arab Filmmaker of the Year award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

How does the label Arab filmmaker help you and how does it hold you back?
I’ve been half-half my whole life! In Jordan I’m accused of being more English than Arabic, and in England I’m accused of being more Arabic than English (laughs). I came to Amman 10 years ago because I’ve been excited by the stories I find here, so it’s wonderful to win an award like this and get the recognition for the film, because it helps me progress in the Arab and the Western worlds.

Western directors come and shoot Jordan’s landscape, and yet homegrown production has been limited. Why?
It’s a small country. The great thing about foreign films coming in is we’ve got some highly skilled crews. But not many can get to be heads of departments because most foreign films bring heads of departments, so it’s very difficult for young people to get experience. You have to bring in foreign crew and equipment, which becomes expensive, and it’s difficult to get films financed. There isn’t a film industry. Local  investors see it as a risk. We were lucky; we went after entrepreneurs who’d done well through risk-taking.

Talk about the influence of Westerns on how you developed the story.
I love Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro,” and it occurred to me, here are these Westerns that I love, and I went, wow, that’s like our Bedouin culture. We could easily have that type of character, or that type of story, and I tried to write something. It’s terrible! It’s a complete rip-off of Sergio Leone, almost plagiarism. (laughs). And that was the first thing I wrote in 2003. So it was always at the back of my head, and when (writer-producer) Bassel Ghandour came to me with an intimate character drama about two Bedouin boys in a difficult situation in the desert, it brought it back to mind.

Are you interested in making other films set in the past?
Both projects I have are set in the past (laughs). One is very relevant to today. It’s like my answer to “Zulu” or “The Seven Samurai.” It’s set in the ’20s, when Jordan had been formed as a country but the society hadn’t, and you had all these conflicting forces, all these people that really didn’t get along: the British, Syrian nationalists, the different tribes. I studied war studies at university, and I’m very interested in the different reasons why men go to war, why they commit violence.

Has “Theeb” screened within the Bedouin community?
The Bedouin actors got a huge reception when they came back; there were like 20,000 people firing guns in the air when they arrived. They’re heroes of their tribe now. The King Abdullah Fund for Development is creating a mobile cinema to travel around every community, which is amazing because only (the capital) Amman has cinemas. So a bus will turn up with a screen and a projector and speakers and play the film. It’s a wonderful thing.

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