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Venice Q&A: Jordanian ‘Theeb’ Director Abu Nowar

Jordanian director Naji Abu Nowar’s bold first feature, “Theeb,” is a Bedouin Western shot in the Jordanian desert with real Bedouins.

Nowar, who studied screenwriting at the Sundance Institute Lab’s first Middle East program in Jordan, combines Bedouin tribal culture and Western ideas and concepts to interesting effect. The film, sold by Fortissimo, is screening in Horizons at Venice and will also be in Toronto. It has already sold to Mad Solutions for the Middle East and Trigon for Switzerland. Nowar spoke at the Venice fest with Variety’s Nick Vivarelli.

If I’m not mistaken movies and cinematic storytelling are not really part of the culture in your region. This film seems to combine elements of Bedouin oral storytelling with Western tropes. How did you come up with this narrative?

Sundance came to the Middle East and I attended their first screenwriters lab in Jordan (in 2005). It really changed my life. It’s true that in the Bedouin community there isn’t a film culture, but I feel that their oral storytelling is very cinematic and fits organically with cinematic forms, especially Westerns or Biblical epics. So it was a very natural process.

Where did you grow up?
I was born in England and was there until I was 10, then I moved back to Jordan, then back to England. So lots of back and forth, but I’ve been living in Jordan for the past 10 years.

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The film is set in 1916, during WWI. What’s the historical context?
I immediately liked 1916 and the great Arab Revolt (against the Ottoman Empire) because it had many similarities to the great Westerns. It’s a different tone, but if you look at the Sergio Leone movies or John Ford’s “The Searchers,” it’s a time of great change, a very turbulent time. That’s what really interested me, telling the story of what happened to the Bedouins. Because their culture is killed after that. The actors in the film are the last Bedouins to be born as nomads, that’s why we chose them.

From a production standpoint, was it difficult to get “Theeb” made?
Very difficult. This is my third or fourth project that I tried to get mounted. The attitude we had with this one was: “Enough with waiting for this or that grant to come through, we’re just going to do it.” We are one of very few independent films that has come out of Jordan in the past decade.

But you did have some grants?
When we started out we only had the Sanad (Abu Dhabi Film Festival) development fund. We found young entrepreneurs, forward-thinking people who were willing to take the financial risk. A lot of people on our crew deferred (their salaries) or worked for free.

“Theeb” straddles different genres and also different cultures, in a way. Do you consider it a film geared first and foremost towards the people whose story you are telling?
I love Akira Kurosawa, I love John Ford, I love directors that are usually quite commercial or mainstream, so that’s just naturally the stories I go towards. Though there are some Arab filmmakers whose films I love to watch, I feel like most of them are almost cynical in that they cater to a Western audience and to European funding. No one wants to watch them, and no one does. I want to make films that people want to watch, I want to make Arab films that I want to watch. I consciously want to make films that people in the Middle East want to buy a ticket for.

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