Naji Abu Nowar, the director of an award–winning Jordanian feature Theeb, which has become Jordan’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 88th Academy Awards, says he hopes to make “grand-scale Arabic-language epics” in the future.
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Telling a Bedouin story of brotherhood and betrayal set in Wadi Rum in 1916, Theeb fits the special rules of eligibility for the Foreign Language Film Award category, Jordan’s Royal Film Commission said in a statement.
In an interview with Al Arabiya News, Naji Abu Nowar discussed Theeb, his filmmaking inspirations from Jordan’s Bedouin community, and the obstacles he faces in his art.
Q. Has the international success of Theeb been overwhelming? How has it affected your future projects?
It has been an overwhelming and joyous experience for the whole team. We are all very happy and the journey continues. It has had a major impact on my life as a filmmaker, I am now getting more offers and screenplays. And it also has helped me develop my own projects. I am very lucky and the future feels bright.
Q. What was behind the success of Theeb?
I think it has to do with an honest story, with honest characters, honestly told. All human beings are essentially the same. If you study folklore throughout history and the world you will observe that most of our storytelling – wherever we come from on the planet – is very similar. So if you tell an honest story – from, in this case, the Bedouin community of southern Jordan – it will travel because humans all over the world will see themselves in the characters. If you tell a fake story or one that’s contrived for say, a political purpose, you will alienate your audience.
Q. What does it mean that Theeb is a Jordanian production leveling – if not surpassing – Western movie production?
On a practical level I hope it proves to investors and funds here that we can make international standard films – and in Theeb’s case for a lot less money than in the West – that can be celebrated across the world. I hope this will encourage more investors in film production in the Middle East and a proper film industry. I hope it will allow me the opportunity to make more films, which is my only goal. I would like to make grand-scale Arabic-language epics, the likes of which the world has never seen. That is my dream and Theeb has helped me move a step towards it.
Q. Can Theeb be viewed as purely local, or does it explore universal themes?
Being culturally specific and universal are not mutually exclusive elements. Instead I find the more specific you become, the greater the universal reach. The more you delve into a world and the people that populate it, the more you discover the truths that unite us all as human beings.
Q. Does politics have any place in Theeb's success?
Do you mean politics in the film or the politics of the film’s release and popularity? Either way, I think that debate is for a film academic or analyst, not me. I’m too close to it to tell.
Q. Does the setting of the movie have any important connotations? Would it be different if Theeb was set somewhere else in Jordan?
The setting of a story is an extremely important part of the fabric of its telling. We spent a year looking for the right locations. Every element in the filmmaking process requires time, passion, effort and careful consideration.
Q. Is there, in one way or another, any attempt behind Theeb to help change the long-held Western misconceptions about the region?
I don’t ask why I make films, I don’t try and psychoanalyze myself, I just know when I want to make a film, because I love it, because it gives me an adrenaline rush and because I love the process of working with my colleagues to discover the film and making it. It is all I have ever wanted to do in life and finding some purpose for it isn’t really interesting or necessary to me. I would never ask why I fell in love, I would just enjoy the experience of being in love.
Q. What kind of challenges or obstacles have you faced, if any, during the production of Theeb?
A lot from finance, logistics, working with a young child, non-actors and animals – something they always tell you never to do, and I ended up doing them all on my first film. But I was lucky to have a wonderful team who bring so much dedication and creativity to the table that you feel we could have overcome any problem.