Theeb_Director_Naji Abu NowarMiami cinephiles first had a chance to see the movie Theeb at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival earlier this year, before Film Movement picked it up for distribution and it took the Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriter Award at the festival. Full disclosure: this film critic was on the jury with Books and Books owner Mitchell Kaplan and Gary Ressler, the surviving brother of the man for whom the prize is named (here’s a recap of MIFF 32). We all had little doubt about this film’s strength as a debut feature film co-written by the film’s director Naji Abu Nowar and co-screenwriter Bassel Ghandour.

Theeb is currently rolling out into theaters (Theeb presents powerful allegory of post-colonial Arabia through eyes of Bedouin boy — a film review). The timing correlates with the film industry’s awards season, as it is Jordan’s entry to the Oscars for the foreign language film prize. It arrived in Miami for its Florida premiere riding a wave of accolades, including winning the Orizzonti Award for Best Director at the 71st Venice International Film Festival and, at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Narrative Film and the Best Film from the Arab World in the New Horizons Competition. In 2014, Nowar was also honored as Variety’s Arab Filmmaker of the Year. “It’s just been a crazy amazing ride,” admits Nowar, speaking over the phone, ahead of Theeb‘s theatrical roll out.

His debut short film, a documentary entitled “Death of a Boxer,” had its world premiere at the 2009 Miami Short Film Festival (you can watch the short here). It was there that he met Jaie Laplante, former Miami Short Film Festival director and current executive director for the Miami International Film Festival. The prize was accepted that night by Laith Majali, a producer on the film.

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The reason Nowar was not present to accept his award during MIFF was because he was attending a screening of the film at a village called Shakryieh, in the Jordanian protected area of Wadi Rum. It was a special event for some of the Bedouin actors who participated in the shoot. For some it would be a first-time film-viewing experience. “They were all basically non-actors,” Nowar states.

The director said he found his actors during a year’s worth of research for the script with Ghandour while travelling around Jordan’s Southern desert region. They met different tribal groups from different areas. They found their actors while spending a couple of months in the ancient city of Petra. “It’s where Spielberg shot Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” Nowar notes. “We were basically casting a tribe, and what we found was a subtribe in the Wadi Rum region — they were the last nomadic Bedouins to be settled — and so we really liked them because the adult men still had the knowledge of how to survive in the desert, of how to track, hunt, find water. They knew how to live the nomadic lifestyle, and they gave us a lot of information.”

Nowar and his crew took their time in both getting to know the tribe and teaching them lessons in acting, a period of time that took almost another year. “We decided to move in with them and to develop the film hand in hand with them and also cast the film there and direct acting workshops,” he said, “and we workshopped them for about eight months  in acting workshops. We did that for a year, and we shot the film at the end of the year.”

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One of the film’s standout cast members is, of course, the boy who plays the film’s titular character, Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat. “He’s just one of these people who just have it,” said Nowar. “He’s very much a natural talent, and often the best thing to do with a talent like that is to get out of their way and just keep it as simple as possible and just let them be themselves and not try and over-direct them. He’s just a force of nature.”

But he was also a boy. “You just try to keep it simple for him and not give him Pepsi. If you gave him Pepsi,” Nowar pauses to laugh, “you’d lose half a day. He’d go crazy.”

Working with non-actors also forced the filmmakers to work in ways that they wouldn’t with professional actors. “What Wolfgang [Thaler, the movie’s cinematographer] and I both decided was that because we were dealing with non-actors — because it’s very difficult to ask someone with a lack of experience to do complicated blocking maneuvers. Obviously, we’re going for effect, we’re going for certain things, but as much as we could — we were just going to try to capture the performances and move with the actor rather than take the actor away from the move because that would complicate things for the actor.”

This deliberate style of shooting also works on other levels. The movie has several instances of violence that interrupt the scenes in a natural, startling manner, with little editing of the images. Nowar also said that a slower pace is key in representing life in the desert for the Bedouin people, something he came to feel while shooting on location. “When you live there for a year, your rhythm of life adapts to their rhythm of life,” he reveals, “and their rhythm of life is very, very patient and quiet. I think that has a lot to do with not spending a lot of energy because of the heat and retaining water. Then, if they have to act, then they will act very quickly and then snack and then do something, and then they will be back, very quiet and relaxed again, and so I wanted to capture that rhythm of life, and put you in that rhythm of life. It’s very strange to come back to the city after, come back to cars and traffic.”

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The last point worth making about this film could be considered a spoiler, so if you have not seen it yet, you might want to stop reading now and scroll to the bottom to get your tickets. The film ends with a powerful change in Theeb’s character. It’s a brutal development that walks a tricky line of revenge and disillusionment. The movie ends with Theeb taking someone’s life. It’s a gesture that gives the film an inevitable ambivalence. It could be misconstrued as a scene of revenge and punishment. But Nowar is too deeply in touch with Bedouin culture to put the act in such a context. “It’s a moral dilemma and an uncomfortable one,” says Nowar about the film’s final scene. “For me, it’s not something you necessarily want to do objectively, but it happens. I think it would be good to be in that discomfort.”

He credits his niece for pushing him to make a leap into Theeb’s perspective with more genuineness than he could have conceived otherwise. He said after he asked her to look at his script, he got some invaluable feedback. “I gave it to my niece, who is a novelist and comes from an original Bedouin tribe, and she said, ‘You know, the problem with this draft, Naji, is you’re writing the story as if he’s you, a nice boy who grew up in Britain and Jordan.’ … [In Bedouin culture] there is no court or police. There is no one to intercede to protect his rights or look after him, and you’ve got to act according to your own conscience. You’ve got to basically take the law into your own hands. That sounds cliché, but that’s the way it was back then. In Bedouin law he has to protect himself, and he has to protect his family, and he has to stop this man from continuing what he was doing. I just didn’t want to shy away from that. I didn’t want to change what would happen in reality to fit our modern sense of civility.”

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For more of my conversation with Nowar, jump through the logo for Miami New Times’ Art and Culture blog. In this part of our conversation, the director reveals why Miami is such an important city for his filmmaking career:

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Hans Morgenstern

Theeb is currently playing in our Miami area at Tower Theater and the Miami Beach Cinematheque. On Nov. 27 it opens at the Cinema Paradiso – Fort LauderdaleFor other screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. The film had its Florida premiere during Miami Dade College’s 32nd Miami International Film Festival, where I first reported on it in this post. Film Movement and the Miami International Film Festival provided images in this interview.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

THEEBposterWA_edited-1“Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

 

Problems in the clash of European culture with the Middle East are so much grander than the shocking events in Paris last week. There are decades, even centuries of issues to be resolved requiring a massive shift in how we all relate culturally, yet no one seems to truly want to take those steps without violence. As citizens of the planet caught up in the power grabs of government leaders, the best we can do as human beings is try to understand the Other. Though they may not change the world on their own, movies can be helpful in allowing for some of that understanding. With his debut feature film, Theeb, writer/director Naji Abu Nowar, a Jordanian filmmaker who grew up in England, has gifted the world of cinema with an astonishing yet heartbreaking film that offers a heavy lesson with a light hand, especially when it comes to the role of retribution in this world.

Theeb is not so much a political film as it is one of humanism. Told through the eyes of a 10-year-old Bedouin boy, Theeb is a disarmingly simple film that presents a different way of life in a different era. Some have called it a western that happens to take place in the Arabian desert, in 1916. When we meet Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat), which translates to “wolf” in Arabic, his teenage brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen) is showing him how to fire a bolt action rifle. It’s one of several scenes with double meanings, speaking to both Theeb’s fragility and strength. Nowar and co-screenwriter Bassel Ghandour won the Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriting Award earlier this year at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival, and — full disclosure — I was on the jury that bestowed the award on the screenwriters. The script stood out because it not only told a sensitively intimate story from the perspective of this child, but it spoke with deep insight to the tapestry of tribal life and brotherhood in 1916 Arabia as World War I loomed while foreshadowing its dark aftermath.

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Theeb doesn’t seem to know it yet, but he is growing up in a tumultuous time in Hejaz Province, a region that is now part of Jordan. World War I is looming, and the British, still in colonial mode, are laying train tracks across the desert. When Hussein is tasked to help a British officer (Jack Fox) carrying a mysterious box through dangerous territory filled with bandits, Theeb sneaks along. The officer,whose name is later revealed as Edward, has little patience for Theeb, and he is clearly annoyed by Theeb’s appearance after they are too far along in their journey to safely turn back, according to Hussein. Edward sees the boy as a burden, and he’s especially annoyed by Theeb’s curiosity. The child can’t seem to keep his prying hands away from the officer’s ornate box. Edward chastises the boy at one point, yelling at him, “Do you know what a king is? Do you know what a country is? This is what people fight for!”

Our young hero never seems to speak much, especially since he doesn’t know English, but Al-Hweitat communicates so much in this film. He expresses a complex mix of shame, confusion and suspicion to Edward. The otherness of Edward is also captured brilliantly by the film’s cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler who shoots the officer at a distance or blocked by adult members of the tribe, allowing for only parts of the man to peek through the crowd, part of his green uniform here, a flash of his pink face and blonde hair there. From Theeb’s perspective, Edward becomes the exotic one. It’s distancing and complex, loaded with the mystery of the stranger.

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Nowar’s film almost feels antithetical to Lawrence of Arabia. Though rich in landscape and shot on some of the locations David Lean used in that film, Theeb does not romanticize the Englishman going native. The divide between Theeb and Edward is as vast as the desert, reflected in the shifting sand dunes to cracked, dried earth to the narrow mountain pass leading to the ancient city of Petra. Theeb is a young man alone, and the way Nowar and Thaler capture the vast merciless quality of the desert only makes the boy seem more alone. Theeb and his brother only matter insofar as their duty to Edward, even though, as laid out in the film’s opening title text, to the Bedouins, these boys have a cultural obligation to their guest.

This is also a chaotic land, and the filmmakers capture its forbidding quality with a languorous pace that is broken up with startling moments of violence. The film is slow at times, but it works during shocking pay offs that speak to the dangers of this inhospitable land: bodies in wells, a dead man draped over a wandering camel and finally, a stranger dressed in black (Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh) who has been left crippled after a bloody firefight who considers killing Theeb but says, “Maybe I’ll let the beasts eat you.” This sort of harsh world tends to force alliances between enemies, however. It’s not man versus nature but men versus nature, and Theeb will need to grow up quick as he is confronted by a cynical world of murder, greed and treachery and the pull toward becoming the monster of his namesake.

Hans Morgenstern

Theeb runs 100 minutes, is in Arabic and English with English subtitles and is not rated (it contains instances of violence). It opens exclusively this Wednesday, Nov. 18, in our Miami area at Tower Theater. It then rolls out as follows:
 
Nov. 20-22 (weekend only) — Bill Cosford Cinema
For other screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. The film had its Florida premiere during Miami Dade College’s 32nd Miami International Film Festival, where I first reported on it in this post. Film Movement provided all images in this review and provided an on-line screener link for a revisit of this film. Finally, jump through the logo for Miami New Times Art and Culture blog to read some of my interview with Nowar:
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(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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Risk-taking was the name of the game at the 32nd annual Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival. Festival goers had to take many risks in choosing their tickets, as the programming staff took many risks on young, little known filmmakers. As with any such risk-taking, the results were mixed, and that made for surprise standouts but also some disappointments.

This writer saw 22 feature films and three shorts in all at the festival (not counting the four excellent Orson Welles films I am familiar with that screened as part of a retrospective that remains ongoing; details here). That I only liked nine out of all those films at the festival (and this number includes two shorts) made this one of the less impressive festivals I’ve attended in a long time. It was a shame considering last year I mostly had to decide what film I liked less than others to find any weaknesses.

Almost half of the films I saw at the fest were as a juror for the Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriting Award category, which bestows a first-time feature screenwriter with a $5,000 grant. My fellow jurors included Gary Ressler, whose brother the award pays tribute to. Ressler brought his experience with story development at Disney Studios, working on films from Mulan (1998) to The Incredibles (2004). Mitchell Kaplan, knows what makes a good story, as he is the founder of the Miami chain of the independent book stores, Books & Books, also joined us at screenings and in the deliberation room. It was a pleasure judging with them and an honor to have been included on the jury.

Before a few remarks on some of the contenders, which does not reflect the opinions of my fellow jurors, I might as well note the winner of our award, which also stands as a highlight of the film festival: Theeb. Writer/director Naji Abu Nowar and theeb-021co-screenwriter Bassel Ghandour took the prize, which was accepted that night by a very gracious Laith Majali, a producer on the film. The director was unable to attend the award ceremony because he was attending a screening of the film at a village called Shakryieh in the Jordanian protected area of Wadi Rum for some of the Bedouin actors who participated in the filmmaking. For some it would be a first-time film-viewing experience.

As for the quality of the film, it resonated on many levels. The script stood out because it not only told a sensitively intimate story from the perspective of a 10-year-old Bedouin boy, but it insightfully spoke to the tapestry of tribal life and brotherhood in 1916 Arabia as World War I loomed. Beyond that, the film has a timely quality due to the chaos that seems to constantly brew in the post-colonial world of the Middle East, which has caused generations of suffering and injustice. All of this comes across with a patient, delicate hand. Though the film was slowly paced, even drawn out sequences build toward some pay-off, be it an insight on the setting or the character or a shocking twist in the action. As my fellow juror Gary Ressler said, it says so much in so few words. Majali says he hopes the film gets U.S. distribution and sounds positive that a deal is in the works with a notable indie that specializes in world cinema. When the deal is secure, you can expect a more in-depth review for a film that is sure to continue to make waves in the world cinema stage this year.

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There were several awards given that night including two major ones for a film I didn’t like. Here is the full list of winners:

Knight Competition Grand Jury Prize: The Obscure Spring (Mexico)

Knight Competition Grand Jury Award Best Performance: Cecilia Suarez, Jose Maria Yazpik and the entire cast of The Obscure Spring

Knight Competition Grand Jury Award Best Director: Abner Benaim – Invasion (Panama/Argentina)

Knight Documentary Achievement Award: Tea Time (Chile/USA), directed by

Lexus Audience Award for Favorite Feature Film: Kamikazee (Spain)

Lexus Audience Favorite Short Film: Young Lions of Gypsy (Italy/France)

Lexus Ibero-American Opera Prima Competition:  In The Grayscale (Chile)

Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriting Award: Theeb (Jordan/Qatar/UAE/UK)

Park Grove Shorts Competition: Young Lions of Gypsy (Italy/France)

Honorable Mentions: A Tree in the Sea (United Arab Emirates) & Alba Baptista for her performance in Miami (Portugal).

Miami Encuentros: The Apostate (Spain/France/Uruguay)

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Grand Prize winner: The First Day
Audience Award winner: The First Day
Best Documentary: Romana
Best Drama: The First Day
Best Actor: Juan Jimenez – The First Day
Best Actress: Valentina Jimenez – The First Day
Best Director:  Rita Pereyra – The First Day
Best Technical Achievement:  Timothy Wilcox – Top Shelf

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Reflecting on the films in the Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriting Award, there were a few strong contenders in the group, including A Girl at My Door, a film from Korea by first-time feature director July Jung. The film stands as a smart, progressive example of story-telling in dealing with sexual orientation while both offering social commentary while staying true to strong storytelling. Almost as strong was Tour de Force (Hin und weg), a film from Germany by Christian Zübert. The film pulled more tears from an audience than I ever heard. It dealt with a group of friends taking a cross-country bike trip to Belgium. It all seems like a fun time until the organizer of the trip reveals the reason for the trip: he was recently diagnosed with ALS … and assisted suicide is legal in Belgium. In the end, there’s a big reckoning for all involved, as the specter of death invites everyone to reevaluate their lives. It was just too bad that the delivery of this message arrived in a self-conscious sort of classical storytelling tinged with sentimentality.

Another decent film in the mix was Love at First Fight (Les combattants). A quirky humor dominated most of this French movie, as Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) gradually fell for tough-girl survivalist Madeleine (Adèle Haenel). When he follows her tolove-at-first-fight-f11 basic training, and she caves under pressure, she starts to fall for him. The two characters then tumble into predictable roles, deflating the original dynamic flirtation between these characters that made the film engaging at the start. This sudden shift in Madeleine’s personality also felt disingenuous to her once interesting character.

Many of the other films in this category suffered by unfortunate turns in plotting that unbelievably betrayed characterization, sacrificing any honesty to the story and disrupting the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. That was the problem with Cut Snake, which could not get character dynamics to click with plot. There’s a twist in the drama toward the end of the film that betrays what could have been an interesting love triangle. Meanwhile, the weirdly disjointed horror/family drama Shrew’s Nest was inconsistent about character development throughout. It reached for mystery but stumbled into incredible convoluted revelations. Then there was 3 Beauties. What should have been an insightful satire into the obsession of beauty pageants in Venezuela, tumbled into poorly managed black comedy that grew tiresome fast, as the filmmakers hammered on the same joke over and over again.

Even outside of required viewing, feature film highlights were few in comparison to the disappoints. We also saw Ben’s At Home, a comedy about a young guy who decides to become a shut-in after his girlfriend breaks up with him … until a beautiful delivery girl shows up. It was cute but grew tiresome fast. Everybody Leaves (Todos se van), based on everybody-leaves-021the popular autobiographical book by Cuban writer Wendy Guerra, had some promise. The film’s narrator was a little girl who looked like Mafalda and is at the center of a custody battle in pre-Mariel era Cuba. Colombian director Sergio Cabrera did a great job capturing the atmosphere of the beach life and the complicated dynamics of a family unraveling in communist Cuba. However, the performances were sometimes uneven, and there was something a little too disturbing about the abuse the little girl suffered at the hands of her alcoholic father.

My partner on this blog, Ana Morgenstern, was on her own for Sunstrokes (Las Insoladas), the second film by Argentinian director Gustavo Taretto, which proved to be another disappointment. Here’s what she had to say about it:

Sunstrokes offers a funny look a 1990s Buenos Aires via six girlfriends who sunbathe on the roof of a building. Each of the characters has a quirk, a personality so distinct it almost errs on the side of stereotypical. Flor (Carla Peterson) is the leading lady of the pack. She instigates some of the action and is the stronger character of the group. Kari is a psychology student, she is interested in esoteric themes, like psychoanalysis through colors. Sol (Maricel Álvarez) is relaxed, and early on reveals sunstrokes-51that she likes to make copies of other people’s photos when they are good. Vicky (Violeta Urtizberea) is a hairdresser whose portrayal almost verges on offensive. As the “naive” one of the bunch, she’s the butt of every joke. At one point in the film, she realizes that Ernesto “Che” Guevara is often referred to as “Che” because of his use of Buenos Aires’ slang. Then there’s Vale (Marina Bellati). Afraid of being alone, she goes everywhere with her dog and does not let the other girls speak ill around him. Finally, the newest of the group, Lala (Luisana Lopilato) is the youngest and is also very gullible. She believes in UFOs and does a great manicure.

Throughout the film the sextet of gal-pals talk about life and decide to work together towards a common goal: to travel to Cuba next summer — all while being featured in tiny bikinis. Each of the side conversations is mundane and motivated to expose the world of women as a vacuous and idle world, void of depth and pathos but filled with easy laughs and lots of skin. The film also draws inspiration from its era, so cassette tapes and tape recorders along with giant cellphones are featured prominently, also for superficial comic effect. In all, the film is a one-dimensional cartoon that almost verges in the misogynistic.”

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Ana did like Wild Tales, though, another film from Argentina. It opened the festival to uproarious laughter that filled the Olympia theater for much of the night. That film will be opening at several theaters in Miami this Friday, including the art houses O Cinema and the Coral Gables Art Cinema. A review is coming soon. Another film that premiered at the festival and coming to local screens very soon is Felix and Meira. It impressed the both of us and tells the story of the emotional wandering of a Hasidic Jewish wife for a secular man who can’t help but flirt with her. Canadian directors François Delisle and Maxime Giroux keep their approach low-key to the benefit of what could have been an overly quirky situation comedy. With the help of strong actors including a former Hasidic Jew who left that life to become an actor (Luzer Twersky) who plays the cuckold husband, the film stood as a highlight of MIFF 32.

The most consistent category for exciting, entertaining and thoughtful work came out the documentary portion of the festival. There were some big hype titles like Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and Wim Wenders’ return to the MIFF with Salt of the Earth, a film he co-directed with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado on the photography of his father, Sebastião Salgado. But the most thrilling documentary I saw was The Record Man, the-record-man-061-1024x576a film that looked at the life of Henry K. Stone, founder of Hialeah’s TK Records, which is best known for having produced some of the most popular Disco hits of the ’70s. Now, I never liked disco that much. However, the film swept me off my feet, and I was absolutely delighted by the storytelling behind songs like “Ring My Bell,” “Rock Me Baby” and “Get Down Tonight.” That Stone saw past race and color to support songs he felt had quality spoke to his purist approach to his business, and the film paints an affectionate portrait of the so-called “record man” that will win anyone over to the genre because it so genuinely celebrates music and the passion of those behind it.

Another smaller documentary that celebrated a different kind of artist was Architecture of Color, which focused on Rio de Janeiro artist Beatriz Milhazes. Like Record Man, it featured talking heads and a straight-forward approach. However, like Record Man, the film never loses its focus on emphasizing the art. As Record Man is at its best when it highlights the songs, Architecture of Color is at its most interesting when we are watching Milhazes create. Architecture of Color screened with another notable documentary, the 11-minute short “Papa Machete,” which was made by local filmmakers director Jonathan David Kane and producer/writer Jason Fitzroy Jeffers. It’s a film I have happily covered extensively for “Miami New Times” only because it is so good (read the articles here).

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I saw only one other locally-made documentary of note, The Holders. It certainly highlighted an important issue: the throw-away treatment of many pets in the Miami-Dade County area. Director Carla Forte provides an array of voices, from those working in public animal shelters to veterinarians to passionate, sometimes zealous animal rights activists. Most interesting, however, are the titular “holders,” who are ambivalent pet-owners prepared to give up their pets to certain euthanasia at animal shelters because the pet has become an inconvenience. The camera almost never identifies them but shoots them vérité style, from the shoulders down, at the shelter, as they nonchalantly give excuses as to why they can no longer “hold” them (too sick, the family’s moving, the dog pisses the carpet, etc.). It’s compelling stuff, which is unfortunately what made the film’s righteous tone, including an overly-sentimental voice-over featuring poetry that spoke of the intelligence and soul of animals, feel so heavy-handed. Still, those who think owning a pet might be “fun” should watch this documentary because, indeed, they are taking in another family member and all the responsibility that comes with such a decision.

There were other films we covered already on Independent Ethos. Check those out, including interviews and reviews, by following the Miami International Film Festival tag. It was a memorable festival, and I really feel humbled by executive director Jaie Laplante’s faith in my opinion to be granted an influence on blessing one of this year’s films with an award. Meeting fellow film lovers, filmmakers and film critics from out-of-town was also a great highlight. Tis an important part of the festival experience, and that stands as a great highlight of this year’s festival too. We attended several parties and had many intelligent conversations and some fun times. I only hope for more movies to love next year.

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Hans Morgenstern

(All images courtesy of Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival. Text copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)