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.


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.”


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.”


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:

NT Arts

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.)

Breathe_1sht_final.inddAn awakening of female sensuality and passion are at the core of Mélanie Laurent’s second film Breathe (Respire). Rather than exploiting the familiar coming of age narrative, Laurent explores characters that have depth and lets them evolve slowly. Breathe tells the story of Charlie (Joséphine Japy), a seemingly average suburban teenager who lives with her mother. Charlie goes to school where she has a suitor and a small but consistent group of friends and has, for the most part, a quiet life. The one source of tension for Charlie is the on and off relationship her parents have. A child of a very young couple (her mother had her at 18), Charlie witnesses the turmoil between her father, who is not committed to the relationship, and her mother, who loves her father too deeply, even painfully.

Charlie’s life is unexpectedly changed when a new girl joins the school. Sarah (Lou de Laâge) is beautiful, confident, filled with energy and appears to have taken to plain Charlie in a special way. The relationship between the two high school girls develops fast and soon Charlie becomes enthralled by Sarah. The two go everywhere together and Sarah gives Charlie her undivided attention, prompting her to find a side of herself she was unaware of. However, Sarah has also inserted herself into Charlie’s life in a pernicious way; jealous of the close bond that Charlie and her mother share, Sarah tries to elicit a close bond with Charlie’s mother. Sara also is aware of who Charlie’s closest friends are, and in a slow but persistent way, she creates a wedge between Charlie and her friends. The relationship goes from a deep friendship into a complicated entangled affair.


When Charlie takes Sarah on a family vacation, the relationship between them deepens. It goes from elated joy and a sort of closeness seldom achieved by best friends to a toxic relationship where Sarah seems to delight in seeing Charlie being hurt, while also drawing her closer in. This sick dynamic culminates when Charlie — jealous and worried — confronts Sarah one late night as she arrives after a night out. Sarah responds by seducing Charlie and passionately kissing her. From this point on, the relationship deepens in macabre ways.

As shy Charlie becomes obsessed with Sarah, her own identity suffers and wanes. She uncovers a secret Charlie has been hiding, and when she approaches Sarah to talk about it, hoping this will make them closer again, Sarah goes into a rage and unleashes a campaign against Charlie. At school, Charlie becomes the object of Sarah’s rage. She is unable to fight back, as she still garners hopes to recoup that lost friendship.


The action centers around different kinds of women, it is not only a coming of age for Charlie, but also an interesting take on her mother, who has been deeply involved in regaining her father for years but throughout the course of the film finds herself renewed. As Simone de Beauvoir once posited, “One is not born but rather becomes a woman,” meaning the lived body, carrying experiences and a unique socioeconomic imprint, an identity gradually acquired.

In Breathe, Charlie is in the process of becoming a woman, that identity partly learned from an example at home and partly due to external stimuli represents the shift in Charlie’s personality. While the end may seem a shocking development, it is also an instance of becoming a woman. The process of evolving and becoming a woman is not a simple or linear trajectory, as Beauvoir reminds us, it is charged with contextual and cultural meaning. In Charlie’s microcosm it is also the result of the lived experience at home, where the one relationship that has molded her persona is ridden with rejection and suffering.

Ana Morgenstern

Breathe runs 91 minutes long, is in French with English subtitles and it is not rated (there is adult language, sexuality and violence on an array of levels). It’s now playing in our South Florida area exclusively at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and in Boca Raton at the Living Room Theaters. On Oct. 2, it begins its run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For screening dates in other cities, visit this link. All images in this post courtesy of Film Movement, which also provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.

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

Maries_StoryMost everyone knows the true story about Helen Keller:  In late 19h century Alabama, a near feral girl, who is deaf, mute and blind, grows up to become a published author after being educated by a teacher named Anne Sullivan who came to be known as “the Miracle Worker.” The Miracle Worker was also the name of the 1962 movie starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke directed by Arthur Penn, based on William Gibson’s play. After the director and the actresses all won Oscars, The Miracle Worker became a classic.

Now comes Marie’s Story, which is based on a similar true story from around the same era. Just as the story of Helen Keller was making waves, there was “A French Helen Keller” (read an original news report by the Sacred Heart Review in 1909). The impoverished parents of 10-year-old Marie Heurtin didn’t know what to do with their daughter who was born blind and deaf and could only grunt and scream. They loved her and didn’t want to see her institutionalized, so they brought her to the sisters of La Sagesse at Larnay, who specialized in boarding and educating deaf girls. Sister Marguerite was credited for taking on the challenge of this girl with more handicaps than the convent was used to. Eventually, Marie became a teacher for other girls with her condition.

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So is it worth anyone’s while to see the story of Helen Keller again in French and with nuns? The answer is simple: it sure is when you have such a fine example of astute, powerfully moving filmmaking. Even if you know what happens, Marie’s Story is guaranteed to move you to tears, and you won’t feel manipulated by it. Director Jean-Pierre Améris, who also co-wrote the script with Philippe Blasband, tells the story in three distinct acts that are tightly woven together and never wastes a single detail.

We first meet Sister Marguerite (a charming Isabelle Carré), who we are immediately showed suffers from a terminal illness. She can barely contain her excitement about the impending challenge of Marie (Ariana Rivoire, who is deaf in real life). The mother superior (Brigitte Catillon playing stern with low-key curiosity and patience) expresses her doubts and concerns for Marguerite, wiping blood off the sister’s nose, as she smiles about the upcoming challenge of Marie, who is 14 in this story. There’s a sense that the nun needs this to fulfill a purpose in her shortened life.

The film spends much time showing us the frustration of Marguerite but also a stubborn patience full of grace. Rivoire throws her body into her role in impressive tantrums that sometimes end in her escaping up a tree. The beautiful period setting of the countryside enhances the earthy battle between these two women. Sometimes the music by Sonia Wieder-Atherton even turns light and bouncy, cutting the tension with a sense of humor.

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Eventually, the breakthrough scene will arrive, but it doesn’t come without Améris showing us great effort by teacher and student. There are times when both seem to exhaust one another into giving in. But ultimately, the teacher wins not by forcing Marie to learn but showing her how she might be able to help herself. The breakthrough comes by empowering Marie, and its refreshingly convened with action, and does something wonderful in its message and storytelling:  It speaks not to Marie’s handicap but her autonomy.

Améris doesn’t beat you over the head with this, as he mostly keeps his camera at a distance. The power of the film never needs heightened scenes with music (as charming as it may be at times) to make you feel for these women. What happens between them is intimate and handled low-key. Similarly, we are not constantly reminded of Sister Marguerite’s illness, but we know it’s there after that initial scene when we meet her, and her mission on earth becomes something more than a quest to do good before she shucks off her mortal coil.

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When her illness forces her into bed rest, Marguerite must teach Marie one last important lesson: the permanence of death. It’s a mind-blowing concept in the Christian world of this film. Even the Mother Superior comes out to share that death is a painful thing and no amount of faith can make it any less painlful. Yet, still Marie can come to grasp it, mourn it and celebrate the time she had with her teacher. It’s a beautifully shown revelation that never feels cloying. So many Hollywood films wring the hell out of these moments, but here is a film that can show you how to do it right, so even if you think you are familiar with this story, it’s worth watching again to see how filmmakers, including actors, tell it in the most surprisingly delicate manner that never betrays or affronts its potency.

Hans Morgenstern

Marie’s Story runs 94 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is not rated (it doesn’t feature any offensive material). It opens this Friday, May 29 in our South Florida area at the MDC Tower Theater. It maybe playing in other areas of the U.S. or coming soon. For a list of theaters showing it, visit this link. Film Movement provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.

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