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.


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.


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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

All the exciting members of the Beat Generation have died, and one can feel it while watching the rudimentary documentary the Beat Hotel. Filmmaker Alan Govenar tags along with British photographer Harold Chapman as he returns to Paris to visit what remains of the cheap, bare-bones hotel where several members who defined a generation once stayed. The documentary covers the presence of William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, as well as his lover and fellow poet Peter Orlovsky, during their stay at 9 Rue Git Le Cœur, in the late fifties to early sixties.

“The last of the great Bohemian hotels,” Chapman calls it at the start of the documentary, as images and illustrations flash past during similar commentaries by various sources who will present running commentary throughout the film. Early on, someone notes that the hotel’s years of relevance began with the stay of Ginsberg and Orlovsky in 1958 and ended in 1963, after the Beats’ last relevant figure, Burroughs left. The documentary then proceeds to go over these times, exploring anecdotes via Chapman’s photographs but also with illustrations by another former hotel dweller, the Scottish artist Elliot Rudie. Talking heads range from those who lived there to younger scholars who now study the output of the Beats in university settings.

Though the documentary tries to keep the pace sprightly with fast edits and several images of the times, it does slow down to allow Chapman to chat with some of his old friends of the time. An oral history unfolds, as Chapman shares memories of his experience there. He tells Rudie about cameraman Yon Paulsky’s idea to shoot a cartoon via the hotel’s walls. Panels of illustrations were plastered along the wall of a hallway in the hotel, and he rode in a stolen supermarket cart as some pushed him past the panels. “It never came to anything … everybody had strange ideas then,” Chapman says.

Some great works came out of that hotel, nonetheless. Corso wrote “Bomb,” Ginsberg Kaddish and Burroughs finished Naked Lunch there. All mark definitive works of the Beat poets. But, more interestingly, it also marked a time where a rift emerged between Burroughs and Ginsberg. While at the hotel, Burroughs would discover decoupage, or his cut-up technique to writing poetry. Ginsberg expressed an opposition to the mechanical and random manipulation of cut-out phrases written by someone else. However, Burroughs reveled in its accidentally inspiring quality.

It seems doubtless this place, like the Latin Quarter Paris of those other American expatriates who came before them, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, marked an important moment in literary history. It’s a ghostly artifact whose specters are stories. The hotel that replaced the original “Beat Hotel” only hints at what was once there structurally, as revealed during a tour Chapman takes of the new hotel built within the shell of the old one. Chapman’s photographs actually offer a more vivid springboard to the stories within the documentary, including one long night photographing Corso and another evening when Burroughs “disappeared” into thin air during a “magic-trick” that counted on audience members to take drugs.

For the most the stories that paint a picture of the hotel are slight and will first and foremost prove interesting to fans of the authors than those who are not. Govenar does not employ any particularly creative or distinctive cinematic techniques, which is just as well. Anyone trying to upstage legends of a long past literary world via a medium outside that world would only embarrass themselves. It’s nice to see Rudie’s illustrations come to life in crude animated fashion on occasion, but beyond that and a couple of brief instances of staged re-enactments, the film never strays beyond the predictable limitations of historical documentary on a group of deceased artists.

The film carries a sentimentality and preciousness in following its quiet former resident. Indeed, quiet one must have been to count themselves a survivor of this group of people who lived life to the fullest with reckless abandon. The fierce creative energy of these people picked up where the surrealists and Dadaists took off (another keen story revealed during the course of the film involves an encounter between Corso and Marcel Duchamp at a house party) and blazed a trail for the free love generation of the late sixties. There were not many of these people before the beatniks became the more popularly embraced, if not recognized, hippies. These were the true “deviant” artists of their time. It’s a quaint testament to their creativity that the Beat Hotel never seems to overshadow its own subjects. Fans of these writers would do well to experience it while they can.

Hans Morgenstern

Watch trailer:

The Beat Hotel is unrated, runs 82 minutes and opens in South Florida on Tuesday, July 17, 7 p.m. at Miami Beach Cinematheque, which loaned me to a DVD preview screener for the purposes of this review. It runs only three nights, until Thursday, July 19. If you live outside the Miami area, the film screens in select cities, which can be found here.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)