Can 'The Martian' Help Jordan Become the Land of Oscar Success?

'Theeb’s' people of the dust.
COURTESY OF OSCILLOSCOPE LABORATORIES

Both Ridley Scott's space drama and the country's foreign-language entry 'Theeb' (which shared film crewmembers) were shot in Wadi Rum, the valley where 'Lawrence of Arabia' also was filmed.

This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Eagle-eyed Academy members might have a deja vu moment when flicking through their screeners for potential best film and best foreign-language titles.

While The Martian widely is expected to be among those competing for the best picture Oscar in February, Theeb — which also was shot in Jordan's immense UNESCO-protected sandstone valley of Wadi Rum — is among the nine shortlisted international titles and stands a good chance of making it to the final five, having already outlasted high-profile favorites including Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin.

Although their stories couldn't be more different — Theeb is a World War I-set drama about a young Bedouin boy who finds himself fighting for survival against roaming mercenaries, bandits and soldiers amid the sand dunes — there are further similarities between the two films beyond just the dusty red- and orange-hued backdrop, with many of Theeb's Jordanian crew later moving to Ridley Scott's space-science thriller.

"Some of them also went off to work on Star Wars in Abu Dhabi," adds Naji Abu Nowar, the British-Jordanian first-time helmer, who spent a year living in Wadi Rum to make the film.

Such is the steady flow of big-budget films now coming through the heritage site (which also was the setting for much of David Lean's epic Lawrence of Arabia) that Nowar had to halt production to make way for the likes of Zero Dark Thirty in 2012 in order to secure his in-demand behind-the-camera team.

"Some of the crew were working for me for free, so we totally understood and decided that the best thing was to let everyone work on Zero Dark Thirty, and then when they were finished, they'd be happy," says Nowar. "And that worked out nicely." In the end, the line producer, first assistant director and second AD from Kathryn Bigelow's retelling of the hunt for Osama bin Laden moved straight on to Theeb, and Nowar also had Thirty's special effects supervisor, Richard Stutsman, donate a "lot of time, energy and equipment."

The wait seemingly paid off: Since it bowed in Venice in the summer, Theeb has earned itself a impressive haul of awards, including a best director mention for Nowar at the Biennale, a FIPRESCI prize in London and other accolades from Beijing, Cairo, Carthage, Malmo and Abu Dhabi, to name a few. "It's been incredible — it's basically been exceeding expectations one after another, and it keeps rising," says the director. "It's been the best fun ever."

Even more incredible, with such a dominant presence on the shortlist from Europe (along with Embrace the Serpent from Colombia; see page 34), Theeb now finds itself as the sole Asian representative entering the Oscars. Whether or not Nowar makes it to the Dolby Theatre, he already has achieved more than any other Jordanian filmmaker in getting this far in the competition (2008's Captain Abu Raed was the country's only other submission).

By generating international attention for his film, the director has become a figure to celebrate for a nation that has suffered from a "bad year," Nowar says, pointing to the refugee crisis and violence just beyond Jordan's borders in Iraq and Syria. "We're getting wonderful waves of support," he says. "I've had people come up to me and say, 'You have no idea how proud we are that something good is coming out of our country and something positive.' It really has touched me."

Nowar admits his young Bedouin castmembers, all nonactors before he turned his cameras on them to such spectacular effect, weren't familiar with the Academy Awards before news of the shortlisting came through.

"But they're all now very excited and looking forward to the possibility of visiting America and experiencing the Oscar ceremony firsthand," he says. "That would an inspiring climax to an already incredible journey."

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