Foreign-Language Oscar Spotlight: Jordan's Bedouin Western 'Theeb'

Theeb Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Film Movement

Naji Abu Nowar on slotting in amid the likes of 'Zero Dark Thirty' and 'The Martian' while shooting his WWI epic in the vast sandstone valley of Wadi Rum.

Jordan’s Theeb enters the Oscars race with some decent firepower already behind it, having picked up best director for its first-time helmer Naji Abu Nowar in Venice last year and a sizeable haul of other gongs — and mostly excellent reviews — since.

The film on Jan. 14 was nominated for the foreign-language Oscar.

A "Bedouin Western" set during the Arab revolt against the crumbling Ottoman Empire in WWI and shot in Jordan’s spectacular sandstone valley of Wadi Rum, where the British/Jordanian filmmaker lived for a year, the story follows a young boy forced to fend for himself after his party falls prey to bandits and mercenaries while journeying to an ancient well.

But while the desert-like landscape may offer suitably parched settings for historic, Arab epics, it's become a hugely popular location for major international productions. Indeed, Theeb was actually forced to slot in between the Hollywood blockbusters that have been descending on the UNESCO heritage site since David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia first blazed a cinematic trail across the orange sand more that half a century ago.

“We had to postpone the shoot because of Zero Dark Thirty,” Abu Nowar tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Big films like that basically take most of the Jordanian crew. Quite a few came off Zero Dark, including the line producer and first and second AD, and came to work for us."

One who helped particularly was Zero Dark Thirty's special effects supervisor Richard Stutsman, who Nowar says was a "great support" on Theeb, donating a lot of time, energy and equipment for the film.

Despite now being almost the go-to destination for films requiring a Middle Eastern (Hurt Locker, Rosewater) or, indeed, alien (Prometheus, The Martian) backdrop, Jordan has only entered one previous title of its own — 2008’s Captain Abu Raedto the foreign-language race. Abu Nowar claims Theeb’s submission has become a source of national pride.

“Because everything else on the news is death, destruction and refugees, it’s something nice, something positive we can celebrate and get behind. For the average Jordanian life is quite difficult and people, random strangers, have come up to me and said how proud they are that there is something good coming out of our country."

Jan 14, 7 a.m. Updated with the news of the film’s nomination for the 2016 Oscars.