Tales From ADFF: Theeb Rouses the Festival and Cements its Place as the Premier Arab Film of the Year

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Our community member, Omar Adam, reviews Naji Abu Nawar's Theeb

My expectations were very high going into Theeb. Naji Abu Nowar’s film had taken the Venice Film Festival by storm, with the young Jordanian winning the Best Director honours at the prestigious European festival. Theeb had come out of nowhere and managed to get everyone talking about it. Even during the first few days of the ADFF, most “what’re you looking forward to seeing?” lists would either be topped or at least include Theeb. And so on Sunday, October 26th, 2014, in a packed auditorium at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, the film had its MENA premiere. 
A visceral one hundred minutes followed. Theeb almost immediately shines in its stunning cinematography, brisk pace, and well-tempered directing. Abu Nowar directs with the confidence and vision of a much more seasoned director, so convincing that everyone I spoke to was equally shocked and awestruck when I told them after the screening that Theeb was his first feature. The directing, the craft and thought behind Theeb, are front and centre in the film, demanding your attention, and are undoubtedly the film’s greatest takeaway. 
Visually, Theeb is one of the best looking films screening in the festival. Harkening back to David Lean’s beautiful Lawrence of Arabia, Abu Nowar and his cinematographer, Wolfgang Thaler, have created a visual palette that at once makes the desert gorgeous and terrifying. Every shot in Theeb is intentional, a methodical thinking behind every close up, every camera movement, and every jaw dropping wide. Theeb deserves a place among films studied in film schools about taking directing basics and using them to produce magic. 
Abu Nowar chose to cast actual Bedouins for the sake of authenticity, and the performances he drags out of most of them are astounding. Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, who plays the titular character, is in particular a revelation; not just great for a Bedouin, Arab, non-professional, zero experience, child actor, but great by any and all acting standards. Every look, every twitch of the eye, every drop of the head looks and feels authentic coming out of young Jacir. Truly a performance that should, and will, take its place in the pantheon of great child performances. 
The only drawback to Theeb, at least personally, was that the story’s third act stumbles after a commendably confident first two. The first 75 minutes of Theeb are edge of your seat, I’m-watching-great-cinema-right-now minutes. Abu Nowar sets up an effective survival story and has his audience engaged, invested, and ready for an exasperating and thrilling finale. Unfortunately, he fumbles the landing with an easy way out climax that doesn’t strive for the lofty ambitions of what came before it. A film like Theeb deserves a finale that leaves you breathless, that takes you through a gamut of emotions, but the low-key ending we receive is more befuddling, and oh so disappointing, than anything else. It is what keeps Theeb in the “great film” category, a short distance away from “classic”, where it could have been.
Still, I seem to be in the minority on the third act woes, as the film, the cast, and the director all (very deservedly) received standing ovations from the Emirates Palace crowd. Abu Nowar has become a beacon of hope to myself as a filmmaker, and hopefully to many other young filmmakers, that you can make great cinema and have it be noticed and appreciated. As for Theeb? Its flaws aside, the film is a must see, not only because it is set to be the most important Arab film of the year, but because for a very big chunk of its runtime, it is enthralling, and for the rest, it’s still better than 75% of everything else you’ll see this year.