Q&A: Director of ‘Bedouin Western’ heads to the Oscars

Al Jazeera meets Naji Abu Nowar, the Jordanian-British director, on his way to Hollywood for the Oscars awards ceremony.

Naji Abu Nowar
Directed by Naji Abu Nowar, Theeb is nominated for best foreign language film in the Oscars [Domenico Stinellis/AP]

British-Jordanian director Naji Abu Nowar has arrived in Los Angeles with his picture Theeb, a coming-of-age desert drama.

It is nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film and will contend with Colombia’s Embrace of the Serpent, France’s Mustang, Hungary’s Son of Saul and Denmark’s A War.

READ MORE: Jordanian film nominated for an Oscar 

Set in 1916 in the Ottoman province of Hijaz, the film – shot entirely in Jordan – follows the journey of Theeb, who guides a British officer to a secret destination. If it wins at the ceremony on Sunday, it will become the first Arab film to receive an Oscar.

The film, coined by some critics as a Bedouin Western, was funded by cultural organisations in the UAE, Qatar, Jordan and the UK.


The film has already won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for best outstanding debut. The film also won best director at the Venice International Film Festival, where its international premiere was held.

Al Jazeera spoke with the director about Arab cinema, recognition and what’s next.

Al Jazeera: Why did you make this particular film?

Naji Abu Nowar: I work instinctually. You get really excited about an idea or concept and the process of creating with colleagues, and what they can bring to the table makes you more excited, and it snowballs. I just do it. That’s the joy of filmmaking.

Al Jazeera: Do you think this moment heralds a new beginning for Arab cinema?

Abu Nowar: I certainly think that with all the talent that’s out there, there’s a new wave of filmmakers coming out. A lot of people have wonderful ideas. I can’t wait to go to the cinema and see all the films coming out of the region. I’m looking forward to that as a fan.

Al Jazeera: If you win the Oscar, this will be the first Arab film to do so …

We are a young industry trying to make ends meet and grow. It gives us a huge boost and showcases Jordan as a place you can shoot.

Abu Nowar: It will be the first Arab film to do so, but I’m by no means the first Arab filmmaker. There are talented filmmakers who have passed through so that I could arrive. I’m very lucky to be following in their footsteps.

Ziad Doueiri, Hany Abu-Assad, Nadine Labaki, Youssef Chahine – all of these are wonderful filmmakers. I’ve been very lucky to benefit, and I hope to be of benefit to the next generation.

I won’t be a freak case. It won’t just be me; there will be a lively and wonderful industry with lots of people from the region.

Al Jazeera: You recently won a BAFTA, too. Is this kind of recognition important?

Abu Nowar: They’re incredibly important. These events have a massive amount of exposure. Some 4.5 million people watched the Bafta awards ceremony this year. Almost 40 million people watched the Oscars in 2015 [in the US], and more internationally.

It’s incredible for Arab cinema and for Jordanian cinema. We are a young industry trying to make ends meet and grow. It gives us a huge boost and showcases Jordan as a place you can shoot. Benefits can be derived from this kind of success, and we are going to reap as much as we can and enjoy the ride.

Al Jazeera: It’s an interesting Oscars year with the debate over a lack of diversity in some of the categories. What are your thoughts on this?

Abu Nowar: For the foreign language section, it doesn’t affect us. There are nominees from all over the world. I don’t think the foreign language category can be accused of racism.

The other sections? I don’t know and don’t care. I’m a low-budget filmmaker from Jordan. I don’t have to deal with that issue.

READ MORE: Filmmaker Spike Lee blasts ‘lily-white’ Oscars

If I make an American film, if I found racism and prejudice – I wouldn’t make that film. That hasn’t happened to me; I’m not part of that industry. I’ll deal with that issue when I come to it.

We have enough troubles in the Middle East. We don’t need to get involved in other people’s troubles.

Al Jazeera: You’re also British. Have you faced barriers in the UK?

Abu Nowar: I’m half English and half Jordanian. I’ve only worked in Jordan, and I’ve never found any barriers. I’ve just won a BAFTA. It would be insane to say I’ve had prejudice. I’ve never been discriminated [against].

Al Jazeera: What’s next for you?

Abu Nowar: To be honest, I haven’t had a chance to think. There is so much stuff going on, but I’m looking forward to what’s next. I am preparing the next Jordanian film. All the research is done.

Al Jazeera: Is it another historical fiction?

Abu Nowar: Yes, it’s a sequel of sorts to Theeb, set around 10 years later.


Al Jazeera: When will we see more success for Arab cinema, given your achievements?

Abu Nowar: Having travelled around with Theeb, I’ve met filmmakers from all over the Arab world – every Arabic-language-speaking country. I’m looking forward to what’s coming. I’m excited about all of the different talents; there’s a range of styles, idioms and directorial approaches. These are exciting times, indeed.

Al Jazeera: When you were making Theeb, did you have a feeling the film would enjoy the level of attention it has?

Abu Nowar: Absolutely not. I was confident in my teams. I had some of the best people in Jordan and the world, including the cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler. I had confidence in the quality of the film. I had an excited feeling about what the actors were doing.

You could feel if someone was doing something special on set, that it’s real and people would believe them. If an actor is appalling, you know you’re in trouble. I never had that.

I knew we had something, but you never in a million years believe you will get an award or even get in to the Venice film festival. It’s been a wonderful surprise. We continue to grow – there have been new surprises every few months for a year and a half.

It’s been a long road and we’re coming to the end of a celebration. We’re still the same team that made a low-budget film, and now we’re dealing with the immensity of the Oscars.

Al Jazeera: What are the challenges involved in that?

Nowar: For instance, it can be difficult dealing with the press – not in the sense that the press is negative, but we just don’t have the mechanisms in place to deal with hundreds of interview requests. It can be really quite difficult to handle, and we’re struggling with that.

It’s great and wonderful to be in this position, and we’re trying to give everyone the information they need. Hopefully we can reach that stage.

‘Racism row’ overshadows Oscars Awards

Al Jazeera: Do you think a better structure needs to be put in place for Arab filmmakers to combat this?

Abu Nowar: It’s just normal for independent filmmaking. This is very rare. Forget about Theeb being Arab. It has nothing to do with it being Arab. This is very rare, for the scale of the budget. We’re by far the film with the lowest budget in the BAFTAs and Oscars – bar the short film sections.

We have a lower budget that most films even in the documentary categories. It’s difficult to handle logistically, and rare in any respect.

It’s a miracle [to win and be nominated] on many levels, not just by the fact this was an Arab film … It’s the hard work of producers that has got us here. They have been fighting and hustling to get us here; it’s a testament to their tenacity.

Producers are really building the cinema industry in the Middle East, not the directors. They give directors like me the opportunity to work in a survivable manner. That’s the thing most Arab filmmakers don’t pay enough attention to.

Al Jazeera: And finally, what is it about Theeb, in your view, that has captured people’s attention?

Abu Nowar: I think it’s the Bedouin style of storytelling, an oral tradition that goes back thousands of years. The folklore structure is part of the human condition.

These are stories that could have been told around a fire pit 10,000 years ago. If you try to make a film in that style, you have a better chance of reaching the world. It is part of all of our consciousness.

Storytelling is the way we have communicated for thousands of years. That is why people care.

The coming-of-age desert drama was shot entirely in Jordan and has been endorsed by Queen Rania of Jordan [Facebook]The coming-of-age desert drama was shot entirely in Jordan and has been endorsed by Queen Rania of Jordan [Facebook]

Follow Anealla Safdar on Twitter: @anealla

Source: Al Jazeera


theeb web three

If Theeb wins an Academy Award for the best foreign film, it will become the first Arab picture to be awarded an Oscar.

Published On 14 Jan 2016
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