Naji Abu Nowar received the Best Director prize in the Horizons section of the 2014 Venice Film Festival for his feature debut, Theeb, which is having its New York premiere in the 44th New Directors/New Films. The epic coming-of-age story is set in the Ottoman province of Hijaz during World War I and screens Saturday, March 21 and Sunday, March 22. ND/NF continues through March 29.

Naji Abu Nowar, Jordan/Qatar/United Arab Emirates/UK, 2014, 100 minutes

Description: A quietly gripping adventure tale that’s perhaps intended as a corrective to the romantic grandeur of Lawrence of Arabia, Naji Abu Nowar’s Theeb is classic storytelling at its finest. The year is 1916, the setting is a desert province on the edge of the Ottoman Empire, and it’s a time of war. Seeking help, a British Army officer and his translator arrive at an encampment of Bedouins, who, according to their traditions, provide hospitality and assistance in the form of a guide. The guide’s younger brother Theeb (Jacir Eid) follows and then tags along with the three grown-ups, who soon find themselves threatened by hostiles. As a boy who learns how to survive and become a man amid the violent and mysterious agendas of adults, Eid carries this concise and unsentimental film on his young shoulders with amazing assurance.

Responses from Naji Abu Nowar:

On finding his destiny as a filmmaker:

The overwhelming experience of cinema became an instant and permanent love affair for me as a child. I have no idea why I fell in love with filmmaking and I don’t dwell on trying to find an answer, I just know that this is what I will to do for the rest of my life. As a young boy I didn’t think it was possible for someone to just become a filmmaker. I naïvely thought you needed to come from that world or have some special degree or technical qualification. I know it sounds silly, but it was a shock for me to discover that you could just make a choice to pursue film. So as soon as I realized I could just do it, I did.

On his desire to explore Bedouin culture in the film:

I like discovering worlds and trying to understand how they work. I love the Western genre and in particular the way Kurosawa adapted it to Japanese culture. I thought we could do the same for Bedouin culture. I saw great potential in my co-writer Bassel Ghandour’s script about two Bedouin brothers on a hunting trip gone wrong. I was fascinated by the Bedouin Law of Dakheel, where if you seek protection from your Bedouin host, he will protect you even until death, despite whatever crimes you may have committed.

I loved spending time with the Bedouin community, listening to their poetry, music, and storytelling. Also, the challenge of making a film in such difficult circumstances with limited time and resources excites me. There is never one eureka moment that makes me choose a film, it is an ever-increasing flow of desires, characters, stories, themes, discoveries, and challenges that keeps me moving forward to the completed film. And often my understanding of the film at the beginning of the process is very different to what it is by the end.

On working with nonprofessional actors:

I would imagine that each film demands its own unique approach to working with actors. In the case of Theeb, we used non-actors. They were Bedouin tribesmen with whom we workshopped for eight months leading up to the production. So we essentially created a little acting school. However, we still had to be careful not to place complicated technical requirements on them during the shoot. So, our general principle was to allow the actor to move freely and capture their performance rather than forcing them into complicated blocking techniques. Working with each actor is different. In the case of Jacir Eid, who plays Theeb, he is a natural talent and the less direction given to him the better. Sometimes the best thing a director can do is get out of the way. There were, however, other actors who needed more guidance and reassurance, so it differs for each unique individual.

On working with a low budget:

It was difficult to make a very low-budget film in a logistically remote desert region. Maneuvering crew, equipment, and essential supplies like food and water between locations was a challenge. People were constantly getting lost, and getting stuck in the sand. There were flash floods, sandstorms, and plenty of creepy crawlies. However, we had the Bedouin with us and they constantly saved us and kept us safe.

Production-wise, it meant that we couldn’t have any heavy grip or lighting equipment and, because of the vast distance, sound can travel far in the desert, so generators became a major problem. What may have seemed like negatives, however, worked very well for us. The overwhelming challenges we faced created a unique bond within the team. Living in a tent and traveling everywhere as a team, there was a real family atmosphere and it caused an environment where everyone was very supportive of their colleagues.

On upcoming projects:

I am currently developing two different projects, one is Jordanian and one is in English. The English one is a book adaptation that will be my first English-language film. The Jordanian film is my answer to films like Seven Samurai and Zulu. It’s set in the 1920s about eight years after the time of Theeb, and, who knows, it might be a sequel.