Tuesday, June 21, 2016


Theeb, tracing cracks in the mud

When I dream adventures at night, I’m almost always an eight year old boy.  This is an archetypal figure, I think probably in every culture, because a child like that is only considering the culture, still uncommitted.  The film called “Theeb” for a boy with that name is about exactly that child.  Thinking, not quite ready for manhood or gender assignment, but in prototypical primordial ways able to act in the world, able to survive, the hero of this film depends greatly on the nature of the actor.  The director tells us that the boy was unimpressive just standing there, but with the camera turned on him, he became magical.  

Theeb is a 2014 drama thriller Jordanian Arabic-language film written and directed by Naji Abu Nowar.”  This is factual but tells you nothing.

The boy who acted Theeb, Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, like the others, was local, not a professional actor, and only needed to be taught to swim for the sequence when he is dumped down a cistern of water accumulated in a cave, a crucial well.  Others were chosen for the cast by improvisations, acting out little scenes, which no one in that village had ever done before, but which was well-understood and produced remarkable actors.

This terrain, a stone labyrinth in a sand desert, is full of contradictions.  The people, all male because females all declined to be so public as acting, were really related and entirely familiar with this setting.  It is the dawning of British industrialism that is coming upon them like a dragon locomotive, destroying their way of life, shattering a herding pastoral people into predators and prey.  The only trained actor plays the Englishman desperate to rejoin his fellow soldiers.  

These are not the bedouins of “Lawrence of Arabia” or “The Sheltering Sky.”  No one is blue.  Everyone but the villain wears gowns of what looks like unbleached cotton and eats unleavened bread baked by throwing it into a campfire.  The most remarkably complex and expressive entities are the camels.  When men arrive on horseback, the horses look strange.  

Don’t take your eight-year-old to this movie unless they can read, since there are subtitles, though they could probably figure out what’s happening just by watching.  Gender is irrelevant because there’s no sex in this movie.  Life is simply male — same old default.  Other versions of a story about a vulnerable boy, esp. in this so-called modern civilization, would have to include sex and drugs.  Probably Arya in Game of Thrones is a good example of a female person this age getting caught up in something as sweeping as the Ottoman Empire.

The link below is one of the better review essays, but there is a lot of interesting stuff to read.  The director, Naji Abu Nowar, claims he was trying to make one of those stark, tragic, Italian spaghetti Westerns.  He over-achieved.  This film crosses many boundaries.


This one is an interview with the director:

Aspects of this film’s creation interact to create a powerful spell.  Using a child protagonist to shine an unflattering light on the crazy and agonizing activities of adults is not new but remains effective, esp. if the child actor is capable of unwavering "gaze" (now a political term, esp. in queer studies).  

Brothers, as in this story line, who are devoted to each other though separated by age, is a kind of love that is totally proscribed in American discussions because of hysteria over pedophilia and especially the man/boy version.  American arts can barely get away with depicting father/son love and protection.  We're suspicious.  Maybe it’s because in the USA grown men rarely teach boys in this personal way we see the older brother teach about his rifle, giving the boy both access and cautions, the boy leaning his cheek against his big brother's shoulder.

The creators of this film went to people who really WERE the people in the storyline and lived with them for a year.  They did not go back to Malibu at martini time.  The personal lives of artists used to be seamless as this, but are now very often insanely divided between their subject matter and their “other” culture which has got to inflict something like consciousness schism if not actual brain damage.  I wonder what their dreams were like after they finished the film and went home.  I had powerful image-dreams just from the movie.

Using a child meant that the protagonist was hard to demonize.  Even the pouting, posturing Trump would have a hard time convincing us that Theeb wants our lives.  But inside the movie context, the “bad guy” was not unsympathetic.  He gathered up Theeb and took him along to the English, who were literally asleep or absorbed in their little ceremonies of Britishness, like shaving.  Death and loot are converted to a few coins.  The box of gold turned out to be a dynamite detonator: destruction.  Theeb’s final decision was totally understood even by the victim because it fit the context.

Queen Noor, consort of King Hussein

So the story was whole, convincing, coherent.  It was filmed in Jordan, which has an ambivalent past with the Western World, rather like Switzerland in making itself valuable as a refuge where it safe to make a movie.  Its history is so old that the first settlers were Homo Erectus, 200,000 years ago.  It is on the Silk Road, which means the mentality is one of traders rather than warriors, esp. since the place is a continental crossroads: Asia, Africa and Europe.  King Hussein chose Queen Noor as consort, a beautiful American of Arab descent whose philanthropic efforts made her a model for people like Princess Diana, and created many contacts between political and artistic worlds.

Then comes the next remarkable game changer, leaping over the industrial paradigm shift that the land itself resisted, into the impalpable electronic world, effortlessly planetary, in sci-fi fashion making everything real but fantastic, a Star Wars world.  The storyline is the industrial revolution.  The revolution that makes this movie possible is the electronic revolution. The impact on movies like “Theeb” is double:  first the sudden ability to make high quality images without even film, much less huge industrial camera crews; and second, the ability of anyone to see “filmed” narrative on hand-held devices.  Though I would say that one needs a rather wide screen to appreciate the fractal nature of stone labyrinths in the sand imitating drought-cracked mud.

The problem with this sudden wealth of creation rather than wealth in the crass sense of funds, is discoverability.  How do we know about films like “Theeb”?  How do we change ourselves from passive sofa-sitters watching whatever television pushes at us, into the seeking Silk Road consumers who can get past even web-crawlers where an outfit like Google operates like the Ottoman Empire?  We’d better talk to some boys.

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