It's Munich Film Festival time again, though alas for me this year I'm only there for the first two days, and then duty calls me elsewhere. However, the movie I picked last night was a really good one. Jordanian, with a first time director, Naji Abu Nowar, who was there for the Q & A afterwards, and not only was this his first cinematic outing, but it was the first film for the entire cast with one exception, all of whom (minus said exception, a minor character) were lay people to boot. Naji Abu Nowar, as we later learned during the Q & A, went and lived with the Bedouin tribe in question for two years, did an acting workshop for eight months of said two years, and the result we saw on screen. Which I wouldn't have guessed - everyone was excellent.
The Q & A, incidentally, was fascinating if occasionally depressing, because of what Naji Abu Nowar had to say about the Bedouin in current day. The movie, you see, is set during World War I, at the very start of the Arab Revolt, "which to me is THE single most important moment of Arab history in the last few hundred years, and we're still dealing with the fallout", quoth he. His next movie, which he's currently working on, is set during the 1920s, when the new borders go up, which ended the nomadic life style of the Bedouins who until then were roaming between what are now parts of Saudi Arabia, Jordania, Syria and Israel, being settled in towns didn't work out well for many, their camel herds died, their traditional professions were gone, for a while tourism at least provided some income but because of the current political situation there are hardly any tourists, which means stark poverty and unemployment, "with one half of the people becoming drug addicts and alcoholics and the other half drifting into religious extremism" because they could see no future otherwise. (Collective groan/sigh from the audience.) One reason why so many of the tribe did participate in the movie project was because it offered work to them, and thankfully this didn't all end when the movie shooting did; Naji Abu Nowar said there was a matriarch, an old lady who was the only one who still knew how to fashion camel saddles and water bags the way the Bedouin had done for centuries (and at the time of WWI when the movie was set), and she taught others, and they now have a business again, not least because the positive reaction of the movie so far has attracted other Arab film makers and tv people. Speaking of the movies' reception, he said the one criticism he got was from women's rights groups because there are no female characters in the movie. Which he said was true but not his fault, because there had been several female characters in the script (our young hero's mother, sisters and his brother's fiancee), but he had to cut them out again because the tribe would absolutely not give permission to any woman to participate in filming. However, since they've now seen acting and movie making can be an entirely respectful-to-their-people thing, the women of the tribe can now participate and are in the current acting workshop, so he'll be able to include female characters in the 1920s movie.
Now on to the the actual movie. Which, as mentioned, is set during World War I, starts in what is now Saudi Arabia but takes place mostly in today's Jordania, which means it's entirely shot in the desert. Our main character is the boy Theeb, age 12 but soon 13, whose adored older brother Hussein gets hired by a British soldier and the soldier's Arab companion to guide them to a well. Theeb follows them, and the dangerous situation gets worse when bandits attack. A note about the Brit: he's played by the one professional actor, Jack Fox, and the part where you can immediately tell this is not a Western production is by the fact he has about seven or eight minutes of screen time and is mostly as the MacGuffin who gets the plot going. He's also not a sympathetic character; not a villain, either, just arrogant and stand-offish with Theeb and Hussein, and the big picture type who can't see the worth of individual lives. Since he's blond, the inevitable cinephile's question early on is "is he meant to be T.E. Lawrence?", but that's cleared up as soon as he produces a photo of his wife in his fobwatch, and his fate that ends his screen time is, err, not Lawrence's. Otoh the credits later mention (it's not said out loud) his name is Edward, so you can see the character as a comment, if you like. However, as I said: he's mostly there to get the plot going, otherwise the movie isn't interested in him.
The main characters are Theeb (in whose pov we remain throughout, and the boy playing him is up to the task, very intense and expressive), Hussein (who is a fabulous, loving older brother, and of course close sibling relationships are one of my narrative soft spots) and the Stranger (called that in the credits; he gives several names, but presumably none of them are real), a bandit who turned to banditry, as we later find out, because his traditional inherited occupation - guiding pilgrims to Mecca, guiding travellers, full stop - has been made redundant by the arrival of trains. I assume the Stranger is also called the Stranger because Naji Abu Nowar is a Sergio Leone fan; one of the basic ideas, he later said in the Q & A, that inspired the film was to take the formula of an Italo Western and set it in the desert among the Bedouin. (The only non-Bedouin characters are the Englishman early on and some Ottoman soldiers at the end.) Theeb's main relationships in the movie are with Hussein and the Stranger, and with the world around him which has started to change (capturing that brink-of-change moment was one of the movie's goals according to the director); at the start, when we meet Theeb, you see the tribe living as they've done for centuries. Near the end, the railway line isn't the only visual symbol of change; so is the Englishman's dynamite which various character's have been carrying around throughout the movie, and the Arab revolutionaries armed to the teeth and engaged in a war whose existence Theeb and his tribe at the start haven't even been aware of. And of course, it's a coming-of-age story for Theeb, though the movie wisely leaves it ambigous whether the decision he makes at the end was the right or the wrong one; it simply doesn't judge.
Ironic for a movie set in the desert, one standout sequence was for me when Theeb is both trapped and sheltered inside a well, with bandits outside who'd kill him if he climbed out while they're still present. Because said well is next to a mountain of Jordanian sand stones (one of the main shooting locations was Wadi Rum), it at least offers a bit more space than a well completely in the sand desert would, but still, it's an incredibly suspenseful scene and while technically you're aware that Theeb has to survive because he's the pov character and the movie is only halfway over, emotionally you're at the edge of your seat.
The shots of the desert are beautiful, of course. (BTW, something I noticed solely due to having watched Lawrence of Arabia quite often were the shadows on the rocks and sand in the night scenes, and in the later Q & A I asked the director whether he shot day-for-night (which is what David Lean had to do), and he laughed and said yes, he did. Apparently you still can't film in the desert at night.) Because of there are only a few characters, the movie still feels initimate, rather than epic, which is a good choice for the story it tells. The credits aside, there's hardly any music used, except for the songs the Bedouin sing themselves. The language is Arab, with English subtitles. I don't know whether it has been released in an English speaking country yet; this was the first time it was shown in Germany, and as with many of a movie shown at a festival, the director hopes he'll find a distributor this way. But if it does get available in your part of the world, by all means, watch it. Definitely worth it.