Theeb and the Renaissance of Arab Cinema

Over the past decade, film has enjoyed a revival in the Middle East amid a cultural revolution—and despite societal challenges.

Bayt Al Shawareb

Despite its precarious geopolitical situation, Jordan has become something of a go-to location for Western filmmakers whose stories take place in the Middle East, or some other arid region. It’s Arabia-lite: There’s enough sand and desert terrain to fit scripts calling for exotic settings, but little danger posed to cast and crew. In the past, films shot in Jordan have received extensive Oscar attention—Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, for example—but this is the first year that a Jordanian film, Theeb, has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Theeb is a simple story about a young Bedouin boy and his older brother, who serve as guides to a British soldier during the Arab Revolts. In some ways it feels almost like a postcolonial retelling of Lawrence of Arabia, but from the Arab perspective. Variety called it “a classic adventure film of the best kind, and one that’s rarely seen these days,’ while The New York Times commended the acting, which was done almost entirely by locals.” When Theeb, which was directed by the British Jordanian Naji Abu Nowar, received the Oscar nomination, it sent an online rumble through Jordan and the rest of the region. Jordan’s film industry is still in a stage of reemergence; in fact, Captain Abu Raed (2007) was the nation’s first independent feature film in 50 years. Theeb was the tiny-film-that-could, shot on a shoestring budget and starring actual Bedouins ad-libbing on screen in possibly the most authentically Jordanian movie ever made.

Yet, Theeb is just the latest in a spate of complex and artful films that have originated in the Middle East and North Africa within the past decade. The accessibility of production tools and advent of digital distribution has helped spur what some scholars and filmmakers tentatively say is the start of a golden age in Arab cinema. The evolution of filmmaking styles and production methods from the region, the social movements that have been fomenting there in the past decade, and the role that film has historically played in constructing Arab identity have all played a part in Theeb’s current success. Though Arab cinema still faces plenty of challenges—including limited funding channels, a dearth of film schools, and few public screening opportunities—many independent directors are creating works that, like Theeb, reflect the region and its inhabitants in new, boundary-pushing ways.

Of course, the Middle East and North Africa isn’t monolithic—it contains a diversity of peoples, states, and cultures, and the Arabic language itself is split into many dialects—but for the purpose of assessing the Arabic-language film industry, it’s helpful to look at Arab identity as congruous.

The events of Theeb take place roughly after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire post-World War I, when nearly the whole Arab world was divided between Britain and France through the Sykes-Picot agreement. As a result, most Arab countries didn’t make movies before their respective independence from colonial rule in the 20th century. It was then, between the 1920s and 1960s, that filmmaking became a powerful way to create distinct national and cultural identities. In her book Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity, the film scholar Viola Shafik writes:

Getting into industrial film production was considered a national achievement in the former Arab colonies and protectorates. The acquisition of cinematic techniques was a sign of progress and offered a real opportunity to expand economically. On the political level, cinema was believed to create a platform for counter-representations, giving the formerly colonized a chance to challenge Western dominance, at least on the screen.

Egypt was at the helm of film production, and the period of time between the 1940s through the 1960s was especially fruitful. Many viewers and listeners outside of Egypt enjoyed Egyptian cinema, specifically the musicals and melodramas that were popular at the time.

Film industries in other Arab nations looked to Egypt for guidance, and productions were quick to adopt its funding model and replicate the popular styles and genres that were emblematic of Egyptian films. In the 1960s, however, the control over filmmaking shifted from the private sector largely to the government, which led to a decline in the quality and number of films being produced. Film production in the 1970s through the early 2000s was difficult across the Arab world, encumbered by a crisis in the public sector and hampered by increasing state censorship. “All Arab governments,” writes Shafik, “be they capitalist or socialist, have reduced the medium’s freedom of expression through legal restrictions.”

Despite the financial and bureaucratic obstacles that continue to restrict a free and independent Arab cinema, even 15 years ago there wasn’t the level of filmmaking there is today. “Since the late 1940s when independent sovereign Arab states began to emerge, the forces of social conservatism [have been] really powerful and governments have been repressive and inhibiting freedom of expression,” said Rasha Salti, who has curated film from the Middle East and North Africa (most recently for the Toronto International Film Festival). “There is very little investment in film, but at the same time the field is really flourishing.”

Within the past decade, contentious filmmakers have emerged with truly transgressive movies, even in the state of social and political havoc that has been representative of much of the modern Middle East.

In 2006, the successful Egyptian film The Yacoubian Building stirred up trouble for depicting an openly homosexual character—the Egyptian parliament demanded that the sex scenes be cut, and criticized the film for “spreading obscenity and debauchery.” In 2007, there was the Lebanese film Caramel, which also touched on themes of same-sex attraction in one of the primary female characters. But beyond challenging social mores, films have become politically daring: The 2015 Moroccan experimental film Starve Your Dog explored the former Interior Minister Driss Basri’s crackdown on freedom of speech in the 1970s and 1980s. Salti notes how remarkable this kind of representation is. “If you look at Arab cinema in the ’80s, ’90, 2000s, we did not dare to put the people who have tormented us on trial in this way,” she says. “To give [Basri] a voice, to have somebody incarnate him is incredible. It’s breaking a taboo, challenging a silence and a complacency that still plagues a certain generation in Morocco.”

Beginning in the early 2000s, there was a marked shift toward more provocative filmmaking, and a deliberate desire to grapple with the conflicts within the culture of the Middle East and North Africa. It’s a debate that transcends film, and its presence in movies only intensified before, during, and after the Arab Spring, when the region’s painful identity crisis played out on the global stage. In many ways, Arab cinema reflects this complex question of what it means to be Arab. It can feel like a pretty capricious ideological state, one that toggles between demands for cultural revolution and reinforcing conservative values. Nasser Kalaji, Theeb’s co-producer, echoed this sentiment.

“Before we explain our culture to the West we need to explain it to each other,” he said. “What are we? Are we progressive Arabs who want to live in civil society and in a secular society and in one that promotes art and music and culture? Or are we in a society that wants to be religious and apply Islamic Sharia and religious doctrine?”

Like other forms of art, filmmaking functions as a tool to navigate identity, to either reinforce or tear down cultural markers. Theeb’s executive producer is Nadine Toukan, who has been a force in funding and creating Arab films in the past two decades. She describes the recent boom in complex storytelling as “a beautiful opportunity for a whole generation of Arabs to reengineer a pan-Arab environment to collaborate on the arts. There’s a generation of Arab storytellers who are absolutely fed up by being not represented or misrepresented by the other.”

Despite the buzz surrounding Theeb and other Arab films, huge challenges remain. The landscape for distribution in the Middle East and North Africa is bleak: There are few cinemas in the region, and many of the films that have found acclaim overseas will not be seen by an Arab audience. Most television stations are run by the state, and unconventional films are either rejected or heavily censored. Video on demand offers some hope, as does the prolific illegal DVD trade in the Middle East and North Africa—which is not profitable, but at least accessible. In a progressive and exciting move, Theeb is getting an unprecedented theatrical re-release in the region.

Shafik says this genre of Arab auteur cinema—which includes films like Theeb, Caramel, and Starve Your Dog, that have emerged primarily in the past decade—is unique in that it uses cultural heritage as storylines, indicating a new search for cultural identity. However, the success of these films in reconciling conflicting ideals in the Arab world—past and present, tradition and modernity, East and West—has been restricted by their reach in the region. “The intellectual efforts of this type of filmmaking have been addressed primarily to Western audiences,” she writes. “Its success at Arab box offices has remained limited.”

It’s not just distribution woes: Production money is tight, the burden of representation is high, and skeptics are plenty. There are few training programs for filmmakers in the Middle East and North Africa, and the region’s only MFA program in the cinematic arts closed its doors in 2013. Censorship is vigorous, and the consequences for creating counter-cultural films are high (the director and actors in the 2015 Moroccan film Much Loved received death threats, and the film was banned in Morocco). Just as the levels of innovation and risk-taking creativity remain high, so are the barriers to entry.

It’s unclear if Theeb will go on to win the Oscar; although Abu Nawar recently won a BAFTA for Outstanding Debut for directing the film, the field has some heavy favorites. But its presence among the nominees, and the fact that it’s representing Jordan, which had almost no original film production to speak of until 10 years ago, is significant. It speaks to an increased interest and investment in the arts, and a bold desire to upend the narratives projected onto the modern Middle East.

Most of these stories aren’t framed as a response to any Western dogma: They exist wholly unto themselves as indigenous works. The through line of this movement has mirrored that of the excited beginnings of the Arab Spring a few years ago—a glow of optimism and the world paying attention—but this time, the outcome is unclear. At the very least, the forward momentum and the figurative drum roll are undeniable to many filmmakers. “The ideal situation is not going to present itself for Arab cinematic arts,” Toukan told me. “So we are just going to have to will it into existence.”