“No bullets until you aim straight”
The constant throughout Naji Abu Nowar‘s debut feature is the underestimation of its titular Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat). This isn’t unwarranted considering his age and the Bedouin lifestyle he inhabits, but it’s still a dangerous proposition with a name that translates to “Wolf” and the blood of the highly respected Sheikh—his late father—coursing through him. His eldest brother can’t be bothered to steward his adolescence now that the group looks to him for leadership, so that role falls to middle child Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen). He’s young enough to remember what it was like growing up and is therefore able to horse around with Theeb and make his childhood and education fun. Sadly for them, however, they live in a time of unavoidable tumult.
It’s 1916 Arabia in the Ottoman province of Hijaz as World War I rages on. The region has been brought into the crosshairs by a new train line cutting through their desert. This “Iron Donkey” line’s presence has rendered the usual paths of travel unsafe. When no one’s utilizing pilgrim guides to move through the sand, those inhabiting the territory must make due with the circumstances set before them. They’ve become raiders, killing and looting to survive by selling stolen goods to Lieutenants at the end of the line. Despite such a development, though, honorable men find themselves in the precarious situation of needing to face such unpredictable hoards regardless. Theeb’s father taught his tribe to help their guests and stay strong. They’ve thus far honored that memory.
Enter a British soldier (Jack Fox‘s Edward) with a mysterious package guarded by unhinged severity and his Arab guide (Marji Audeh). They seek passage to a desert well—the location of which only this tribe knows for certain. The acting Sheikh doesn’t like the men’s request considering the danger of the path they are set to travel, but he leases out his brother Hussein in accordance with custom. Being the only man willing to let Theeb in on an emotional level as an equal, it’s hardly surprising when the boy follows this trio’s camels out of camp. Considering Hussein is also the only one who would realize his brother’s absence, escape is obstacle-free. Theeb eventually meets them as night falls and now it’s too late to turn back.
A very interesting clash of cultures is born from this event. Hussein would like to take Theeb home and Marji agrees. The child’s too young for the journey they’ve undertaken, but the Englishman has a mission to complete and men waiting for his arrival. They can’t afford the lost hours coming as a result of this little kid’s rebellious nature. So they continue on until the argument grows more vocal and heated upon reaching their destination to find blood and bodies waiting. Hussein didn’t sign up for this and Marji wants nothing to do with leading Theeb to his death. It’s brotherhood versus duty as Edward takes a utilitarian stand, but brotherhood wins. Just as Marji won’t bring pilgrims along, however, they refuse leaving him to get lost.
You can guess what happens next as raiders roam the open sand this quartet approaches. We watch Theeb as everything unfolds: his desire to be a man mixed with his inability to overcome his age’s innocent fear. The first instance of this comes when Hussein wrestles a lamb, giving Theeb the knife to cut its throat with a prayer so they may feast. The boy acts confident and ready but we can see uncertainty in his eyes, the knife remaining motionless in the air. Next we notice his horror spying upon dead men never again to get up from where they lay. He isn’t ready for the chaos the outside world is bringing into his desert via train tracks, military, and money. The collateral damage is too high.
Nowar and co-writer Bassel Ghandour refuse to give him the opportunity to grow into it, deciding to toss Theeb into the fire instead. The adventure becomes less about whether the Englishman will accomplish his mission and more about the boy’s survival. He’s soon to face evil with nothing but what Hussein has begun teaching him alongside the old adage spoken by their father about the strong conquering the weak. He must find that strength despite the harrowing circumstances he finds himself within—a confidence to be skeptical of his enemies while keeping them close to learn their goals. Plot is soon thrown out the window as the film changes focus to the unnatural evolution of an innocent thrust into a life or death situation teetering on abject destruction.
Al Hwietat is phenomenal in this his only credited performance, possessed with the assuredness of a veteran grappling with the full breadth of the emotional spectrum. His character is resourceful, stubborn, and athletic; keenly astute and forever ready as long as the fatigue of youth doesn’t place him off-guard. Theeb is about to witness death on a grand scale relative to the compact world of a few square miles that has expanded into disputed territory and broken men no longer playing by God’s rules. But he never appears lost in the dreamy optimism of youth—the death of his father a factor towards pragmatism. Tragedy hits him hard, but it doesn’t destroy him. Instinct kicks in as love for his people remains despite his pent-up anger finally finding its outlet.
This outlet is a stranger crossing their path (Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh). A master at transitioning from “wolf in sheep’s clothing” to “sheep in wolf’s,” he maneuvers his way into positions of control with both stick and carrot. Murderous thief one moment and a helpless victim the next, it’s tough to believe anything he says. A pilgrim himself turned into this man with gun raised, seeing him is to look into a mirror at the future. He was probably just like Theeb until the world forced his hand. So we wonder if perhaps who he is now has ultimately become the boy’s own fate after what he’s witnessed. A wolf has come to Theeb’s door and he will not count on trust for he is a wolf himself.
 Water from the Well