Learning All The Wrong Lessons

(Editors Note: Spoilers for Theeb, a movie you should really see.) If you see Netflix gently suggesting strongly urging you to watch Theeb, do yourself a favor and check it out. If you're worried about subtitles (it's in Arabic), don't- it's not very talky.

In 1916, during the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire[ref]See Lawrence of Arabia for details.[/ref], Theeb, a young Bedouin boy lives with his brother at a small camp in the desert. A British officer arrives in the night, on an urgent mission. When his brother is asked to help, Theeb doesn't want to be left behind.

The film gets a lot of mileage out of restricting our point of view to Theeb. He's on the edge of grown-up conversations, and while we can fill in the gaps, he can't. There's a brief conversation with the officer and his original guide- he stresses the need to complete his mission and defeat the Turks (it's for the good of the Arabs, of course), but his guide needs him to be more diplomatic (Theeb and his brother are the sons of an important tribal elder.)

Unable to speak English, Theeb is oblivious to the conversation, but it drives home an important point: the international intrigue that seems essential to an imperial power like Great Britain means nothing to people like the Bedouin, who are more concerned with  day-to-day life.

This idea is also prevalent in Lawrence of Arabia, one of my all time favorite films. (See image above.) The connection between the two is not just because they take place at the same time and in the same place, but both were shot in Wadi Rum, in the south of Jordan. Theeb_Film_PosterThe filmmakers had to be careful to avoid some of the more well-known landmarks.[ref]Wadi Rum was also the location for the Mars scenes in The Martian. Seems like it's an Arabian Monument Valley.[/ref]

I've heard a couple of people describe Theeb as a Bedouin-western. In addition to the sandy landscapes dotted by massive rock formations, there's talk of the railroad completely changing people's way of life in the area- and not always for the better.

Theeb also has all the hallmarks of an adventure film: venturing beyond the comforts of home to have an exciting but dangerous experience. It's great to see this handled from the perspective of a Bedouin boy: in Lawrence of Arabia, we see all the Bedouin characters through the eyes of a white man. Even when he's sympathetic to them, they can't speak for themselves. Theeb and most of the characters in the film are all played by non-professional actors, which gives their performances extra authenticity.

Adventure-western films starring young boys also lend themselves to coming of age stories, and Theeb is no different. Except...

(Spoilers start here.)

I don't know how I feel about the ending.

While taking the British officer to his rendezvous with the Revolutionaries, Theeb and his companions are ambushed by bandits at a well. The boy is the only survivor. He waits for help at the well, and who should show up but one of the bandits, Hassan, wounded and abandoned by his comrades.

Theeb and Hassan nurse each other back to help and start making their way back to civilization. Hassan has collected trinkets and valuables from the bodies (including the officer's mysterious wooden box), and takes them to a Turkish outpost to sell them. He's the one who explains to Theeb how the railroad is destroying the Bedouin way of life.

But when Theeb realizes he's selling the officer's belongings to the Turks, he steals a gun and shoots Hassan.

Narratively, this seems like a let down: Theeb wanted to kill Hassan before, but decided not to, and then did, anyway.

It also seems like a betrayal of the work done at the beginning to show how the British sense of Arab nationalism means little to the Bedouin. Since when was Theeb overcome with patriotic fervor? When the railroad divided up the desert? Is that it?

But I wonder what kind of young man Theeb will grow up to be. Over the opening credits, we hear his father relating a parable about trusting people: You can't be too careful. When a wolf acts like your friend, he'll still betray you.[ref]Also, Theeb's name means "wolf."[/ref] Theeb and Hassan both hesitate to trust each other, yet when they do, they both benefit.

Except Theeb still can't get past his distrust of Hassan. And especially after the Turks let him go, he'll be less inclined to trust other strangers.

Coming of age films often stress the advantages that come from trusting people: we're stronger when we work together, etc., etc. Except Theeb seems to take away the opposite lesson. People are not to be trusted, especially mysterious strangers.

It's a coming of age film where the hero learns entirely the wrong lesson.