Tracking the North Star

Bassel Ghandour, writer and co-producer of Jordanian movie "Theeb" (Wolf), speaks with pride about his film being the first Jordanian movie to be nominated for Oscars under the category of the best foreign film. REUTERS/ Muhammad Hamed

Theeb script-writer, Bassel Ghandour’s journey to film

By Arfa Shahid

“How do you track with the stars?” asks a Bedouin boy in the film Theeb. “Put the North Star between your eyes,” replies a stranger. And that is just what Bassel Ghandour did with his first feature film Theeb—he made it his North Star.

The Jordanian scriptwriter and producer has studied industrial engineering for two years at the University of Michigan, but his passion led him elsewhere. “My heart was into filmmaking early on. I decided to take a year off [from studying] and work in films. From wanting to tell stories in the region to loving that work experience, I was hooked. I couldn’t go back to studying industrial engineering,” Ghandour tells Newsweek Middle East. He pursued this passion more seriously and went on to graduate from the University of Southern California with a degree in film production.

Theeb, which he co-wrote with director Naji Abu Nowar, is Ghandour’s debut script and was among the top contenders in the best foreign film category at Sunday’s 2016 Academy Awards.

Set against the complex political backdrop of the 1916 Ottoman Empire’s Hejaz Province (now a part of Western Saudi Arabia along the Red Sea), the film’s plot is seen through the watchful eyes of Theeb (Wolf in Arabic), a 10-year-old Bedouin boy whose father—a tribal chieftain—recently passed away.

The film won the prestigious 2016 British Academy Film Award (BAFTA) for an outstanding directorial debut on February 14.
With unmistakable confidence, Ghandour says Theeb’s success has given hope to Jordanian cinema. “The Jordanian film industry is very small and there aren’t very many films that come out of there. If [investors] weren’t interested before, after Theeb they have become a lot more encouraged.”

The movie has received critical acclaim for its Bedouin-Western narrative, depicting the locals of Wadi Rum, a historical area in Jordan. Ghandour says that the first two drafts of the script “were missing a lot of the subtleties and the nuances” of Bedouin culture. “So we moved now to a town called Shakhriyeh in Wadi Rum and really immersed ourselves in the Bedouin lifestyle. And that’s where we really found the authenticity, [which is] where we really wanted to be in terms of the story,” says Ghandour.

What makes Theeb remarkable is that its Bedouin cast members had never acted before. Jacir Eid Al Hwietat, who gave a riveting performance in the lead role, is a Bedouin from Wadi Rum. “The decision [to hire Bedouins] goes back to the [question of] authenticity. We felt that [it] really added so much to the film,” Ghandour tells Newsweek Middle East.

He explains that their mannerisms while speaking to each other, their interaction with the desert environment and how they dealt with the camels was essential. “Authenticity was key. We wanted the accent in the film to be in their tongue, so the dialogues were also developed with them,” he adds. When Ghandour first approached them with the idea of working in a movie, he says he received a variety of reactions; some laughed at the idea whilst others welcomed the opportunity for work. He explains that the team was worried initially with the decision to work with amateurs and saw it as a risk, adding that they interviewed over 250 people. The team spent eight months in Wadi Rum, giving acting workshops to the locals of Shakhriyeh.

“We saw that they developed much better than we anticipated. We feel lucky and blessed to have worked with them.”

As first time film producers, Ghandour says they didn’t have the funds for professional actors. “We would’ve welcomed that, but at the same time we just couldn’t afford it. We are first time filmmakers and so…we couldn’t call in these connections; we didn’t know anybody that well. So it seems like working with [them] was a logistical choice and a logical choice as well, because as soon as we started the acting workshop, we knew that it was the right decision,” Ghandour says.

Theeb proves that a film doesn’t need A-list actors or a massive production budge to create an Oscar-worthy piece of work.

What does it take then? Ghandour strikes a serious tone: “You can’t set out and say I want to make an Oscar-worthy film. You say I want to make the best film I can make.” He credits the cooperative team behind Theeb as being crucial to its success, which he says has caught everyone by surprise. “We had no expectations. It is surreal what we are going through.”

Coming from a well-known family, he says “there’s no doubt” that his father’s contacts helped with the funding and investment process—a feat that took five years. Ghandour’s father, Fadi Ghandour, is the co-founder and vice chairman of Aramex. He mentions how grateful he is to The King Abdullah Fund, which “helped the film get to the finishing act.” Ghandour says Theeb had the support of government entities and private investors (Abu Dhabi film fund SANAD and the Doha Film Institute were among the contributors) who funded the film. “They believed in us when the film was still at the idea stage,” says Ghandour.

On the process of script-writing, Ghandour says, “Staring at a blank page, when you want to start, is one of the most frustrating things in the world. Ideas are dime a dozen. For me, it’s about putting in all the hard work.” He adds: “That’s where you plough through, that’s where you turn an idea and flush it out, to turn it into a story that is comprehensible. And then hopefully, a good story that is comprehensible to the world.”

There were high hopes for Theeb at the Oscars. Although it did not win the award, the film has made cinematic history for Jordanian and Arab cinema. According to Wamda, Theeb is one of only 10 films from MENA to have been nominated for best foreign film since 1947. Out of the 112 films that have been submitted for the category, only two have ever come from Jordan.

But Ghandour doesn’t seem too concerned. “It was a pleasure to make the film and all of this is just a bonus. Going to Venice was a bonus, getting nominated for BAFTA was a bonus, getting nominated for an Oscar was a bonus. We didn’t expect any of this, so we’re just going enjoy what we have,” he says with nonchalance.

The idea of going to film festivals and award ceremonies is “foreign” to Ghandour, who says he is driven by his passion to write films. He recalls his path to filmmaking, which stemmed from his love for movies. “We really don’t have screenwriters here in the Arab world, specifically in Jordan.” And Ghandour seems determined to change that. “When we have a lot of interesting stories, they should be told,” he says. He is in the process of writing his next feature film. “It is a contemporary urban story set in Amman,” he says, refusing to give further details. This is just the beginning of the journey for this promising scriptwriter. Bassel Ghandour has located his North Star.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article inaccurately stated that Bassel Ghandour graduated with a degree in industrial engineering. We regret the error and have updated the article accordingly.

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