Theeb: how to build a movie

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The guys behind Oscar-nominated ‘Theeb’ have found themselves in Hollywood, building a napkin pitch into a critically-acclaimed success story.

Does this process sound familiar?

The napkin pitch was Jordanian Bassel Ghandour’s 15-page script for a short film, which he sent to his friend, director Naji Abu Nowar, in 2011. The next five years were spent pitching for investment, recruiting, developing the product and marketing.

The elements of building a startup are not dissimilar to making a film, and the tale of ‘Theeb’ is an illustration of just how similar a process it can be.

‘Theeb’ is a “Bedouin western” set in a corner of the Ottoman Empire in 1916, which has won an Oscar nomination for best foreign film and Abu Nowar and producer Robert Lloyd won the category outstanding debut by a British writer, director or producer.

It follows a young Bedouin boy, Theeb (which means ‘wolf’ in Arabic), when a British army officer arrives at the family camp asking for a guide through a dangerous desert route along an old pilgrimage trail to Mecca. Wolf’s brother Hussein agrees, and the boy slips into the group and embarks on a journey that will throw him into the politics of the early days of the Arab Revolt.

The film is currently being re-released in cinemas to capitalize on the excitement of the Oscars, but so far has not been a commercial success, grossing only $349,340 from cinemas around the world by the end of 2015.

It is, however, one of only 10 films from the MENA region to have been nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film since 1947, and of the 112 films submitted for the category from MENA, only two have ever come from Jordan.

Ghandour, said the first step after Abu Nowar suggested they turn the script into a feature film was finding someone to fund it.

Theeb
Naji Abu Nowar and Bassel Ghandour at the Ajyal Youth Film Festival. (Image via Zimbio)

Pitching for investment

“Early on we thought [the budget] was going to be much lower than we’d anticipated,” he told Wamda. “As we gradually planned it out and saw what was needed to get this film to be what it is, we started to realise that we were going to need some more money.”

Ultimately Theeb, which would be produced by production company Bayt Al Shawareb, or Moustache House, and was spearheaded by Ghandour, relied on a mix of funding from Jordanian ‘angel’ investors and institutions.

After several false starts they invited a group of Jordanian investors - none of whom Ghandour would disclose - to their Amman office and, using a pitch deck consisting of old photos and items from the early 19th century, outlined the vision. A few were willing to take a chance on the project, which at that point consisted only of a script and enthusiasm, and took equity stakes in the film.

The production team moved to the village of Al Shakriyeh in Wadi Rum at the start of 2012, and continued to shuttle between the isolated valley and Amman for money during the next year of preparation and filming.

Theeb
If a film is like a startup, the challenges can be wildly different. (Image via BFI)

Ghandour said they were “always on the edge” as funds trickled in, such as a $10,000 boost from Abu Dhabi film fund SANAD, which allowed them to continue research, scout locations, and recruit and train actors.

He would also not disclose the total budget, but said they were heavily dependent on the crew taking pay cuts.

“A lot of people [did] it because they get to work on foreign films that come to Jordan, and they make their money off the foreign films. So when there’s a Jordanian film, it’s not a big industry here, [they think] we might as well support,” he said.

By the end of filming in 2013 they had just enough money left to finish shooting and get a rough cut of the movie together - enough to convince more risk-averse institutions, such as the Doha Film Institute, the Swiss Visions Sud Est Fund and Jordan’s King Abdullah II Fund for Development, to pay for the post-production process.

Recruiting stars

MENA entrepreneurs frequently complain that recruitment is one of the biggest challenges they face, as startups fail to actively target talented youth who in turn still see government and corporate jobs as better options.

For ‘Theeb’ however, the challenge was the fact that its cast was almost entirely composed of acting novices - bedouins from the Wadi Rum area.

Theeb
Once a week training sessions turned complete novices into Oscar-worthy actors. (Image via Theeb)

Ghandour said they spend 10 months in 2012 in the desert developing the script alongside the bedouins (whose Arabic accent and dialect is used throughout the film) and training the actors.

Recruitment began not with a Bayt listing but fliers in every town in Wadi Rum. Around 250 people were interviewed, 20 shortlisted and after some workshops, the final 10 chosen.

Palestinian acting coach Hisham Suleiman gave an initial three-day workshop, teaching both the actors and Abu Nowar and Ghandour tools they would use over the next eight months to develop the skills of cast of then-10-year-old Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat who played Theeb, Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen who played Hussein, Marji Audeh who played the British captain’s guide, and Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh who played the Bedouin outlaw known as ‘the stranger’.

On location

Every startup has its challenges, be it prototyping, funding or staffing, yet for ‘Theeb’ the key challenge was location especially as filming started in October 2012.

“We thought shooting in the desert was going to be easy and cheap and quick,” Ghandour said. “[People got lost in the desert] over a dozen [times]. It wasn’t unusual to have someone lost and to turn up an hour later… on a number of occasions the Bedouin would be like, OK I’ll go find them.”

Theeb
The location was not exactly hospitable. (Image via Theeb)

Being four hours from Amman meant delays if anything needed to be fetched; filming locations - even without people getting lost - were sometimes hours away; and housing was an unexpected expense.

“At first we wanted to camp out in the desert with a small crew, but then we realized it was bigger and we needed to do it right.”

Flash flooding meant they had to clear everything out of a canyon within 10 minutes and sandstorms were, of course, something of a problem.

“The fine sand really gets everywhere which is part of the reason we shot on 16mm film, that we shot on old school cameras and film canisters,” Ghandour said, adding that they’d bought their own as renting in Jordanian production houses, used to catering to Hollywood-sized budgets, was prohibitively expensive, which would later form the basis of Ghandour’s production house Bayt Al Shawareb

Post-production, which involves editing, adding and adjusting sound, adding reshot scenes and effectively turning days of raw footage into a product fit for the big screen, lasted during 2013 until March 2014.

Marketing and launch

Startups are usually advised to start with social media and other easily accessible marketing methods. Ghandour said they too relied on social media; but the usual way to generate ‘buzz’ around a film is to get it into festivals.

Festival releases mean reviews and the ability to present an opus to an interested - and perhaps also industry - audience. However, with around 3,000 festivals around the world, however, and entry fees and postage costing anywhere from $50, this can get expensive.

Ghandour said they started applying to festivals at the start of 2013 - a time when they “didn’t know what calibre of film” they had, and in the summer were accepted into the 2014 Venice Film Festival.

Then followed a string of premieres at festivals, throughout the world, before it was released cinematically in March 2015 by international sales agent Fortissimo Film and local film distributor Mad Solutions.

Theeb is one of 16 local films produced in Jordan since 2016, from 65 overall, and there is hope that the rise of the Jordanian filmmaker will continue.

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