While dense, urban places like New York and Los Angeles have appeared staples in numerous films, an unforgiving desert has also been seen as the central setting in movies since they were first produced. The natural landscape of a desert can become a haunting presence that can shape a character’s emotional and physical journeys.
The adventure fable “Theeb,” the Dec. 11 selection for Filmworks at the historic Tower Theatre, has been described as a mesmerizing “Arabic western” that holds its own ingenuity against classics like “Lawrence of Arabia.” The debut feature from Jordanian British filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar captures the struggle of an 11-year-old Bedouin youth attempting to survive in the Arabian desert as competing Ottoman Empire forces begin to encroach.
Here’s a selection of films where landscapes mold the characters as they begin their adventurous and sometimes perilous journeys through a desolate desert.
Hollywood westerns are a classic source for explorations of an unforgiving territory. American director John Ford’s 1956 landmark film stars John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a Civil War vet on the hunt for his kidnapped niece taken by Comanche Indians.
Although hotly debated now for its portrayal of Native Americans, “The Searchers” it is still a prime source of inspiration for many of today’s biggest Hollywood directors, from Scorsese to Spielberg. Ford’s attentive detail of his protagonist’s personal quest, set against the backdrop of the Great American Frontier, provided many with a roadmap for how to make a “true” Western, and its influence can be seen in “Kill Bill,” the Star Wars films and imany other cinematic epics.
Set in the Australian outback, two siblings are abandoned by their suicidal father and must learn to get back to civilization. With the help of an Aboriginal boy, the threatening Australian bush becomes both a place to be feared and embraced. The film’s namesake comes from an old Aborigine custom when a boy must prove his manhood on a “walkabout” and must depend on his skills to overcome the unforgiving outback and survive.
The triumphant 1971 debut by cinematographer Nicolas Roeg is what the late film critic Roger Ebert once called “one of the best-photographed films ever” and that “no one who saw ‘Walkabout’ has ever forgotten about it.”
Similar to the previous selection, this 2014 Australian drama takes us through a true, harrowing account of an author’s 9-month trek on camels through the dangerous outback.
Mia Wasikowska (“The Double,” “The Kids are Alright”) portrays Robyn Davidson who, in 1977, travels 1,700 miles from Alice Springs through the deserts to reach the Indian Ocean with her four camels and dog. National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan accompanies her while documenting her risky self-discovery.
Director John Curran’s vision of surreal visuals gives the audience the feeling they too are seeing this force of nature through Davidson’s eyes. The otherworldly solitude of the desert filled with relentless heat, unforgiving creatures and never-ending dust can leave one with a definite chill, especially when Davidson has an unfortunate wake-up call with a snake. (Don’t worry, I won’t spoil who had whom for breakfast after the encounter.)
“Bab’Aziz” is the 2005 conclusion to Tunisian filmmaker Nacer Khemir’s desert trilogy, which also includes his 1984 film Les baliseurs du désert (“Wanderes of the Desert”) and 1991 film Le collier perdu de la colombe (“The Dove’s Lost Necklace”). The film’s dreamlike, nonlinear narrative is reminiscent of a chapter from 1,001 Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales often cited as Arabian nights in the West.
This poetic film revolves around Bab’Aziz, a blind dervish, and his passionate granddaughter who wander through the desert together to find a grand Sufi gathering that takes place just once every 30 years. Using only their faith as a guide through the barren and sweeping land, the two encounter other spirited travelers on their own hopeful quests.
The film garnered many favorable reviews for its attempt to shine a light on post-9/11 misconceptions of Islam. Matt Zoller Seitz of The New York Times said: “A structurally audacious fairy tale that imparts moral lessons and shows how narratives reflect and shape life, cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari frames the dunes, rock formations and sandblasted village and cities with a poetic eye, turning real spaces into dreamscapes.”
Yvette Mancilla studies multimedia journalism at Fresno State. She currently serves as the Filmworks marketing intern.