Jordan always offers its land to foreign countries, mainly to the U.S. film industry to use their location for filming. This year’s Oscar nominations “The Martian” and “The Lawrence of Arabia” and from the past like “Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade,” “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” are some of them. But how many of you know or have heard of Jordan’s cinematography or their beautifully made films?
The good news is, soon we will hear more films coming from the famed Middle Eastern monarchy, Jordan, as in 2003 it had developed the Royal Film Commission – Jordan to encourage filmmaking in the country and to train Jordanian filmmakers in the art of making cinema. As you may know the big success for Jordan came with the Oscar nomination of “Theeb” for Best Foreign Film.
Certainly, there are many good and positive words that can be written about Middle Eastern films, or their vision of the art. However, I had a great opportunity to interview, despite via e-mail, with George David, the Managing Director of Royal Film Commission – Jordan, who knows it best the fascinating world of cinema that’s slowly taking over Jordan.
MOVIEMOVESME: Film “Theeb” was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards, making it the first Jordanian nomination ever. Can you talk about this film, and the importance of this nomination for the entire film industry of Jordan?
George David: “Theeb”, Naji Abu Nowar’s Debut film, tells a Bedouin story of brotherhood and betrayal set in Wadi Rum in 1916. The film follows young “Theeb” on his journey across the Arabian Desert with his elder brother, Hussein, as they leave the safety of their tribe to serve as guides to a British Army Officer at the dawn of the Great Arab Revolt.
The film has been commercially released in over 20 countries around the world and has attended over 50 film festivals internationally and reaped many prestigious international film awards. The film has been highly acclaimed by different audiences and critics around the world.
From the red sands of Wadi Rum’s desert to the Red Carpet, the nomination of “Theeb” for the Oscar certainly gives recognition to a blossoming film industry in Jordan that is now profiling itself internationally. This highlights the local industry’s growth and great potential, and comes as a result of an enabling filmmaking environment in Jordan today.
Even though the film didn’t win the Award, the nomination in itself is a major achievement that certainly marks history for Jordanian cinema. It is the first time Jordan gets a seat at the Academy Awards; hence a permanent one on the international cinematic map. It is also proof that, within a decade, Jordanian cinema has developed to the same level as century-old film industries from around the world.
MOVIEMOVESME: Jordan always offered its land to Hollywood films that eventually brought a wide recognition. Sone of them are “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade,” “The Hurt Locker”, “Zero Dark Thirty” and Ridley Scott’s “The Martian”. What is it that makes Jordan the preferred choice of well known filmmakers when it comes to shooting?
George David: Located in the heart of the Middle East, Jordan enjoys a variety of geographical features and boasts a diversity of landscapes including deserts, forests, plains, rolling hills and fertile river valleys, in addition to unspoiled ancient historical and multi-religious sites. This factor has greatly contributed towards attracting top film and television productions to choose this country as their go-to location, and still does.
One of the most prominent examples is the breath-taking landscape of Wadi Rum. The most recent case was director Ridley Scott’s choice of the sandstone valley as a stand in for the Red Planet in his film “The Martian”. Before that, UNESCO World Heritage site of Wadi Rum has hosted several other films, dating as far back as David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia”, and others including: “Red Planet”, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”, “Prometheus”, “The Last Days on Mars”, “Monsters: Dark Continent”, “Hyena Road”, and last but not least, Jordan’s share of telling a pure Bedouin story in the film “Theeb” that was entirely shot in Wadi Rum.
But Jordan can stand for many other locations in the Middle East, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Palestine. This is best illustrated by films such as “The Hurt Locker”, “A War”, “Zero Dark Thirty”, “Kilo Two Bravo – Kajaki”, “Rosewater”, “Promotheus”, etc.
There are other good reasons that make Jordan an attractive modern destination for filmmaking: the excellent infrastructure, the availability of a skilled crew, the Government support, the easy accessibility of the country, the moderate weather, an English-speaking majority of the population. And most importantly, Jordan is remarkably secure and safe, amidst the turbulences in the region.
Last and certainly not least, Jordan also attracts production for financial reasons. In addition to the cost-effective production services, the newly launched tax incentive (including exemptions of the 16-percent sales tax, customs duties and the withholding tax on foreign crews) and the no- or low-cost permitting fees.
Such an enabling environment undeniably helps attracting more foreign productions to the country. In fact, in some cases filmmakers returned to the country to shoot for the second or third time. Kathryn Bigelow returned with her film “Zero Dark Thirty” after “The Hurt Locker” (two Oscar-winning films!); and Ridley Scott’s latest film “The Martian” came after he shot parts of “Prometheus” in Jordan.
MOVIEMOVESME: You’re holding the position as Managing Director at the Royal Film Commission – Jordan. What’s the main role of this commission and how is it going to help Jordanian film industry to advance to the next level?
George David: The Royal Film Commission – Jordan (RFC) is dedicated to promoting for and contributing to the development of an internationally competitive Jordanian audio-visual industry. The RFC provides comprehensive production services to local and international productions ranging from assistance in obtaining filming permits at no or low cost, location scouting, providing skilled and professional local crews, custom clearance, tax incentives (including exemptions of the 16-percent sales tax, customs duties and the withholding tax on foreign crews).
The RFC is keen on working towards positioning Jordan as a location for international audio-visual productions through offering great locations, creative resources and sufficient information on filming in the country, in addition to providing equivalent support to domestic and local productions.
As a public organization, the RFC pays special attention to the capacity building and training components. The RFC has established educational programs and workshops for Jordanians working or aspiring to work in the film industry.
MOVIEMOVESME: What is the role of Jordan film industry in Hollywood?
George David: Jordan has served as the backdrop for numerous Hollywood movies: the legendary “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Indiana Jones, “The Lost Crusade”, “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker”, only to name a few.
Additionally, we work closely with the Organizations in Hollywood that provide film training and education. For example, we hold the annual Producers Diversity workshop with the Producers Guild of America (PGA). We also work or have worked in the past on training initiatives with the University of Southern California (USC), the Sundance Institute and Film Independent.
MOVIEMOVESME: Very few North American viewers may know about or have seen Middle Eastern films. What would you like to tell them if you want to attract their attention towards Middle Eastern films?
George David: The Middle East is today at the center of world attention for many different reasons. Cinema is arguably the most effective medium that bridges cultures. “Theeb” for example introduced the real image and values of Jordanians and Bedouins to world through the screen.
I encourage your readers to take the time to watch not only the Hollywood movies shot in our region, but also and specially the films made by Arab film makers. There is a very interesting new independent wave in Arab and Middle Eastern cinema that is really worth considering. Fortunately, the major festivals such as Berlin, Cannes and Venice are featuring our films and giving them an opportunity to be appreciated internationally.
MOVIEMOVESME: Nowadays, many people talk about diversity in Hollywood. But how deep that problem is for filmmakers from a different part of the world is something we know nothing about. What do you think the film industry needs to do for low-budget films or the films not made in Hollywood to be recognized and acknowledged by big audiences?
George David: There are obviously many challenges facing independent, low-budget foreign films. They have considerably low marketing budgets, they usually lack stars, having to watch a dubbed foreign film or reading subtitles also discourages viewers at times. These are but a few of the challenges.
To be able to access wider audiences, low budget can focus more on social media campaigns. VOD platforms like Netflix are also a light at the end of the tunnel for independents. Audiences have already paid their monthly subscription and will therefore not feel that they will “risk” paying for the ticket if the film is not to their liking. VOD also makes the low-budget films more accessible.
Schools and Universities can also play a big part by introducing foreign films to their curriculum or as an after school activity.
Embassies are also able to make films from their countries available in the US or elsewhere by sponsoring low or no cost screenings.