Jordan shoots for a victory at the Oscars

Theeb, a ‘Bedouin Western’ that has enjoyed international acclaim, is nominated for best foreign language film of 2015.

theeb web three
Theeb's co-producer said the film would not have been possible without such an experienced crew, who have learned the craft over years of working on Hollywood productions in Jordan [Facebook]

Amman – A large group of Jordanians were packed into an Amman cafe, paying rapt attention to a television screen mounted on the wall. They exchanged nervous glances and heaved sighs. The tension was palpable.

At last, they heard the word they had been waiting for, and the cafe – packed with crew members for the film Theeb – erupted in shouts and tears of happiness.

Theeb, a Jordanian film, was nominated last month for the Oscar for best foreign language film of 2015. The film, a so-called Bedouin Western set in 1916, now has a shot at Hollywood’s highest honour when the awards are handed out on Sunday night.

The Jordanian film Theeb is up for an Oscar on Sunday night [Facebook]The Jordanian film Theeb is up for an Oscar on Sunday night [Facebook]

Whereas nearby Egypt and Lebanon developed home-grown film industries over the course of the 20th century, Jordan has mostly served as a dramatic backdrop for stories conceived overseas.

Wadi Rum, a desert valley in southern Jordan, was featured in Lawrence of Arabia, and stood in for outer space in The Martian, Prometheus, and many others. The ancient stone city of Petra was famously presented as an unnamed treasure trove in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Jordan’s deserts have also been used to portray Iraq (The Hurt Locker) and Afghanistan (Zero Dark Thirty), as the United States’ Middle Eastern wars have become popular fodder for Hollywood.

But over the past decade, Jordan’s local film industry has developed rapidly. The film scene in Egypt and Lebanon may be more developed, but no filmmaker in those countries has yet to produce a movie enjoying international success on the level of Theeb.

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So how did the industry come so far, so fast? And is Theeb a flash in the pan, or an indication of Jordan’s rising star in global cinema?

Perhaps the most obvious reason for the rapid development of Jordan’s film industry is the fact that so many big-budget Hollywood blockbusters have decided to shoot in the country. Over the years, these sets have served as production master-classes for Jordan’s budding film professionals.

Bassel Ghandour, who wrote and produced Theeb, said Hollywood movies filming in Jordan “paved the way” for this new generation of Jordanian filmmakers. “These films came to Jordan and we crewed up on them. That’s how we learned the craft, that’s how we learned what a set looks like, and that’s how we became really world class.”

I hope the impact will be on local films and the emergence of a film fund, more support for local Jordanian films, and an independent Arab cinema.

Bassel Ghandour, Theeb writer and producer

Theeb co-producer Laith Majali agreed, saying that his film would not have been possible without such an experienced crew. “There is no way we could have made Theeb in the quality we did if it weren’t for our Jordanian crews having worked with some of [Hollywood’s] best directors, such as Ridley Scott and Kathryn Bigelow.”

Majali also produced and edited Captain Abu Raed, which was released in 2007 and was Jordan’s first feature film in decades, after having attended film school in the US. He said the film used “mostly foreign crew – all the main positions and department heads” were non-Jordanians.

Eight years later with Theeb, “80 percent of the crew were Jordanians … we’ve made huge leaps in the quality of our crews”.

In 2003, the Jordanian government established the Royal Film Commission (RFC), hoping to use film to boost Jordan’s economy as well as raise the country’s international profile.

The commission’s mandate is to attract global production teams, both through traditional PR campaigns as well as a tax exemption programme launched last year, which allows foreign film crews to bypass value-added tax.

Chaired by Prince Ali bin al-Hussein – famous for his candidacy for the FIFA presidency – the commission also partners with institutions such as the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and the Producers Guild of America to provide workshops and advice to local educators.

By the end of 2016, the RFC will have launched six film centres throughout the country, for screenings and workshops.

As a non-essential government service, however, the RFC is vulnerable to economic downturns. Several of its initiatives were shut down after the economic crash in 2012 and have yet to be relaunched. “Every year [since 2012] our budget has been cut,” said George David, the RFC’s general manager. “We’re working very hard to relaunch the fund,” he added – but with the Jordanian government as its main benefactor, there is little the commission can do independently.

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Nadine Toukan, the producer of Captain Abu Raed and Theeb, believes that there is a role for the private sector to play in bringing the cinematic arts to education. “Perhaps the expectation [to support the film industry] ought not be on the shoulders of the government alone,” said the prolific Jordanian filmmaker.

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“I believe there could be interesting public-private partnerships and alliances to explore growing this space.”

Theeb may have shown Hollywood that Jordan is more than just a pretty face, but any relationship between the two may encounter complications.

For one thing, Hollywood’s portrayal of Arabs is often grossly simplistic; as “terrorists”, they serve as the bad guys in the familiar battle between good and evil, a formula that consistently sells tickets. Several Hollywood films shot in Jordan have faced this criticism.

But many Jordanians do not share this view. “It’s just work,” said Majali. “You have to distance yourself from that to get the work. I don’t think we’ve had that kind of resentment against American projects.”

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Ghandour, who got his start as a production assistant on The Hurt Locker, the story of an American bomb disposal expert in the Iraq War, agreed. “[These films] create niche jobs. People in this industry need films like this to come to Jordan.

“You open the TV anywhere here [in the region] and see some big action film where Arabs are being portrayed one dimensionally and wrongly. I guess people watching might feel that it’s not them, but they might not jump a step ahead and think, ‘Is this how the West views us?'”

While an Oscar win would be an undeniable victory for Jordan’s film industry, many agree that the larger goal is to keep the Jordanian – and Arab – movie-making machine well-oiled, both in terms of funding and communications between different national film industries. “I hope the impact will be on local films and the emergence of a film fund, more support for local Jordanian films, and an independent Arab cinema,” said Ghandour.


Further, local filmmakers value the increased interaction between Arab filmmakers of different nationalities. In Theeb, the cast was almost exclusively Jordanian, and they used a Palestinian acting coach. “I think the emerging Arab film movement is able to cross borders” both geographically and artistically, said Toukan.

“The collaborative nature of the industry forces us to reach across the region to build crews and help each other. It can be a way to get away from our sociopolitical problems.”

Majali believes a victory at the Oscars on Sunday could spark such a connection between Arab national film industries.

“The infrastructure to really move Arabic cinema forward just isn’t there yet,” he said.
But Oscar or no, Theeb’s nomination has already made an impact on Majali’s life as a producer in Los Angeles. “As an Oscar nominee, I can get meetings much more easily now,” he laughed.

Source: Al Jazeera


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