Although Jordan’s film industry is still nascent, the Royal Film Commission (RFC) now hopes the wave of publicity generated by the Oscar-nominated Theeb will further highlight the huge potential for movie making in the Kingdom.
By Rebecca Irvine
The Jordanian film Theeb has recently thrown the Kingdom’s film industry into the headlines. Though the film is by no means the first Jordanian film to gain international recognition, it is certainly the first to do it on this scale. As well as grossing over $350,000 so far, the film gained Jordan’s first Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category, and picked up Bafta awards for Best Film Not in the English Language and Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer for Writer and Director Naji Abu Nowar and Producer Robert Lloyd.
Despite this influx of praise, however, it is yet to be seen whether the film’s success will have enough of an influence on Jordan’s small but growing film industry to catapult it to bigger things in the future. George David, The RFC’s general manager, is optimistic that it can. “It will bring more to Jordanian cinema,” he said. The film’s Executive Producer Nadine Toukan is equally upbeat. “It has raised the bar for many filmmakers,” she said. “I hope it has a supercharged effect on the film community and aspiring filmmakers, investors and backers, legislation, and policy across public sector organizations working for culture, distribution, and exhibition, the arts and education.”
The majority of the financial investment for the film’s production came from sources outside Jordan. These included the Doha Film Institute, the Swiss Visions Sud Est Fund, and the Abu Dhabi film fund Sanad. But during the post-production process, Jordan’s King Abdullah II Fund for Development lent its backing. In terms of distribution, in order to achieve maximum exposure, the film was submitted to key film festivals early in its development, and later distributed across the Arab world by Mad Solutions and globally by Fortissimo Films. Toukan declined to disclose the financial specifics of these deals, but since its release, the film was screened in 25 countries across the world.
At the forefront of the industry within Jordan is the RFC, a financially and administratively independent public institution, which was established in 2003 with HRH Prince Ali bin Hussein as Chairman of the Board. The RFC is somewhat unique in the role it plays in Jordan’s film industry. While film institutes elsewhere in the world generally take on the role of supporting the local industry, and film commissions promote the country as a location and support production there, the RFC straddles both of these facets, and combines the traditional work of an institute and commission; providing education and training as well as film screenings and production support.
“On the surface all three initiatives seem somewhat divided, but we have come to see over the past 11 years that they all feed into each other,” explained David. Filmmakers and crew who are supported through the early stages of their careers with training from the RFC often go on to make their own films or work on Jordanian and international films in the Kingdom—films which can be screened through the commission, bringing them to a much wider audience, and “creating a window to the world for those who are not fortunate to travel as much,” said David.
Education forms a big part of the RFC’s activities. In Amman, the focal point of these efforts is the commission’s Film House, located close to Rainbow Street in Jabal Amman, where anyone can sign up to workshops, get support from staff, and also arrange to view one of the thousands of films in the RFC’s library.
Beyond this, this year the RFC has relaunched a further six film centers across the country, in Wadi Rum, Petra, Mafraq, Salt, Zarqa, and Irbid. Supported by Zain and the Swiss Drossus Foundation, these centers—both mobile and fixed—are aiming to provide the local populations with the opportunity to learn about and watch a range of different films. “[These] will allow us to provide the same support as in Amman all around,” explained David.
Though Theeb received just “humble” funding from the RFC, David said the commission’s outreach work played a significant role in its eventual success on the international stage. “I believe we contributed greatly in providing the enabling environment for films like Theeb to thrive and to be successful,” he said. Indeed, many of the team members involved with creating Theeb have previously taken part in activities with the RFC. Abu Nowar, the film’s British-Jordanian director, took part in the commission’s very first screen-writing lab back in 2005, while producer Bassel Ghandour and line producer Diala Raie have also been involved in its activities down the years.
Big Budgets, High Stakes
Jordan’s diverse locations are a big attraction for international film studios. Some of the big-budget blockbusters that have been shot in the Kingdom include Transformers 2, Indiana Jones and the last Crusade, and most recently, The Martian. “This is one of the most viable industries there are: one of the most revenue generating industries, one of the most income generating industries,” explained David.
The Martian production juggernaut—in the eight days of shooting that took place in Jordan—spent around $2 million. This money relates to the direct impact of hiring local Jordanians as crew members, but also to the more indirect spending that takes place: to companies involved in set-building, equipment rental, and the crew’s personal spending.
These international productions are lucrative for another reason: tourism. The benefits to the tourism industry of bringing in such high-profile foreign productions are huge, according to David. Not only do foreign crew themselves effectively become tourists during the time they are in the country by visiting Petra, and staying in hotels for example, but the promotional effects can be far-reaching and influential. Audiences to this day still visit Wadi Rum on the back of Lawrence of Arabia and Petra due to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
This goes beyond Hollywood too. In a more obscure example, David references a popular Brazilian soap opera that shot one episode in the Kingdom, visiting a host of classic tourist sites. In the two weeks after the show aired tourism from Brazil increased by 40 percent, he said.
The larger-scale productions such as The Martian also provide important employment for local production crews who join the team. Since 2003, according to David, the workforce working in Jordan has gained a great deal of experience, with some people involved now working as heads of departments on international features.
“I think we have reached a level—though we had a lot less time to reach there—to be as experienced, if not more, than many of our competitors when it comes to crew and production support,” he explained. This not only provides the clear advantage of a local source of employment, having experienced crews available within the Kingdom also benefits the country’s own filmmaking.
Ultimately, it’s important for the Kingdom to encourage producers to continue to stage their international features within Jordan, which prompts the question of how this can be done. In fact, the government has recently launched its first specific incentive for film producers in the form of what is essentially a VAT exemption, which withholds taxes and customs to film productions that meet certain conditions.
However, though the country maintains its more specialized attractions of Petra and the red sands of Wadi Rum, in an increasingly cut-throat sector, this may not be enough to remain a viable choice for more general productions. The recent example of the big-budget Star Wars film basing its production in Abu Dhabi reveals just how stiff the competition is. “At the end of the day it’s all about the bottom line for the producers, and they [Abu Dhabi] offered tax breaks, incentives, and cash back,” David said.
Of course these Hollywood blockbusters, while attracting the most attention, are just one dimension of film in the Kingdom. Prior to the explosion of publicity surrounding Theeb, there have been other successes for the homegrown Jordanian film industry. David said Captain Abu Raed was released in 2008 after several years of dormancy for the industry and, despite not performing as well commercially, the film—which centers on an airport janitor who’s mistaken for a pilot—won an audience award for world cinema at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, as well as being nominated for the world cinema grand jury prize.
When production of Jordanian film was beginning to ebb again in the wake of Captain Abu Raed, the RFC wanted to make a change. As a result, they launched a program of workshops in the main film production disciplines: directing, acting, producing, and writing, which culminated in the creation of a full-length film. This process was intended to be educational and focused on the experience of making a full-length picture for the first time. Instead, Transit Cities was produced, a drama that went on to win the prestigious FIRPRESCI jury award at the 2010 Dubai Film Festival. “We were surprised,” explained George. “The film was shot in eight days and the cash value that was put in was around JD8000.”
The modest but unexpected success of this first film enabled the project to acquire further funding. The following year, The Last Friday and A 7 Hour Difference were produced, with around JD70,000 invested in each, with When Monaliza Smiled coming the year after. Though the program was stopped in 2012 due a lack of funding—a common problem plaguing the commission throughout the years—it will be relaunched this year as the Debut Feature Program using investment from their revenues.
“We also had a film fund—it’s important for a country that is set to advance its film industry to have some sort of funding available from the government to give to filmmakers,” George said. This fund, which was “very modest” with around JD250,000 a year, funded short films, development and writing, production of feature and documentary films, as well as post-production of all these films. For the two years it ran in 2011-2012 the fund was able to finance around 50 different films, though again it was unfortunately frozen. According to David, the RFC is working hard to gain the financing to relaunch this fund.
A Complex Industry
In such a tight economic climate it’s easy to focus on the economic advantages of film, but there can be significant cultural benefits of cinema that must not be overlooked. It’s in this regard that Theeb has played an important part. Without a clear financial benefit, the cultural developments from film can be much harder to quantify, but as David insisted, are no less important. “It’s very important for us that the local filmmakers tell our stories as Jordanians, so that audiences around the world see our culture, our heritage, and our ideals in the way that they really are,” he said.
With this in mind, an evaluation of the film industry in Jordan becomes more complex. The benefits of an industry such as the film one cannot be quantified simply in terms of cultural or economic. These all feed into each other, and for an industry as young as Jordan’s, important strides are being made. “This nomination [of Theeb for an Oscar] was an indication that we are now—within a decade—on the same level as century-old industries. And I said if this isn’t a win, I don’t know what is,” David said.
Even so, it can’t be denied that local film production—despite past successes and even the recognition that Theeb has brought—doesn’t currently constitute a financially viable industry within itself. The stakes remain relatively low and monetary rewards limited. Instead, according to Toukan, “patience and perseverance are vital” as the sector continues to develop. “Theeb has delivered on the promise of possibility,” she said. The rest is about collaborative hard work, radical change, and risk taking, all the while raising the bar of creative and commercial value, she added.
For now and into the future, international productions are playing an important role—raising the profile and Jordan and displaying what it has to offer globally.
“Film is more than just an art—it’s an industry by itself,” according to David. Considering the work of the RFC as a whole, this is certainly true.