When Kathryn Bigelow stood up to accept the Best Director Oscar yesterday – for The Hurt Locker, a movie about a US army bomb-disposal unit in Iraq – she dedicated the award to the people of Jordan, where the film was shot.
For a modest, often-overlooked country in a region of big headlines, such a very public commendation is no small thing. And for Jordan in particular, whose film industry – such as it is – represents a minuscule fraction of the national economy right now, that one sentence could make a big difference.
A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited on set during filming for Captain Abu Raed, the first full-length feature film to come out of Jordan in more than fifty years, directed by Amin Matalqa. I wrote about it extensively – here is one article which appeared at the time – and I remember that the buzz which built up in Amman around the movie’s premiere and its subsequent success was like nothing I’d been a (tiny) part of before. Captain Abu Raed won numerous awards, including at the Sundance Film Festival, and it ended up as Jordan’s first-ever entry for the Oscars – even though it didn’t make it onto the shortlist that year…
What it did do – aside from its artistic achievement – was broadcast the fact that Jordan is a safe, efficient place to shoot a movie. The Hurt Locker is following in a line of Hollywood films, from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Brian De Palma’s Redacted – via The Mummy Returns and Transformers – that were shot in Jordan… not forgetting David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.
Movie-shoots mean prosperity: aside from the publicity and the star names, dozens or hundreds of people on the crew must be fed and accommodated during the (often weeks-long) shoot, transport is needed, local fixers are needed – and then there are many opportunities for filmmakers and technicians to be taken on locally.
Movie-shoots also generate tourism. When fighting meant that Bollywood directors could no longer shoot song-and-dance scenes in the Kashmir mountains, they turned to the Alps. Years of unexpected growth in the market for Indian tourism to Switzerland followed. The country now offers specialist film tours for Indian tourists.
In addition, foreign shoots give a huge boost to Jordan’s own, tiny film industry, which is mostly – for lack of resources, rather than creativity – centred around shorts. Matalqa and Mahmoud Al Massad, director of Recycle (2007), are still making movies, and this year sees the first students graduating from the Aqaba-based Red Sea School of Cinematic Arts (RSICA), an international film school – the first in the Middle East.
In front of the world’s media, Bigelow could have said anything and thanked anyone in her acceptance speech, or even seized the headlines by mentioning the Iraq war. She chose instead to dedicate her award to the people of Jordan. Good for her – and good for Jordan.