FOOC – Jordanian cinema

My report for the BBC’s FOOC (From Our Own Correspondent) from Jordan, looking at the growth and social impact of independent cinema there.

Commissioned, accepted and recorded, but never broadcast. Script below.


Now, I thought, I’ll watch the director.

In profile against a faintly lightening sky, with a backdrop of floodlit Ottoman stonework, Amin Matalqa called “Action!” – and fell asleep.

The scene was a short one. As the actors finished, there was a tiny pause – but then Amin’s head popped up and he called, “Great – let’s go again everyone.”

What style! I thought.

It was 5 a.m., and hundreds of tired souls – cast and crew – had been up all night, crowded into the old quarter of Salt, in Jordan, for the last night of shooting.

In the long run, Amin’s cheeky cat nap didn’t matter. Within half an hour, the final scene was in the can, the director called a wrap, everyone hugged everyone, and we all went home.

That was 2007 – and the film that resulted was no ordinary release. Amin’s “Captain Abu Raed”, the story of an airport cleaner who becomes entangled in the lives of local children, broke a fifty-year silence. Bar one or two co-productions, it was the first Jordanian feature film since 1957.

Footage of Jordan before independence in 1946 is extremely rare. In 1961 David Lean arrived to shoot “Lawrence of Arabia”. Decades later Steven Spielberg came for “Indiana Jones”. But all the while, Jordan was making virtually no films of its own.

In the last ten years, that has all changed. Jordanian director Naji Abu Nowar won a Best Director award at the 2014 Venice Film Festival for “Theeb”, the story of a young bedouin boy facing crisis as WW1 intrigue reaches the desert.

Abu Nowar has coined the term ‘bedouin western’ to describe Theeb, citing the films of John Ford and Sergio Leone as inspirations – but also dampening expectations.

“I don’t want to go crazy and say we have an industry,” he told me, as we sipped coffee on a breezy Amman balcony recently. “But I think we have the beginnings of one.”

Abu Nowar pays homage to Nadine Toukan, “Theeb”’s executive producer and long a mentor for Jordan’s filmmakers.

Toukan also produced Captain Abu Raed.

“I started to realise that we don’t know ourselves that well,” she told me. “We don’t know our own resources, we are a highly dependent country.”

That dependence is a barrier to creativity, Toukan says. For a decade she has deliberately worked outside state institutions, helping to grow a community of independent filmmakers.

Jordan should “park patronage,” she says – “not only royal patronage, but also corporate and aid-driven. Have the wind and the patience and the faith to do it ourselves. It has to come from the bottom, and I think the top has to take a back seat.”

That’s not a view often aired in Jordan, where the king’s photo hangs in every shop – and in the offices of the Royal Film Commission, which backs local directors while also attracting foreign shoots, from last year’s British war movie Kajaki to Hollywood blockbusters such as Zero Dark Thirty.

More and more Jordanians are gaining experience of working on film sets, from construction to catering. That, for banking executive Omar Razzaz, offers cash-strapped Jordan an economic lifeline.

“It’s huge,” he told me, “because you have so many linkages – music, design, fashion, tourism, culture. You can market a whole country through what you produce onscreen.”

Nadine Toukan says a cinema industry would shift socially divided Jordan both culturally and politically.

“Part of the crossroads Jordan is at is because we haven’t owned our narratives,” she says. “The experience of going to a cinema with a bunch of strangers, laughing together, crying together, being wooed together, is extremely important for how a culture gets to be comfortable with itself.”

“Theeb” is now into its second month on local release – an unprecedented run for a homegrown movie. I saw it at a multiplex in one of Amman’s big shopping malls, fascinated by how it subverts themes of exoticism that were so central to “Lawrence of Arabia”, filmed in the same locations half a century earlier – epic desert scenery, tribal intrigue, British skulduggery.

David Lean was looking in at Jordan from outside. In “Theeb”, by contrast, the scenery never dominates, the tribal intrigue makes perfect sense and personal relationships matter far more than political ambition.

It’s the first time on the big screen that the bedouin have been able to tell their own story, on their own terms.

I talked about the experience with Ammani businessman Saad Mouasher, who took his young daughter and son.

“They’re educated in private schools,” he said, “trilingual, exposed to international curricula – and they’ve never interacted with our bedouin culture before. ‘Theeb’ was very powerful for them. It left a big imprint.”

Cinema, for so long neglected, is starting to evoke Jordan – for Jordanians.