Jordan to the world

Digital Studio finds out how Jordan aims to become a hub for film production
Jordan's Wadi Rum desert was used by Ridley Scott to film key sequences of The Martian.
Jordan's Wadi Rum desert was used by Ridley Scott to film key sequences of The Martian.

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Jordan has a proud history as a location for international film production; from David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia in 1962 to Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989, and more recently Ridley Scott’s sci-fi epic The Martian, Jordan’s diverse landscape has featured prominently in film.

According to The Royal Film Commission - Jordan (RFC), which was established in 2003 to promote and develop the country’s film industry, Jordan has been the location for no less than 103 films since 1957.

However, George David, general manager of the RFC, is keen to see this list grow far bigger in the coming years, driven by productions from homegrown talent as well as international projects.

The RFC’s focus is to develop the local industry by fostering talent and improving access to film-related education and training, as well as by attracting foreign productions and assisting with administrative tasks such as issuing permits for filming.

“We started in 2003 focusing a lot on the indigenous industry,” David says. “Like other film commissions we aim to encourage international film productions to come here, but we also do much more. We do film education and training, we have advanced programmes for Jordanian filmmakers. We work with crew development and we also have a cultural component screening films from all over the world in Jordan, free of charge.”

Most of the RFC’s services, including production services and training, are free of charge, aside from some of the “signature” workshops for which there is a fee.

While the main focus of the RFC is on developing the industry within Jordan, David says that all of the initiatives “meet at one point or another” including attracting international productions to the country.

International productions, particularly larger works such as The Martian and The Hurt Locker, which filmed in Jordan in 2007, are hugely beneficial to the local film industry in terms of providing work to local production services companies and inspiring young people to become involved in the film industry. “A lot of the people that worked on foreign films were inspired and trained and eventually made their own films or contributed more towards Jordanian films, so that is very important to us,” David says. “They start off working on films like The Martian, Transformers, The Hurt Locker and a good number of them progress to making their own films.”

Sharif Majali, production services manager, atthe RFC, is responsible for promoting Jordan as a filming destination for foreign productions. Following on from this, his department is also charged with helping to ensure that the international film crews are able to work effectively in Jordan. “That follows up with making their lives easier when they come here, so you could think of the Film Commission as a one- stop-shop for productions, be it from the Arab world or other countries, or even Jordanians,” Majali says.

The RFC looks after various needs for producers, including permits from the government, arranging for police to be on set, blocking streets for filming and obtaining access to locations. “We handle all of this from this office here and obviously in terms of promoting Jordan as a location for filming we attend all the festivals and trade shows anywhere that we can,” he adds.

Each international production that decides to film in Jordan is assigned a dedicated liaison officer from the film commission. “We have a liaison officer at this office. We don’t just hand you the permit and you’re on your own. The liaison officer is on-set all the time and attends all the film briefings. He’s like a crew member but on the Film Commission payroll. And he is the guy who communicates between the film commission and the production,” Majali says.

The RFC also recently launched an incentive scheme to try to attract film productions to Jordan. The incentive is a “straight cut on VAT, which is 16%”, according to Majali, who would like to see the scheme offer more in the way of incentives. “We believe it’s not enough, we need more. We are now working with the government on putting together some sort of rebate to go to the next phase, so we’re working on it now. We hope to get it done by next year,” he says.

For Majali, Jordan’s main draw for foreign filmmakers is the country’s landscape and the ease of filming in the country. “Locations is the number one, we have unique locations that you cannot find anywhere else, such as Wadi Rum or Petra,” he says.

While the RFC promotes Jordan at festivals and exhibitions around the world, Majali ways that much of the marketing work looks after itself, with information spreading by word of mouth. “Every person who has come and shot here in Jordan had a great experience,” he says. This means that filmmakers not only tell their peers about their experience, but they also often return to shoot again. Majali cites the example of US director Kathryn Bigelow who shot The Hurt Locker in Jordan and returned to make Zero Dark Thirty.

Another benefit for international productions is the level of expertise in the country. In recent years, Jordan’s film production services industry has flourished and Majali says that the commission is able to connect producers with whatever professional skills they require in Jordan. He adds that in 2006-2007 the ratio of international to Jordanian crew members on foreign productions taking place in Jordan tended to be somewhere in the region of 80:20. “Now it’s the other way round. You can find very good crew in Jordan, similar to any other country.”

He adds that when director Jon Stewart made his film Rosewater in Jordan a couple of years ago, the crew on set was about 70% Jordanian. “Most of the heads of department were Jordanian, the heads of sound and costume were Jordanian. We are so proud to have such good crew,” Majali says.

However, Majali concedes that much work remains to be done in terms of strengthening skills in Jordan. He points to skill gaps in cinematography, postproduction and a shortage of producers and scriptwriters.

“Jordan has come a long way in terms of post. There are a few companies now being set up that can output work of a much higher calibre, but there still needs to be development,” Majali says.

David George adds that the commission runs training programmes and workshops in all of these areas in order to help develop these important aspects of the industry. “We do a cinematography workshop with FAMU in the Czech Republic which is arguably one of the top cinematography schools in the world, and it is up there in terms of other disciplines.

“We also have our classic digital filmmaking workshop which really helps us identify the young artists and technicians who want to take this seriously as a career,” David adds. “We are very focused on the career aspect of the film and television industry. We have workshops in almost every discipline, we have a regular crew workshop, location management, production management, make-up, costume.”

At the time Digital Studio met David and Majali, the commission was in the final stages of preparing for its first Film and TV Careers Connection on October 10-12. “This event focuses on giving everyone information about what it takes to have a career in the industry. It has representation from production companies and film schools via a trade show set up where they have booths and they exhibit. Anyone can walk up to any production company,” David says.

David points to numerous other initiatives too, including a recently-relaunched scheme called the Education Feature Film Programme, which aims to help up-and-coming filmmakers produce films with budgets of less than $100,000. With this type of project underway and the country still basking in the glory of The Martian, it is not surprising that David and Majali are optimistic about the future.

On the subject of The Martian, Majali believes the film will have a positive impact on Jordan as a film location and tourist destination.

“Wadi Rum looks beautiful and I think this film will help us market Jordan, not only for film but also tourism. What better way to do that than films? To this day we still get tourists who come to Jordan because they have seen it in Lawrence of Arabia, people want to come to Petra because they have seen it in Indiana Jones,” he says.

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