Jordan: not just a pretty film set

AMMAN, Jordan — In its quest to attract international filmmakers, Jordan likes to emphasize the freedom it offers directors by not interfering with the content of their films, like some Arab nations do.

Asked the limits of this openness, Linda Mutawi, production services supervisor at the country’s Royal Film Commission, is upfront: “No hardcore porn.”

Her colleague Nada Doumani, communication and culture manager at the RFC, interjects, saying that to date Jordan has never stopped a movie because of its content.

"Whatever is being filmed here, we don’t have any say in the content … unless there is something completely, blatantly defamatory to religion or human dignity,” Doumani says, adding that something filmed in Jordan may not necessarily be allowed to be screened here.

For years, the tiny desert kingdom of Jordan has sought to make itself a destination for international film makers. As a liberal Middle Eastern country that remains one of the most politically stable in the region, Jordan offers a safe destination for filmmakers with landscapes that can and have served as substitutes on the big screen for a wide variety of Middle Eastern countries.

While the film industry in Jordan is not likely to significantly boost the country’s GDP anytime soon, major features passing through the country can create hundreds of well paying, temporary jobs for locals. Local officials also hope it will raise the country’s profile overseas.

King Abdullah II has long been a proponent of the film industry. Before he was king, he personally flew Stephen Spielberg around Petra by helicopter as the director scouted locations for the third Indiana Jones movie. Almost a decade later, Jordanians still boast that the Treasury, a monument in the ancient city of Petra, served as the fictional home of the "Holy Grail" in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."

More recently the royal family, has helped oversee the creation of the Royal Film Commission that removes the layers of bureaucracy and red tape producers often encounter working overseas. It also founded the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts (RSICA), the first graduate film program in the Arab world, with help from the University of Southern California’s world-renowned film school.

“Jordan is a very unusual country. It is the most progressive, the most open, and the most secular,” says James Hindman, dean of RSICA and a Hollywood veteran. “It doesn’t have oil and because it doesn’t have oil it has to rely on intellectual capital.”

The film school has just started its second year, and already one of its students was accepted into a prestigious Sundance screenwriters’ workshop and another student spent the summer interning with the American actor and producer John Malkovich. Hindman says that by the time the first class receives their diplomas this spring, they will be able to compete with graduates from any film school in the world.

Still, Jordan is a long way from creating a large film industry. In the region, Egypt and Lebanon are known as the media powerhouses. However, Jordan has quietly been making progress. Most notably, the Jordanian film "Captain Abu Raed" has gained international acclaim, winning a number of awards at film festivals around the world and putting Jordan on the map for many viewers.

While only a handful of foreign films shoot in Jordan every year, the industry has grown enough so that people like Diala Raie have felt comfortable quitting their day jobs to work full time on freelance film jobs. Just five years ago, Raie says it would have been impossible for her to make such a career change.

“At first, I was concerned about whether projects were coming to Jordan or not,” she says. “But now, I don’t have that much doubt,” she says, adding that she still suffers from the perennial freelancer concerns about unstable work. She also takes on odd jobs now and again to help cover her basic expenses in between productions.

As Jordanian officials continue to roll out the red carpet for film makers, it’s likely that people such as Raie may not have to worry so much anymore.

This summer, "Fair Game," the story of former CIA agent Valerie Plame who was outed by the Bush administration, was one of the biggest films shot in Jordan.

Anadil Hossain, a producer for "Fair Game" who worked on films in 12 different countries this year alone, now describes herself as a Jordan “convert.” While filming overseas often presents a number of bureaucratic issues and requires greasing a number of palms, she says this was never an issue in Jordan.

“We did all kinds of crazy stuff that most other Arab nations wouldn’t even let you do,” Hossain said.

Among other things, the Jordanian government allowed them to have a Black Hawk helicopter flying low over a residential area in the middle of the day and turn sections of the road leading to the Dead Sea into an Iranian checkpoint, complete with pictures of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. “Politically they don’t object to you doing things like that because they value that it’s art and in the pursuit of art it’s make believe,” Hossain said