USC gives voice to Mideast talent

Pact with Jordanian institute fosters new work

If it hadn’t been for Steven Spielberg, the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts might never have materialized.

When King Abdullah II of Jordan approached Spielberg about opening a Jordan-based film school, the filmmaker sent him to USC, where Spielberg is a trustee and member of the school’s board of councilors. “The king really wanted to develop a film industry within Jordan for a few reasons,” explains Alan Baker, assistant dean of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. “It would give younger people in the region more work, especially when foreign film companies came in. Also, it would be an opportunity to develop their own industry and become storytellers.”

In 2005, USC started hosting three-week introductory production/writing workshops in Jordan. Just a year later, USC joined forces with the Royal Film Commission of Jordan to create the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts (RSICA), based in Jordan’s Red Sea resort town of Aqaba.

In September 2008, the RSICA launched a two-year MFA program with an inaugural class of 21 students from countries including Jordan, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

While USC is not officially tied to the school — “We don’t franchise or put our name on someone else’s school,” explains USC School of Cinematic Arts dean Elizabeth Daley — its influence is strong.

“We work on a consulting basis because when you start exporting the American way of doing things, you are really in conflict with the local culture,” Baker says. “You have to be very respectful of that culture and let them do it. Then they can borrow from us those elements they think are critical while still being able to maintain their national integrity.”

A few of those “elements borrowed,” according to RSICA project manager Claire Naber, were USC’s “expertise and support in curriculum design, technology infrastructure and faculty recruitment.”

Hiring its own seven-member faculty, as opposed to sending USC professors to Jordan, was “critical,” according to Baker. “By having fulltime instructors, you really establish a continuity,” he says.

Although there may be consistency within the confines of the school, it remains to be seen if steady film work in Jordan will be possible after June 2010, when RSICA’s first class graduates.

Teaching the necessary skills is the first step, but one of the institute’s biggest challenges is “the creation of practical opportunities for students to contribute to the emergence of a … self-sustaining industry for the region,” Naber says.

Until a proper infrastructure exists (the seeds have been planted: last year’s “Captain Abu Raed” repped the first homemade Jordanian feature in nearly half a century), the burden will be on the students to create their own opportunities in independent production, television and new media.

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