Film business blooms in Jordan

Country plans first feature, cartoon projects

American tanks and Humvees are inching down the streets of Amman, Jordan’s capital. A crack U.S. bomb squad carefully approaches a roadside bomb as a crowd of civilian spectators watches in silence. As a bomb squad officer kneels down wearily by the unexploded device, the tension in the air is suddenly dispelled by a shout of, “Cut!”

The officer takes off his helmet to reveal the face of thesp Guy Pearce, as another take is in the can for Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” and the film set, in the heart of a Palestinian refugee camp, explodes into life again.

Bigelow’s pic, about a U.S. bomb squad unit stationed in Baghdad, is the third Iraq-related pic to lense in the country this year following Brian De Palma’s “Redacted” and Nick Broomfield’s “Battle for Haditha.”

“It was interesting telling people we were going to make the movie in Jordan because the first question everybody asked was about the security situation here. If you do a little bit of research, you find it’s perfectly safe. They have a huge security apparatus here and there really hasn’t been any problem,” says “Hurt Locker” co-producer Greg Shapiro.

Away from those three pics using Jordan as an authentic, and much safer, alternative to filming in war-torn Iraq, film activity in the strategically placed Mideast country is at an all-time high.

Helmer Amin Mutalqa has just finished post-production on “Captain Abu Raed,” the country’s first feature in more than 50 years. The $2 million pic, about an airport janitor, played by Nadim Sawalha (“Syriana”), who pretends he’s a pilot to a group of poor kids and regales them with imagined tales of his globe-trotting, is already garnering strong buzz across the region with invites to a number of Mideast fall fests.

Helmer Akram Abu Ragheb has wrapped “The Attack,” based on the 2005 Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on an Amman hotel, while pre-production is under way on “Abu shakush,” a grisly thriller about a local serial killer. The $2.5 million pic is set to start shooting in the new year.

“Obviously we don’t want to be labeled as the place to do just Iraqi films, and thankfully there are a lot of other films that are in the works,” says Prince Ali, chairman of Jordan’s Royal Film Commission, which was set up in 2003. “Our main concern is to create a proper film industry in Jordan and at the same time help any film that comes from outside or even from the region to be able to film in this country.”

The activity isn’t limited to live action.

Jordanian animation shingle Rubicon has inked a strategic partnership with MGM to co-finance and co-produce “Pink Panther & Pals,” a 26-episode series based on the “Pink Panther” characters as kids. Work started on the skein in August and is set to wrap by early 2009.

Another Jordanian animation maven is hoping to deliver the Arab world’s answer to Warner Bros.’ “300.” Suleiman Bahit, topper of Aranim Media Factory, has a string of projects in various stages of development based on bringing Arab mythology and historical figures to auds in Jordan, the Mideast and beyond. These include radical redos of the stories of “A Thousand and One Nights”; legendary warrior Saladin, most recently depicted in Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven”; and individual stories of heroism during the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Bahit had been studying in the U.S. in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when he was set upon and badly beaten by a group of students. The scars he received that night, which required 300 stitches, are still prominent down his neck as he sits in his downtown Amman office laying out the vision for his company, which has received startup coin from the King Abdullah development fund.

“I had two choices: go beat up some white people or do something positive,” says Bahit. “I want to fight this culture of extremism.”

While the likes of Dubai and Abu Dhabi have ramped up their film biz activity in recent months, Jordan lacks their natural resources — and the abundant coin that comes with it. Instead, the country, which shares a border with regional hot spots Iraq, Israel, Syria and Saudi Arabia, is having to rely entirely on its human resources, i.e., its own population, to become its biggest asset.

Lack of coin to invest in big- budget projects remains an issue. Mutalqa, for example, was only able to get finance for “Captain Abu Raed” by setting up a private equity fund called Paper & Pen Films with donations from wealthy Jordanian businessmen.

Elsewhere, film execs in the country all recognize the need to build a film studio, akin to the ones in Morocco and Spain, if they are to continue to keep attracting Hollywood and European features once the current fad for Iraq war movies passes. The $50 million pricetag, though, is a daunting one, if not insurmountable.

For now, at least, film-hungry Jordanians appear willing to meet the challenge.

“We want to make films that push the boundaries a little,” says Fadi Sarraf, prexy at Jordanian shingle Sandbag Prods., which handled production services on both “Captain Abu Raed” and “The Hurt Locker” and is producing “Shakush” for helmer Naji Abu Nowar. “In such a budding industry, we have to push those boundaries because if we don’t do it now then we’ll never be able to do it in the future.”

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