A calm oasis in a sea of conflict, the kingdom of Jordan provides one of the few stable environments for filmmaking in the Middle East.
Bolstering that effort is the nation’s Royal Film Commission, active on several fronts. It attracts Hollywood productions to the nation’s majestic Wadi Rum rock formations, which appeared recently in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and “The Martian.” It pulls in war dramas seeking genuine Middle East locations to lend authenticity to their stories. And it runs a variety of programs to encourage local filmmaking and develop infrastructure.
Since 2001, when it was set up by the King’s brother, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, who heads its board, the RFC’s main mission has been to build the local film industry. “Not just in terms of crew and support, but in terms of fostering local filmmakers and original Jordanian content,” says George David, the commission’s general manager.
The services the RFC provides Hollywood have earned the organization its third consecutive nomination this year at the Location Managers Guild International Awards for outstanding film commission for “Rogue One,” following noms for “The Martian” and Jon Stewart’s Iran-set drama “Rosewater.” Unlike the two studio sci-fifilms — which shot in Jordan only four and eight days, respectively — the “Rosewater” shoot lasted five weeks.
“It was a lot of work,” says RFC production manager Sharif Majali, who recalls a riot scene in the film that required 800 extras.
Majali and the Jordanian film community are now eagerly awaiting the April 14 release of Netflix Iraqi war drama “Sand Castle,” shot entirely in the kingdom, which shares borders with Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the West Bank — yet remains a safe haven. Directed by Fernando Coimbra, “Sand Castle” stars Nicholas Hoult, Henry Cavill, and Logan Marshall-Green as U.S. soldiers trying to protect a small village under attack.
A wave of Iraq war dramas that started in 2006 and includes Brian De Palma’s “Redacted” and Kathryn Bigelow’s multiple-Oscar-winner “The Hurt Locker,” are what put Jordan on the global locations/productions map. More significantly, these projects provided the training that now makes Jordanian crews the best in the region.
On those films, Jordanian crews comprised 20%-30% of the total, says Majali. Today the percentage of Jordanian crews on locally shot projects has risen to almost 85%, he proudly points out, noting that on “Rosewater,” the crew department heads were Jordanians.
“Hurt Locker” and “Rosewater” are among pics partly shot in Zizia, the Palestinian refugee camp located just 25 minutes from the center of Amman, the Jordanian capital. The camp was built in 1948, and is now a village with dusty alleyways, clotheslines, and reinforced-concrete rooftops with protruding metal bars. The locals are eager to work as extras, and several residents who started out as PA’s have worked their way up the production ladder.
But the film that has really galvanized Jordan’s film community is “Theeb,” the adventure movie starring real Bedouins shot in the Jordanian desert by local director Naji Abu Nowar, which scooped a foreign-language-film Oscar nomination in 2016. Nowar wrote the script for “Theeb” while at the Sundance Institute Lab’s first Middle East program, then located at the RFC.
“‘Theeb’ was done with Jordanian efforts and made it to the Oscars, which is huge for us,” says Majali. “It signals that there’s a film industry in Jordan that needs to be looked at.”