Building a film culture in Jordan

Jordanian film industry and film culture go hand in hand

Industry, Jordan

Building a film culture in Jordan

In the early 1920s, cinemas began to be built in Jordan and soon there were about 32 cinemas located all over Jordan. Yet what appeared as an expansive start somehow reversed itself and, as of 2008, there were only 22 film theatres, located only in Amman. 

With the reopening of Rainbow Art House Theatre and the new cinema complex at TAJ mall as the exceptions, the decline in cinemas and, until recently, the lack of a Jordanian film industry is intimately interlinked with the lack of a film culture in Jordan. 

The spread of the illegal DVD market, commercial theatres mainly appealing to a specific audience and the conservative mindset, with not wanting men and women mixed in dark theatres, are some of the reasons surrounding the closing of cinemas in Jordan. 

“One thing is for sure, as long as there is a Hammoudeh [a place where illegal DVDs are sold in Jordan] then Jordanians are definitely interested in films,” says Robert Keser, Professor of Cinema Studies at the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts (RSICA).

Yet the question beckons, what kind of films are they interested in? According to research done in 2008, the main films that Jordanians go to cinemas to see are Hollywood blockbusters and Egyptian films. 

“It’s a certain demographic that goes to the cinemas,” says Mervat Aksoy producer of Jordanian film A 7 Hour Difference directed by Deema Amr.  “It’s hard to bring people because you pay 8 JDs to watch a movie, plus me and my spouse and my kids, plus the popcorn and whatever else... It’s a good chunk of money.” 

when monaliza smiledFadi Haddad, writer and director of Jordanian film When Monaliza Smiled, had the unique experience of having his film play both at commercial theatres and at Rainbow Theatre.

“Being an independent theatre, Rainbow allowed more flexibility in creating unconventional programming,” he says. “On the other hand having the film showing at a commercial theatre [Prime Cinemas, Baraka Mall] made the film available to a different type of audience than the niche audience of Rainbow street.”

And while Aksoy's film has yet to have a theatrical release in Jordan, they do plan to release it this year and it will be sent to most of the cinemas in Amman. Aksoy says that the commercial theatres “have been very supportive giving us great deals and being very helpful.”

The introduction of Jordanian films to commercial cinemas in Jordan, even if they are yet to attract a wide audience, is a step in a good direction in terms of building a film culture and fueling the Jordanian film industry. 

“We wanted both audiences because our film is artistic on one hand and, on the other hand, it's a film made for the Jordanian audience,” says Haddad.

But what does it mean to create a film culture in Jordan and why is it important beyond fueling the emerging film industry? With so many other problems and issues in society the arts are sometimes pushed to the background and take a backseat when it comes to other more pressing issues. 

“Maybe there are economic and social elements that make a lot of people not think of film as a priority,” says Haddad. “We also can't ignore the fact that Jordan had no film scene before the early 2000s which is, of course, a very important reason why film hasn't been part of the daily life of Jordanians.”

And this is also reflected in the emphasis on education in Jordan being away from the arts and more on mainstream professions. 

“Even in terms of education in Jordan, there is more of a focus on what you can make money doing rather than something that is artistic and expressive,” says Aksoy. “And often times the decision one makes to study an art form like film is a difficult decision followed by major negotiations and fights in the family.”

Yet Jordanians are determined to make movies.  Nowadays a Jordanian film can provoke one of two reactions: shock that they actually exist, or a smirk that brings low expectations of the quality of the film.

And with Jordanian cinema still finding its own particular flavour and style, the potentials to create new perspectives not only inside the culture but also internationally are huge. 

“It can be seen as a way to get a glimpse of what Jordan is like as an exporter of culture, a bridge into Jordan,” says Keser. “And it’s important for Jordanians to see their own experiences up on the screen in an authentic way. It will get people trying to understand their own realities.” 

Many of the local films are trying to do just that.

a_7_hour_differenceA 7 Hour Difference is not the first film that talks about a woman who lives outside Jordan and comes back for her sister’s wedding to face the choice between family tradition and her other life,” says Aksoy. “But because this subject is specified to Amman people are finding it easy to relate to.”

“I think we should make more films that talk to the local audience in their language, tackle the topics that concern them and reflect their stories,” says Haddad. “We can't build a film culture without starting from the base and creating a sense of belonging between the cinema and the people.”

Film education is an important foundation that could boost Jordanian cinema and fuel the building of a Jordanian film industry.  According to Keser, the aim is to make people comfortable with films they are not used to seeing.

“The point is to create an audience that is open to new experiences,” says Keser.  “If an audience is going to see the same old thing again and again, then there has been no progress.” 

He continues: “Even films like Beasts of the Southern Wild... No one wanted to show it here even though it was very successful and won awards.”

So what is it that stops Jordanians from venturing into new film experiences? With the illegal DVD market and downloading of films online, it is not necessarily an issue of access.  Perhaps it is something as simple as not knowing what is out there.     

“Film is the art form of the age and many people want to know more about it but don’t know where to start,” says Keser. “And that is the very thing that is lacking in the film industry in Jordan to be able to give some kind of a foundation, a primer for where to start so people can go from there.”

It's the difference between watching a film and afterwards not thinking twice about it, and watching a film and feeling interested to understand the film in order to potentially see the world in a new way and be open to new possibilities. 

“There needs to be film education in schools that asks questions like, What do you see in this film? What’s new about it? What’s surprising about it? What works? What doesn’t? What did you learn from it? How is this different from the kinds of movies you normally see?” says Keser.  “This is a perfectly good way to teach how to look at film in a new way and understand its effects and what it has to offer.”

Beyond having cinema classes there are many elements of society that, when properly coordinated, can contribute to promoting a film culture, one of these elements being an international film festival. 

This would bring in a variety of films from different countries, in addition to local films.  If it was well publicised and organised, it could turn into an annual event to celebrate local and international cinema. 

“An international festival would bring all these things together,” says Keser. “You could have in one day a Thai film, a German film, a Jordanian film and an Indian film so that people might come for one film and be more willing to venture into another.”

Furthermore, certain government regulations and restrictions could also be used to promote film in Jordan. 

“In Bangladesh, there is a rule that they cannot show any Hollywood or Bollywood or Pakistani films in the cinema or on TV, but they can sell them so people can still see them,” says Keser.  “This creates a space for the local product to be shown to the local population and also creates more of a need for local films so therefore the film industry and the audience begin to feed off each other and depend on each other.” 

Examples of these government restrictions can also be seen in countries like Russia and South Korea to name a few and have greatly contributed to the circle of film industry and film cultured audiences fueling one another. 

“Restrictions are important -- not total, but some kind,” continues Keser.  “For example, there could be special taxes on Hollywood films. People will still go see the films because they are used to it.” 

With the Jordanian film industry still in its infancy, support for local films, while growing, has yet to make an impact. 

With the Red Sea Institute for Cinematic Arts (RSICA) taking a break from incoming students, perhaps this could be a good time for filmmakers and enthusiasts to contemplate and address what it takes to build a film culture in Jordan.


Deema Dabis

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