AMMAN: When “Jinn” wrapped production in Jordan last year, the hope was that Netflix’s first Arabic original series would usher in a new age for the country’s film industry. There were already plans in place for a second Jordan-based Netflix series — Tina Shomali’s “Al-Rawabi School for Girls” — and there was a genuine buzz around the country’s wider production industry about what the extra attention could mean for local filmmakers, producers and actors.
And then “Jinn” aired.
The young-adult supernatural drama didn’t seem likely to attract widespread condemnation. But when it premiered in June, uproar ensued.
The show centers on a group of teenagers on a school trip to Petra who are forced into a battle to save the world from an evil jinn when one of the party accidentally summons the spirit. Aside from the supernatural stuff, the teens also spend time being, well, teens… That meant kissing between unmarried couples, swear words, and discussions about drugs and sex — although nothing particularly outrageous in comparison to other Netflix teen dramas. But that, in turn, meant some upset conservatives, including Jordan’s Grand Mufti, who reportedly called the series “a moral breakdown.”
To be fair, not all of the condemnation was about moral values. Some just thought it was a terrible show. And many younger commentators said they had been turned off by the fact that “Jinn” — scripted by American writers Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani — made no apparent effort to depict local culture. (“So westernized … so irrelevant, so stupid,” said one.)
Much has been written about the backlash, but little attention has been paid to the show’s negative impact on Jordan’s production industry. “AlRawabi School for Girls,” which was supposed to begin shooting in July, has been indefinitely postponed by Netflix, while the teenage cast of “Jinn” went into hiding, private financing dried up, and the country’s authorities tightened regulations on filming.
Crew members who had been hired to work on “AlRawabi School for Girls” suddenly found themselves without work, shooting permits were lost, and parents who witnessed the online vitriol directed at the lead actress in “Jinn,” Salma Malhas, refused to allow their children to appear in productions. All of which has made producing local films and series in Jordan even more challenging than it already was.
“After 'Jinn,' some official and government organisations were scared to support any production,” says Ossama Bawardi, an independent film producer who works in both Jordan and Palestine. “So this incident has (added to) the already complicated process of making films in Jordan.
“And it also affected the private sector,” he continues. “A lot of people don’t want to be involved in this industry anymore… They’re afraid something might happen and they don’t want to hurt their business or their institution. So this whole ‘Jinn’ thing hurt the Jordanian film industry.”
An overall increase in the cost of living, calls for the censorship of scripts shot in the country, and increased taxes on incoming productions have compounded the issue, says Alia Hatough, a script supervisor who has worked on films including Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” which is set to be released in 2020 and 2014’s “Theeb,” the BAFTA-winning movie directed by Naji Abu Nowar and shot in Wadi Rum.
As an outside observer, however, you’d be hard pressed to guess anything was wrong. The list of foreign films shot in Jordan over the course of the past two years is impressive. The Warner Bros-backed sci-fi epic “Dune,” Disney’s “Aladdin,” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” have all made the most of the country’s epic landscape. In recent years, Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” and his “Alien” prequel “Prometheus” have also been partially shot in the kingdom.
Jordan is blessed with some of the world’s greatest natural and man-made wonders, including the sweeping cinematic landscape of Wadi Rum and the glory of Petra. And the Royal Film Commission (RFC) has consistently sought to entice foreign productions to the kingdom. This year alone it has increased the maximum cash rebate available for international productions from 10 percent of Jordan spend to 25 percent, with the maximum potential rebate lifted to $2 million. It is also planning to introduce a mechanism that supports lower-budget productions and to build a studio facility on the outskirts of Amman.
“Over the past 10 years, film productions spent some $335 million in the kingdom and created 95,000 job opportunities,” says Mohannad Al-Bakri, the RFC’s managing director. “This is far from negligible. Our film community has developed their talents while working on these films. As we train more people and as we continue to expand our facilities, we expect to get more films in the country. We are also working on co-production treaties with several countries.”
Big-budget foreign films, however, are a double-edged sword. On the one hand they bring millions of dollars into the country, provide employment (the RFC estimates that between 60 and 70 percent of cast and crew on foreign productions are Jordanian), and promote Jordan to a global audience. But they also overshadow the local film industry, skew perspective, and create wage disparity.
“Films like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Aladdin’ bring in a lot of money and employ a lot people,” says Bawardi, who has produced films including “Wajib” and “When I Saw You,” both of which were directed by Annemarie Jacir. “But at the same time it’s Hollywood. It’s Hollywood rates, it’s Hollywood money, and this is not how Jordanian films are made or how they will be made. And crew that work for Hollywood films gets used to this method of working. They get used to these rates and they cannot work on an independent film anymore.
“We have to get to the point where the film industry is (wholly) independent,” he continues. “That’s what we need. For Jordan to be able to make Jordanian films. What if foreign productions don’t want to come to Jordan anymore? What if there is a political situation that means those films cannot come? Then the Jordanian film industry will be doomed. It has to come from the inside and not the outside to be sustainable.”
Hatough would like to see production companies investing in equipment and facilities around the country that could offer “attractive packages so that more films would consider extending their shoot in Jordan beyond the regular desert scenery.” All of which could be paired with more incentives and tax deductions to “attract the lower, mid-range budgets of international film and TV” to Jordan.
But there are reasons to be cheerful. If nothing else, the controversy around “Jinn” and the continued reliance on big-budget foreign films have helped to highlight the need for genuine stories from Jordan to emerge, not those imported from Lebanon or the US or focused on a rich minority. To this end, three local feature films were simultaneously in production in the final quarter of this year, including Bassel Ghandour’s directorial debut “The Alleys.” The RFC is also committed to helping homegrown cinema via the Jordan Film Fund and is finalizing plans to create a cash rebate system for local Jordanian and Arab filmmakers. It is also launching the Amman International Film Festival in April next year, all with the intention of developing and growing the country’s film industry.
Still, more needs to be done, Bawardi believes. “The Royal Film Commission has been extremely helpful and more filmmakers are trying to make their films, which is great, of course, but… there is a long way to go and we need brave people — brave writers, directors, crew members — to tell new stories. To tell the true stories of Jordan. Who wants to hear about some social bubble in Jordan? About the one per cent of Jordan. No, we want to hear about the true Jordan.”