For filmmakers looking to tell Middle Eastern stories, the desert kingdom has increasingly become the first choice for location shooting, as Alex Ritman explains
In March last year, filmmakers sparked protests in Chandigarh in northern Indian after parts of the city were made to look like Pakistan for a major Hollywood shoot. Reports that Urdu signs were put up in a marketplace and autorickshaws had been given Lahore number plates went down predictably badly with some of the city's more conservative Hindus, who were seen arguing with the cast and crew until police intervened.
Fortunately for Kathryn Bigelow, having been denied filming rights in Pakistan itself, the director only had a few scenes to shoot in Chandigarh for her Al Qaeda manhunt thriller Zero Dark Thirty, which topped box offices in North America when it opened there earlier this month. Her team then decamped to the far less conspicuous territory of Jordan. Out in the Jordanian desert, a full-scale, fully operational replica of bin Laden's Abbottabad compound had been reconstructed out of stone and steel for the plot's more famous scenes.
It's not the first time Bigelow has used Jordan as a double for another, more volatile country. Much of Iraq-set The Hurt Locker - another potentially controversial story - was shot in the country, having been chosen instead of Morocco due to its similar terrain and proximity.
Scenes were shot in Amman, Madaba, Al Zarqa - the hometown of the assassinated Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab Al Zarqawi - and in the desert close to the Iraqi border. Bigelow even gave the kingdom a shout-out in her Academy Award acceptance speech, thanking "the people of Jordan, who were so hospitable to us when we were shooting".
While filming, she praised the choice of location, saying you could "look 360 degrees in any given day of the shoot and it would be perfect".
The Hurt Locker actually became the second Oscar-winning film to be shot in Jordan after the 1963 classic Lawrence of Arabia. And it's the not the only big-budget production to set up there, with the country - which has been much less affected by recent political uprisings and revolutions - becoming an increasingly popular choice for filmmakers shooting Middle East scenes, challenging the likes of Morocco and Tunisia, which had been famously popular destinations in the past. Parts of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen were filmed in Petra, Wadi Rum and Salt in 2008, and Werner Herzog has said that he hopes to shoot his Gertrude Bell biopic, Queen of the Desert, there.
"Filming in Jordan is easy," says Nada Doumani, the communications and culture manager at the country's Royal Film Commission. In addition to stability, security, diversity of locations, government support, infrastructure and availability of skilled crew, there's a lack of bureaucracy: "There's no need to get prior approval for the script before shooting a film here."
Founded by the Jordanian government in 2003, the Royal Film Commission has been helping develop and promote Jordan's emerging film industry, and within it the Production Services department has looked to promote the country as a filming location and to facilitate productions through providing help in scouting for locations, finding crew and cast and obtaining permits. There are also incentives, with the Film Train programme encouraging foreign filmmakers to employ local talent. "It helps producers save money, since the commission covers part of the crew's fees," says Doumani.
More than 150 Jordanian actors and crew worked on The Hurt Locker, including some chosen from the country's resident Iraqi refugee population. Suhail Aldabbach, a Jordanian with a theatrical background, ended up playing the terrified suicide bomber whose explosive vest was defused at the end of the film.
Although Doumani says that there hasn't yet been any "noticeable change" since the Arab Spring erupted, it's clear that with an increasing amount of Hollywood storytelling focused on the Middle East's modern history, Jordan offers a stable and versatile landscape.
And although Bigelow failed to earn an Oscar nod for directing Zero Dark Thirty, it's still possible with five other nominations, the country's third Academy Award could be on the way very soon.