Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 10 December 2019

Director Amin Matalqa believes 'Jinn' could 'kick start more shows in the Middle East

The Sundance-winning filmmaker has long specialised in making films that bridge the gap between East and West, but is wary of criticism in representing minorities

Behind the scenes on the set of ‘Jinn’ in Jordan. Courtesy Netflix
Behind the scenes on the set of ‘Jinn’ in Jordan. Courtesy Netflix

Amin Matalqa may have been working in Los Angeles for the better part of two decades, but the Jordanian-American filmmaker is still passionate about promoting the Middle East.

That is exactly what he’s doing via the supernatural show Jinn. “What an opportunity to work for Netflix doing something that could potentially kickstart more shows in the Middle East,” says the Sundance award-winning writer and director, about writing the pilot for the new show, and directing two of the five episodes.

The new show, set in Amman, follows a group of high school students who unknowingly release the forces of a vengeful jinn in the form a teenage boy during a school trip to the ancient city of Petra. The idea for Jinn came from Lebanese director Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya, best known for making thriller A Very Big Shot. When Jinn was first announced by Netflix in February 2018, the script was being written by Bassel Ghandour, who penned the Oscar-nominated Theeb. Also on board were executive producers Elan and Rajeev Dassani, the visual effects specialists behind hit US series Scandal and Justified.

The turnaround was tight, and when the team realised they needed more help, they made a call to Matalqa. “I had a week to rewrite the pilot,” he says. “They had an outline that had come from eight months of working with other writers, which was the general gist of what they wanted. And so I cranked out 10 pages a day.”

In an effort to maintain the authenticity of the vernacular of the characters and to work with the young cast, they wrote the script in English. “We then let the actors do their own interpretation of how they would say the lines in Arabic, on the set on the day,” Matalqa says. “It makes it colloquial and the actors felt like they could own it.”

The pilot took longer than expected to finish, so the decision was made to turn the show into a five-part series about two jinn who wreak havoc in a high school.

The filmmakers were up against the clock to get the show made for its scheduled release date, which falls on June 13. “I didn’t see anything of episode two before I started shooting episode three,” Matalqa says. This process was interesting to him, since his background is primarily in cinema. “I was curious how it would work out, to show up and not know how they would say things,” he says. “I directed episodes three and four, I was getting pages the morning of the shoot, because they were behind on the writing and then Netflix would have to approve. It was very spontaneous.”

Now Jinn is surfacing, Matalqa is intrigued by how audiences in the Middle East will react. A curse of creating groundbreaking shows that revolve around people underrepresented in media is that audiences want it to speak directly of their own experiences, which is simply not possible given the variety of cultures in the Arab world.

“I’ve already seen the trolls commenting on the trailer. It’s like, ‘That is not how we talk!’ It’s going to be criticised, it doesn’t get into religion at all and everyone wants to own Jinn as a concept and it’s not clear,” Matalqa says. “It will also be criticised for things that it wouldn’t be criticised for in the US.”

Though he was born in Jordan, Matalqa was raised in Ohio, and he has long specialised in making movies that bridge the gap between East and West. He worked in telecoms for five years, which he says, “only assured me how deep my love for movies and storytelling is”.

He went to Ohio State University to study cinema but the school scrapped the department and he ended up studying theatre for six months. Matalqa then moved to LA, bought a camera, a sound kit and lights, and began making friends in coffee shops, asking people questions such as: I’m writing a short film, do you want to act in it?” He made one short a month until he was accepted into the prestigious American Film Institute. During the two years he spent there, he raised money for his debut film Captain Abu Raed.

Amin Matalqa directed two of five episodes Randy Quan for The National
Amin Matalqa directed two of five episodes Randy Quan for The National

He went to Ohio State University to study cinema but the school scrapped the department and he ended up studying theatre for six months. Matalqa then moved to LA, bought a camera, a sound kit and lights, and began making friends in coffee shops, asking people questions such as: I’m writing a short film, do you want to act in it?” He made one short a month until he was accepted into the prestigious American Film Institute. During the two years he spent there, he raised money for his debut film Captain Abu Raed.

Set in Amman, it tells the story of an elderly airport caretaker who local kids believe is a glamorous international pilot. Nadim Sawalha won the Best Actor Award at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2007 for his performance, with the film winning the Audience Award in the World Cinema competition at the Sundance Film Festival a year later. Suddenly, Matalqa was the first port of call for US studios that wanted to expand into the Middle East, particularly when productions, such as Jinn, were being shot in Jordan.

It wasn’t a big challenge to shoot the drama, but there were some things we did in VFX that were fun, such as disappearing characters and some stunts,” he says. “It was different from anything that I had done before.

Amit Matalqa

Disney asked the director to work on football film The United in 2011, but Matalqa admits it was “a difficult production”

. “It was made during the Arab uprisings and Farouk Al Fichawy, the lead actor, was a difficult person to work with,” he says. “Disney was very uncertain about what the status of Disney International was going to be, so the status of the movie was in limbo. It was not fun to make the movie.”

In 2014, he made comedy Strangely in Love, which was shot in 15 days, while his Middle East goose-chase drama The Rendezvous was another difficult production, with his wife dying while the film was being made.

“Filmmaking never gets easier,” he says.

As for his latest cinema outing, Matalqa says: “You’re always learning”. “It wasn’t a big challenge to shoot the drama, but there were some things we did in VFX that were fun, such as disappearing characters and some stunts,” he says. “It was different from anything that I had done before.”

Jinn is on Netflix from today

Updated: June 13, 2019 02:20 PM

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