x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Hollywood on the Red Sea

Steven Spielberg has helped in its creation, but Jordan's new school of cinematic arts is not aiming to teach its pupils how to make blockbusters. The young filmmakers want to show the world what the people of this region are really like.

Steven Spielberg, left, directs Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan.
Steven Spielberg, left, directs Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan.

Aqaba, Jordan // As a young prince, King Abdullah of Jordan piloted a helicopter that flew Steven Spielberg over Petra's ancient ruins so the Hollywood director could find locations for Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.

The experience led to a friendship and, more than 20 years later, the King of Jordan approached Mr Spielberg, one of the most powerful men in the entertainment world, to help in launching a graduate film school that is aiming to change the staid face of Arab cinema by training a young generation of film-makers. The Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts, set against a dramatic backdrop of mountains in the resort town of Aqaba, 350 kilometres from the capital of Amman, opened its doors in September for the first class of students working towards a two-year master's degree in fine arts.

"It's about building the industry, basically," said Claire Naber, the institute's projects manager. "It's about who will tell our stories. We are good storytellers and it is only because of lack of resources and facilities we are not doing so. We have talented people in the Middle East and they will come together and make films and speak to the world." The non-profit school is a collaboration with the prestigious University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, of which Mr Spielberg is an alumni and trustee.

Jordan does not have a film industry, but the glamour of King Abdullah and Queen Rania attracts constant press coverage in celebrity magazines around the world and, with that, attention from Hollywood. Within five years, a hi-tech, 32,000-square-metre complex that will include two sound stages is expected to be built in Aqaba with expert advice from the 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks studios. The current campus occupies three floors of an office building off the town's main touristy strip, where it uses state-of-the-art facilities similar to those at the California school.

The school has 21 pupils - the maximum number will be only 50 - half of whom are Jordanian. Any graduate student from the Middle East, including Israel, can apply for enrolment. The town, set on the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, is a popular destination for scuba divers exploring the Red Sea's rich marine life but may not be the most obvious setting for a film school. There is not even a movie theatre there - the last one closed in the early 1980s.

Aqaba, however, is designated as a "special economic zone", which is aimed at encouraging private sector development by reducing the amount of red tape needed to open a business. Jordan's Royal Film Commission is aiming to build on the Indiana Jones success and hopes to lure Hollywood moviemakers by charging no rental fees for shooting locations, said Ghassan Raja Nasser, operations manager at the Red Sea institute.

Some scenes from the 2001 horror film The Mummy Returns and the sequel to the blockbuster Transformers, which will be released in June, were set in Jordan. And, as Mr Nasser points out, "Lawrence of Arabia was set mostly in the Wadi Rum desert." The body double for Omar Sharif's character in the 1962 classic still works at a popular local restaurant and when the Egyptian star visits Aqaba they get together.

The Red Sea school is also part of a wider trend by governments to foster media talent in a region where there are few quality facilities and many political and cultural restrictions. Iran has a distinguished filmmaking tradition, while Abu Dhabi and Dubai have opened schools to make their mark on the Arab media scene with the New York Film Academy and the Mohammed bin Rashid School of Communications, respectively.

Egypt, to bolster its position as a historic centre of Arab cinema, has launched 4Shbab, a television channel aimed at young people with shows such as Who Wants to Be an Islamic Pop Star? The Aqaba school offers a mix of practical work and theory, much of it based on the USC's curriculum. It places an emphasis on world cinema from Japan to Russia, and one of its objectives is to inject more vitality and realism into Arab movies.

"The joke is in films here if a character has lived in the West for 50 years and he sees his mother for the first time they shake hands," Mr Nasser said. "But the culture is changing. To be honest, in rural places it was hard to shoot a lady, you know, but it's changing. Our students tell us they are going out there and there is more acceptance to film women." The movies and documentaries students make in their second year will be offered to film festivals.

There is another, even more fundamental, motive for many of the students at the Red Sea school: to change how Arabs are depicted in movies. Western films have a sorry history of portraying Muslims in negative roles, or as Arab-American media critics have put it, "belly dancers, bombers or billionaires". "We all know the power of cinema and media," said Mervat Aksoy, 28, a Jordanian student who made a short film for class about a little blind girl in a mosque who creates an imaginary world. " You see other people's version of us and we wouldn't see us that way, like Disney's Aladdin. I'd like to see different approaches to certain subjects and topics. I hope we can create a platform for us."

Amjad al Rasheed, 23, who directed a short documentary about a folk band in Aqaba, said he wanted to help change the social and political restrictions in the region. "We have to change it, we as a young generation," said Mr Rasheed, citing the directors Quentin Tarantino and the late Egyptian Yousuf Chanine as his influences. "It is a huge responsibility. When I think about this it freaks me out but also RSICA is preparing us well."

Some of the instructors, all seven of whom are western, said they found the students' attitudes refreshing. "I was teaching previously in Brazil and the US and they all wanted to be Spielberg. It gets old," said Prof Matthew Epler, an American who teaches cinema studies. "These students are more eager, more passionate about the experience. It's not about fame, or money but personal expression, although it sounds cheesy. They also know what's at stake. They are the first of the future of the media in Jordan and the Middle East."

Bob Keser, senior lecturer in cinema studies, agreed. "There is a thirst for film and in Jordan there is room for development. The film industry anywhere in the world is nothing but young people looking at the restrictions they have and that is the basis for change and creativity." hghafour@thenational.ae