Framing Jordan: The Country Inside and Outside the Camera

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People watch fireworks exploding over the Maracana stadium, from a terrace in the favela Mangueira, during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / Andrej ISAKOVICANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images
People watch fireworks exploding over the Maracana stadium, from a terrace in the favela Mangueira, during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / Andrej ISAKOVICANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images

Recent ACOR-CAORC fellow George Potter writes about his current research into Jordanian films and the social geography of locations in Jordan and Palestine included in those films. 

As I finish my research in Jordan, much of the world has turned its attention to the Summer Olympics. I spend most of my nights watching film, theater, and talking to artists, so I have not had many opportunities to view the events, but I have been fascinated by a series of pictures released by Getty Images that show families in Rio de Janeiro’s notorious favelas watching the fireworks at the opening ceremony from the other side of the highway.

The favelas, of course, are the story of Brazil that is meant to exist outside the frame of the Opening Ceremony, kept far away from the television cameras that broadcast the pageantry. Viewing the ceremonies over the shoulders of those in the slums, however, brings the reality of the event into stark relief: the world spends billions on sports, while billions of people suffer in poverty.

Likewise, I have spent this past summer thinking about what lies inside and outside the frame of Jordanian film, playing a game of detective visiting the locations where over 20 full-length fictional Jordanian films were shot in an attempt to understand how Jordanians represent themselves and the physical, social, and economic geography of their country on film.

 Screenshot from the 1989 film "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" with the Treasury in Petra in the background (Paramount Pictures)
Screenshot from the 1989 film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” with the Treasury in Petra in the background (Paramount Pictures)

For Westerners, inside the frame has often been determined by Hollywood spectacles, such as Indiana Jones descending into Petra and Matt Damon hopping across Wadi Rum. Conversely, Jordanian film rarely uses these spaces. Theeb (2014) famously shot in Wadi Rum—though in very different locations than The Martian (2015)—and Storm over Petra (1968) has a two-second shot of the Treasury in Petra; however, most indigenous Jordanian film is more northern and urban oriented, focused on the spaces where the majority of Jordanians live.


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 Screenshot from the 2015 film "The Martian" featuring vistas from Wadi Rum in Jordan (20th Century Fox)
Screenshot from the 2015 film “The Martian” featuring vistas from Wadi Rum in Jordan (20th Century Fox)

Even then, the camera has a specific way of telling stories. When Amin Matalqa shoots the Jordan Gate project at sunset in The United, one cannot see the unfinished construction at the base or the posters showing what the project might have been. It casts a romance that few actually see when looking at the failed construction site. When Deema Amr shoots Murphy’s Pub, an upscale bar near Dour Kilo, in A 7 Hour Difference, it’s a fun place for the young and successful of Amman to play pool. However, when Fadi Haddad’s East Ammani protagonists in When Monaliza Smiled ride buses through West Amman, they cannot afford to enter the restaurants and cafés that they pass. Eventually, Monaliza turns to Hamdi, as they sit in the shadow of the Abdoun Bridge and asks, “Do you ever feel like a stranger in your own country?”

 Hamdi and Monaliza sit at Abdoun Circle, a scene from the 2012 Jordanian film "When Monaliza Smiled"
Hamdi and Monaliza sit at Abdoun Circle, a scene from the 2012 Jordanian film “When Monaliza Smiled”

This is a moment I think about a lot as I walk the streets of Amman studying where films were shot, seeing cafés where bookstores once were and new colleges in old UN buildings. And the empty lot that was once home to the Abdali market. There is a sense at times that if one blinks the city that once was will no longer stand. One of the values, in fact, of maintaining the archive of Jordanian film is keeping a visual record of changes in the country and the capital.

The meaning of these images, however, remains contested, much like Jordanian identity itself. Does the story begin when a British man enters tribal lands in the south as in Theeb or when Circassians arrived to the north, as in Cherkess (2010)? What does national identity mean in a cosmopolitan capital, where Egyptians, Palestinians, Jordanians, Armenians, Syrians, and Lebanese mingle, such as in When Monaliza Smiled and The Curve (2015)? And what spaces are each of these people allowed to call their own?

An alternate view of Wadi Rum from the 2014 movie "Theeb" (Fertile Crescent Films)
An alternate view of Wadi Rum from the 2014 movie “Theeb” (Fertile Crescent Films)

In all of these films, geographic representation is an important part of the stories they tell. Is the modern history of Jordan narrated from the north or the south? Are the cafés and bars of West Amman exciting and fun or exclusionary and a sign of a culture that has lost its way? When people think of Jordan or their home, do they think of the Treasury at Petra, the Abdoun Bridge, or a staircase in East Amman?

 Screenshot from the 2012 Arabic language film "The United" that was filmed in Amman (Touchstone Pictures)
Screenshot from the 2012 Arabic language film “The United” that was filmed in Amman (Touchstone Pictures)

As I view these films again with the data of where they were shot beside me, these are the questions that I will be looking to explore. However, just as part of the story of Brazil was left out of the Opening Ceremony, I often think of a picture I took at a site not yet on film, just outside of City Mall, where poor farm lands rest against an upscale shopping area. As Jordanian film continues to develop and diversify, the range of stories it may tell and spaces it may touch still remains vast and much still exists beyond the frame of the camera.

Written by George Potter

potter-photoGeorge Potter is an Assistant Professor of English at Valparaiso University in Indiana.  His current research is concerned with Arabic drama and film. In the summer of 2016 his ACOR-CAORC fellowship supported his project in film studies and social geography that involved mapping the sites across Jordan and Palestine that are featured in selected Jordanian feature-length films.

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