For the organisers of Amman International Film Festival, set to take place from Monday until August 31, storytelling comes before glitz and show business. “Our focus is on content, not red carpets and celebrities,” festival director Nada Doumani tells The National.
The international film festival and competition, which is now in its second year, aims to shine a spotlight on young and emerging directors in Jordan and the Arab world, and give Jordanians wider access to independent cinema.
“It’s a festival focused on first-timers,” says Doumani. “Most of the films will be by debuting directors.”
Over the course of the week, more than 51 films from 26 countries across the Arab world and beyond will be screened. “They will not have been screened in Jordan before, and are not available on streaming platforms,” says Doumani.
In addition, 41 feature films, documentaries and shorts will compete for the festival’s Black Iris and Audience awards.
The programme sheds light on some of the dominant topics affecting young storytellers. “The selection includes diverse stories coming from our region: stories on passion and conflict, distinction and identity, youth, family and seniority,” says Areeb Zuaiter, the festival’s head of programming.
Yet it also reflects unifying themes and shared experiences. “Diaspora, self-examination and boldness are at the heart of the films,” Zuaiter says.
The festival will open with Palestinian duo Tarzan and Arab Nasser’s satire Gaza Mon Amour (2020), about a lovesick fisherman, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year.
Among the best-known debuts is Ismael Iraki’s award-winning Zanka Contact (2020), which was dubbed a “Tajine Western” for its blend of western genre films with youth culture in Casablanca.
The festival will also celebrate firsts for actors. Syrian newcomer Yahya Mahayni was cast in his first leading role for Kaouther Ben Hania’s Oscar-nominated The Man Who Sold His Skin (2020), about a Syrian refugee who is used as a living work of art.
Four films will have their world premiere at the festival, including Tunisian documentary Manca Moro (2020), in which director Rim Tamimi explores her historical Sicilian roots. Among the eight Arab world premieres is French-Lebanese director and animator Chloe Mazlo’s first feature-length film Skies of Lebanon (2020), a visually stylised family story set during the Lebanese Civil War.
Among the documentaries in the competition, Only the Oceans Between Us (2021) is an unusual cross border project between two Syrian directors from Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, and two indigenous Shipibo directors from Peru. The shorts reveal the diversity of Jordan’s local talent, with Ghaith and Laith Al-Adwan's social comedy Hemingwhy (2021), about a shopkeeper and his son, among others.
As part of the festival’s “First and Latest” section, the celebrated Syrian auteur Mohamad Malas will speak about his work and the evolution of his filming style.
Jordan has been a draw for the international film industry for more than 60 years, with its landscapes and archaeological sites serving as sets for historical dramas, science fiction and adventure films. David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was filmed here, as were Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019).
Despite this, the local industry is in its early stages compared to other Arab centres such as Egypt and Morocco. Yet in the past decade, new Jordanian films have put the kingdom on the map. This year, Bassel Ghandour’s directorial debut The Alleys premiered at Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival, and Darin J Sallam’s first feature Farha will be screened at the Toronto Film Festival.
“The industry is growing very quickly,” says Doumani.
By bringing the international guests together with local talent and film professionals, the festival hopes to foster this growth.
Bassam Alasad, the festival’s head of industry, says: “We want to encourage international co-productions as well as local Jordanian productions. We have the infrastructure and locations to support filmmakers and we have the talent. There’s no shortage of ideas, but like elsewhere in the Arab world, young filmmakers are struggling with financing.”
One of the festival’s key components will be the Industry Days programme, which supports young Jordanian and Arab filmmakers through workshops and masterclasses. “We wanted the industry events to be in person this year so that we could meet filmmakers, see how the industry has evolved through the years and how Covid impacted them,” says Alasad.
“The film industry was hit by the closure of theatres and festivals during the pandemic. But at the same time, online streaming platforms helped filmmakers to keep on creating.". A post-production workshop with Netflix, and an online class on solutions filmmaking by Academy Award-nominated Laura Nix, have been scheduled among others.
Fifteen filmmakers from Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Algeria have been selected for two pitching platforms: one for Jordanian films in development and the other for Arab films in post-production.
“It’s an accelerator aimed at encouraging Jordanian productions and international co-productions,” explains Alasad. “We’ve selected a range of ideas for fiction and documentary films. There is a common theme of land running in some of them, while others are sci-fi or fantasy films.”
The emergence of genre fiction among Arab filmmakers, including science-fiction and fantasy, Alasad says, is perhaps a sign of a changing industry. “New online streaming platforms are encouraging independent filmmakers to think beyond the traditional social dramas." We’re seeing some very high-quality content."
Despite its full programme, organising a film festival during the pandemic came with its own set of challenges. Doumani says: “We weren’t sure whether we could actually host a festival this year. Many cinemagoers still don’t feel comfortable indoors, and arranging travel for international guests has become more difficult.”
In Amman, some indoor cinemas have reopened and the festival will include outdoor drive-through screenings, as well as programmes in Irbid, Salt and Wadi Rum. “We wanted to encourage as many people to attend as possible,” says Doumani.
Doumani laments the sense of competition among the region’s expanding circuit. “We couldn’t screen some films because they were set to premiere at other festivals [before they could be shown elsewhere],” she says.
This comes at the expense of making more films accessible to local audiences. “The whole point of a festival is to show as many movies as possible, because for each festival the audience will be different. We are screening films for the people of Amman and Jordan,” she says.
This is something she hopes can be remedied for future iterations of the festival. “We need better co-ordination and understanding among regional festivals.”
The Amman International Film Festival runs from Monday, August 23 until Tuesday, August 31. More information at aiff.jo