Theeb is off to the Oscars: Interviewing Producer Nadine Toukan


When they announced the short list of The Best Foreign Film for Oscars this year, a national euphoria hit Facebook. It was one of those moments, when everyone felt proud. “Theeb” reached the Oscars, a Jordanian film that has been gaining praise world wide, winning awards here and there and demonstrating how far the film industry in Jordan has gone.

We can make quality films, Nadine Toukan believed, and she delivered. Jordan’s film industry is still in its infantile stage. It was started merely 10 years ago with a governmental plan to establish “The Royal Film Commission”, which was part of a national strategic plan to create a creative industry that would build on the energy of the young population in the Kingdom. Nadine joined “The Royal Film Commission” at the time with a mandate to search and develop local talents in the film industry and she did an amazing job; Today there are hundreds of Jordanian talents carving their way in an industry that is yet to mature. Nadine didn’t only that, but also topped herself by showing everyone that it is possible to make a Jordanian film and pioneered the scene by producing the much loved “Captain Abu Raed” in 2008, followed up by “When Monaliza Smiled” in 2012, and finally the globally celebrated Oscar nominated “Theeb”.

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I am so proud of have the chance of interviewing Nadine and ask her the following:

Fadi: You are going to the Oscars! How does it feel?

 

Nadine: Theeb is off to the Oscars. And don’t forget the BAFTAs tomorrow in London. Exciting. Rewarding. Confusing. So what. How cool. A melange of many feelings, and a good time for deep reflection and taking stock. 

 

Fadi: You believed and you delivered. I remember that you once told me that what triggered you to produce “Captain Abu Raed” is that you wanted to show people in the film industry at the time that we can. Today, you are proving that we can’t only make films but we can also make quality films that can be admired worldwide. I would like to know more about what motivates you? was it your passion for storytelling or your love to your country and your people?

 

quotes3Nadine: I’m generally fed up with a few things: “We can’t, it won’t work, there’s no money, who cares…” Having our stories owned by others, and us almost always bothered at how they end up being told. Defeatist attitudes. Entitlement. Waiting for Godot. I’ve always lived to the tune of, “you want it, go will it into existence”. So in part, the power of imagination pull. Not driven by a major strategic plan, rather through a series of serendipitous events and situations.

 

 

Fadi: I have met you for few times only, but I have always read a side of you that I can’t help not to admire and point out, which is your willingness to help people realize their dreams. I don’t forget the time you tried to help me find a new job in order to be able to publish “The Bride of Amman”, and I remember when I first approached you for an interview on my blog, you wanted to give the spotlight to other people on the crew, like the first assistant director, Yanal Kassay.

 

quotes1Nadine: Listening to your plan for the book and that you needed a job, and reacting in trying to connect you with opportunities, is the result of my built in producer skills. That’s just how I’m wired. Filmmaking is one of the most collaborative industries. There’s no industry without the tribe. We’re used to having directors, actors, producers, and at times cinematographers, front it, but none of us would get far without line producers, ADs, PAs, coordinators, art directors, and the long list of people needed to be able to go the distance, including our generous backers and investors. It’s easy to get caught up in the hero syndrome. I find that scary, and it stops us from understanding through the necessary wider lens. In this industry, there are no heroes, there are heroic collaborations. On Theeb, Naji stood on the shoulders of giants to be able to direct the film this way. We are indebted to each and every single person who said yes at any given stage of this production. Theeb is possible thanks to many people who came together to raise the bar, and simply didn’t settle.

 

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Nadine Toukan with the star Jacir Eid

Fadi: Looking at Theeb’s cast, you gave the starring role to the young bedouin Jacir; that in itself is a fairytale story. You are taking this young man to the Oscars! How rewarding it is being the person behind the success of many others?

 

Nadine: Jacir owes this big break to his father, Eid, whose lazy planning led Bassel and Naji to find Jacir in front of their camera. And then there was magic. I don’t agree with the notion that anyone is behind the success of others. Rather, it’s our continuous motion, and intersections of people and their actions. Speaking of serendipity: One evening while camping at the Ammarin Bedouin Camp in Beidha, a visitor from the area stopped by and sat with us over tea and small talk. Half way through, he stood up and gave me a piece of his mind: “You, all of you with your cameras, the makers of these bedouin TV series we see on the satellites, you should be ashamed of yourselves. Year after year you make one series after the other about our bedouin culture and stories. None of them are accurate, we don’t live that way, nor speak that way, nor do we socialise the way you fantasise. Yet you keep making them about us. And here we are. Still alive. Still living here, but you never come by to do your research right, nor do you speak to us. And you still keep making those silly bedouin series”. While I had never been involved in any of these productions, I knew very well what he was referring to. It was painful, and a much needed wake up call. Representation was broken, and that had to stop.

 

Back between 2003-5, I served on the committee working on Jordan’s submission to the UNESCO Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity program, under the title: The Cultural Space of the Bedu in Petra and Wadi Rum. It was a challenging feat that ended up being proclaimed in 2005 and ratified in 2006. One of the recommendations of the action plan was to create programs that would support the communities in these areas own their culture and oral heritage in their own way, in their voice. Then one day, some of the least likely suspects collaborated on the making of Theeb. A story owned and performed by the community itself, simply because we were open to listening to the situations we found ourselves in, and decided to break free from anything that had been before us. We followed our instinct, and paid attention to opportunities that presented themselves to us. Then took a series of risks and leaps of faith.

 

Fadi: I watched “Theeb” at Abu Dhabi Film Festival last year, and had goose-bumps seeing the theatre full of people who all stood up at the end and clapped. Did you foresee its success?
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Nadine Toukan and Naji Abu Nowar

Nadine: A lot of hard, good work went into the film by a large group of extraordinary people. I knew we had something special. The backstory of which is even more special. When Bassel pitched the project to me back in 2010, it was “a bedouin short film”. I remember looking at him curiously, smiling, wondering where this may go. Then he said he had passed it on to Naji for script notes. Bigger smile. Two remarkably talented and interesting people were about to collaborate. The beginning of an excellent equation. And when we started making creative decisions on how we were going to approach the production, it was clear we had something authentic.

 

Fadi: As you know, the Jordanian film industry is still in its infantile stages. There are many challenges that we have to overcome. Having a Jordanian film showing in cinemas in other countries is a challenge in itself. How did you do that?

 

Nadine: Through expensive sales agents and distributors.

 

Fadi: What are the biggest challenges that you think is facing the Jordanian film industry?

 

Nadine: Writing. Waiting. Distribution.

 

Fadi: Making films usually requires big budgets. There are only few cinemas in Amman and I would say, like the publishing industry, distribution channels are limited. How did you overcome that? Did you make profits for “Theeb” yet?

 

Nadine: No. Sales agents and distributors take a huge cut for the work they do. We’ve had limited distribution. We are back in some theatres around the Arab world this month post the nominations, and we hope the long tail of the life of the production may eventually pay off. I think I’ve heard the questions: “Is it on YouTube or any of the torrents?” and “When will Hammoudeh be selling it?” more than: “When can I buy a cinema ticket?”

 

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Fadi: The Royal Film Commission has done an amazing job in training young Jordanian talents in the past decade and facilitating and help funding local films but it was hit by the global financial crisis and the tough situation that Jordan has been facing after the Arab Spring. It is still playing an active role in helping the industry but not as strong as it used to be. How do you see the RFC support for the industry?

 

 
quotes4Nadine: The RFC has done some excellent work over instances, but no where near enough. I say this as someone who once worked there when it first started, and say it with a lot of love. I don’t think the global financial crisis is a valid excuse. Sounds like a good cover. This is the time to be brave and aggressive, and think of new types of collaborations for growth. I’m grateful to the RFC for giving us a loan from a modest fund they had, to make Fadi Haddad’s feature, When Monaliza Smiled, the year we planned. That enabled us to get on with it without delays. It was produced on a shoestring budget, and ended up resonating with diverse local audiences. Prime Cinema, Amman, kept the film showing for over 9 weeks. The best kind of cinema partners a local film could hope for. Sometime ago, Ruba AlAyed (now with MBC) handled marketing for the RFC, and one of the slogan’s she worked within back then was: Anything’s possible in Jordan. I’d like them to deliver on that. It means getting unstuck. The RFC may have to step way out of its comfort zone, and radically change the way they’re doing the work.

 

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Nadine Toukan and Fadi Haddad

 

Fadi: You raised the bar so high, do you see other Jordanian films following Theeb’s steps and achieving such success in the near future?

 

Nadine: I hope they go ever further. No reason not to.

 

Fadi: What was your wildest dream at school?

 

Nadine: Depends what stage of school. I had many that changed a lot. Never really knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. Still don’t. Next time we talk, ask me about my wildest dream tomorrow.

 

Fadi: What’s your next step after the Oscar?

 

Nadine: You mean after Theeb. Always on a quest towards identifying my next screen production. I’m also spending this year working with the Doha Film Institute on a wonderful program for emerging Qatari filmmakers. DFI is doing meaningful work, and in line with my own philosophies for the needs ahead for an Arab renaissance. It’s a place and program where a generation of Qataris are busting to see and tell things for themselves as they experiment with the cinematic arts. A beautiful exchange where I get to give of my experiences, and they give me of their dreams. What an honour.

 

Fadi: What’s your motto in life?

 

Nadine: Screw it. Let’s do this!

 

Fadi: Screw it. Let’s do this indeed! Let’s bring our stories to the world! Thank you Nadine.. best of luck tomorrow in the BAFTAs and later this month in the Oscars.. You make us proud! 

 

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The Arab Observer interviews Lama Zakharia


Lama Zakharia

Lama Zakharia

In may she celebrated me on her radio show “Celebrity of the week” on BeatFM, and today I am celebrating her on my blog. At the time, she told me that she is preparing a musical comedy TV show with Jana Zeineddin to be aired in Ramadan on Ro’ya. Being already a fan of her after seeing her performing with Dozan Awtar last Christmas, I was looking forward for the show. Though I have to admit that I didn’t expect Fa Sol Ya to be of this quality, it was a nice surprise to see such brilliant new genre hitting the local screen. An entertaining quality musical production that captured our hearts in Ramadan. I was surprised to see myself rewinding and watching the episodes over and over again because of its lovely music.

This is the first time I use this platform to interview other people. I believe that we have so much talents in Jordan and little media coverage. Lama Zakharia (@lamaonbeat) is a brilliant young star. Watch out for the name which I predict to become a very important regional star in few years down the road. I asked her about her talent, Fa Sol Ya, her stand on sexual harassment and women rights, her views about women in the production industry in Jordan and more.

Read the full interview below:

Fadi: You are an actress, singer and radio show hostess. There is so much going on in your life and you are multi-talented. Tell us more, who is Lama Zakharia?

Lama: I’m actually undergoing an experimental phase in my life doing all these things mentioned above. Like any 24 year-old, I’m just trying to discover where I stand and really understand what my ideals are. I am also fortunate to have a very supportive family who is pushing me towards perusing my passions which will ultimately help me answer “who is Lama Zakharia” for real.

Fadi: Lets start with your latest, Fa Sol Ya. There is much creativity and talent in the show. There is good chemistry among the cast and the music is just brilliant. How would you define Fa Sol Ya? Whose idea was it? and how did you guys develop it into production?

Fa Sol Ya cast

Fa Sol Ya cast

Lama: Atef Malhas (a guitarist and friend) and I were approached for our work in ‘Kash Kash’ by Shashat with interest to develop our concept for TV during Ramadan.  At this point I brought in Jana Zeineddine to act as a creative comedic consultant and felt we would be a good match. After many discussions and meetings with Shashat, Atef and I decided that this was not the favorable direction to take Kash Kash into. Once we had the concept fine tuned, to take social issues and conceptualize them through musical comedy, Fa Sol Ya was born. The idea was to take a pop song, put some Arabic lyrics, (develop a story with 3-dimensional characters) and make it happen on TV. The more Jana and I worked on concepts, the more I realized what a good match we are. I needed comedic guidance, she was there to offer it, she needed more Jordanian cultural insight, I was there for that, and most of all, we had the same exact type of humor. She became basically, my creative soul sister.

 

Fadi: What are the reactions for the show so far?

Lama: Extreme I can say. People either love it or hate it! I feel the general Jordanian audience is warming up to it but the idea is still foreign and bizarre for many. As for people who have been exposed to musicals before regardless of their background, they seem to understand us more and appreciate what we’re doing.

 Also, in each episode we are introducing a different type of comedy – from dark humor to absurdist to situational – and comedy is culturally specific. People will react to it with apprehension initially if it’s not familiar to them, and that is something that we have been seeing. However, part of our show’s goal was to expose Jordanian audiences to the many different types of comedy, and music was a great vehicle with which to do that.

 

Fadi: How do you feel about the reactions?

Fa Sol Ya

Fa Sol Ya

Lama: I have to admit, being my first experience, I was hurt, shocked, and hopeless when I saw all the negative comments on Youtube. But later on when I started listening to the positive ones. I realized, as Jana would say, extreme reactions are better than no reaction. It means that our performance has affected someone at some level. 

Also, as you mentioned, many of our episodes confront social issues head on, and for some audiences, that can be uncomfortable and cause extreme reactions as well. Many of the negative comments reflect a lack of understanding of the episode’s intention, and that is to be expected.

 

Fadi: You are right, extreme reactions are better than no reaction. Is there any specific reaction that you remember and like to share with us? a positive or negative one?

Fa Sol Ya is a new concept that's bound to receive mixed responses.

Fa Sol Ya is a new concept that’s bound to receive mixed responses

Lama: There was one reaction directed towards the 2atayef song where people claimed we should not have thrown food on the floor, and especially not during Ramadan. I have to say we tried our best to be culturally sensitive, but some people still felt personally insulted rather than entertained.

We always tried our best to keep the balance between taking risks to reach the level of comedy we felt was right and downplaying lyrics or plots to avoid certain discomfort. It’s not a question of not taking risks with the issues we address or the way they are presented and performed, but rather maintaining a level of cultural sensitivity. Jana and I have many ideas that we would still love to present at a future date and will hopefully be able to balance between challenging cultural norms and drawing awareness to issues while maintaining a high level of comedy. At  the end of the day, Fa Sol Ya is a new concept that’s bound to receive mixed responses. The good thing is I learned a lot about my society and how I can work on my delivery for the future.

 

Fadi: I have been really enjoying the show mostly for the music, and your voice of course. Who picked the music?

Lama: Thank you Fadi so much. You’re so supportive!. Some songs came from personal inspirations and some came from Jana. We followed our impulses mainly when selecting what songs to use. Each episode has a different story and we really were on the same page with our vision which made the creative and song selection process smooth. Also working with a genius arranger like Nareg Abajian, and a highly talented sound producer Qusai Diqer (who were both in Syria) was challenging but so rewarding. We also had the support and the amazing spirit of Saeed Bazouqa from Loriana studios when we were recording the vocals which facilitated the process.

 

Fadi: I loved most of the episodes I watched. You have tackled different issues such as corruption, tawjihi, media, parliament among others. My personal favorite is “Ramadan Song – Katayef”. It is a dark comedy that touched me strongly and made me feel bad about what mothers go through on a daily basis (Alla ye3eenhom). I like the feminist edge in it. 

Which is your favorite episode? Why?

Lama: Wow! I’m always happy when someone gets what we mean! That’s exactly what we meant by the 2atayef song and Jana portrayed that extreme emotion with perfection. My personal favorite is actually Darbet 6arab. I am actually proud that we managed to produce a classical medley of Arab pop songs. I’m also in love with how it was shot even though, believe it or not, it was all last minute. I just love how this one was delivered.


Fadi: The first time I have seen you acting what on stage at Christmas time with Dozan Awtar. I instantly fall in love with the grandma character you played. The play itself was a nice breeze and captured Christmas spirit very well. I can see some of Dozan’s cast playing on your side in Fa Sol Ya, you guys make a brilliant group. Tell us more about Dozan Wa Awtar. How did you get involved with them? any future plans for the group that you’d like to share with us?

Lama: Dozan Wa Awtar is the backbone behind this project in many ways. Firstly, I met the musical mastermind Nareg Abajian through Dozan. I’ve also met my creative sister Jana through Dozan as the director of Project Christmas which you’ve mentioned above. Most importantly, this establishment is such a unique loving and supporting family, they just made the process of performing and recording more professional, smoother, and even more enjoyable. As for future plans, there will always be future plans I am part of Dozan after all.

 

Fadi: I really love your voice. Would you ever consider developing your own pop music album? I’d certainly be the first one to buy it.

Lama: Thank you! Actually at this stage, not really sure I can go down this road. I believe any person who wants to be a singer, let alone a composer or a lyric writer, should work a lot on themselves before earning that title. Once I’m satisfied with what I’m doing and can plaster a label on my forehead I’ll go ahead with it and present the first copy to you Fadi J

Fadi: That’s a day I look forward to.

 

Fadi: Have you seen the horrible video of the gang sexual harassment in Irbid? You have once addressed the issue with music and delivered a strong message in your show Kashkhash. How was the reactions to that? What’s Kashkhash? and how do you think we could fight such phenomena?

Lama: I think this issue is one that angers me the most in life. I will continue writing music about this and I even have something in mind to tackle this Irbid issue particularly. I think exposure is the first step towards reaching a better place than we’re in. Making people realize “THIS IS WRONG” is what we need to do first. If you look at the comments on the video, many commenters think the girls deserve this treatment. Let’s first make it visible to people how wrong it is through music, awareness campaigns, videos, verbal expression and then we can move forward to more targeted measures. This is a deeply ingrained cultural problem. More so than a sexual one. That’s my opinion.

 

Fadi: On may, I was honored to be hosted in your show “Celebrity of the Week” on Beat FM. How is the show going? Who was your favorite celebrity to host?

Lama: I loved that interview! Especially that I’m a huge fan of yours (funny you’re interviewing me now) “wa7de b wa7de”! lol. The show is good I keep learning every day and that is my favorite feature as I get to meet amazing people like you. My favorite was Tim Sebastian the interviewer of the year several times in Britain. He was a tough cookie. Loved interviewing him. Learned a lot from that.

 

Fadi: There are so much young talents in Jordan. The Royal Film Commission trained many in Film and TV production but we are yet to see the industry mature. At the front of the industry we see some women leading the way such as Nadine Toukan, Rula Nasser, Tima Al Shomali, Rania Kurdi, Saba Mubarak and Jana Zeineddine. What do you think of the creative industry as a good platform to change cultural norms and push women rights? Do you think that you (women) have done enough on that front?

I love and respect any woman who merely expresses herself in a public way

I love and respect any woman who merely expresses herself in a public way

Lama: I think the industry still needs more female presence. I love and respect any woman who merely expresses herself in a public way. That is enough for me. I just think more women should do it and with more intensity. I think the creative industry serves as a platform for “exposure” which is the first step to changing cultural norms. But I don’t think it’s enough on its own. You have to add all the other ingredients to form a noticeable change.

 

Fadi: Have you watched Fe-male past Ramadan? What do you think?

Lama: Yes some episodes! I am a fan of Tima just because she’s never afraid of being goofy on TV. She really opened up that space for a lot of women. She’s quite bold and I love it.

I am a fan of Tima just because she’s never afraid of being goofy on TV

I am a fan of Tima just because she’s never afraid of being goofy on TV

 

Fadi: and Rania Show?

Lama: That was the talk of the town when it was on which is GREAT. I want to see more female-led comedy and Rania is so talented in that way. She was bold, challenged some boundaries, and led to some talk which is what we need for this industry to start growing.

 

Fadi: One last question, what are your future plans? 

Lama: I am now considering studying music professionally as a basic plan to be able to be more technically adept and more capable vocally. When and where this will happen I can’t answer honestly because I decided on that just three days ago. This is how spontaneous my life has been. I just hope I’ll still have the resilience to offer something to my community in the long run. I’ve learned through my first experience that this industry is the hardest to work in Jordan. Hopefully it will be easier for people like Jana and I to keep going the way we are down a much smoother road.