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”.
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?
Nadine: 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.
Nadine: 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.
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?
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?”
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?
Nadine: 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.
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!