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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“Theeb” a quality Jordanian production, in par of “Gravity” and “Life of Pie”


Time flies by fast, I wanted to write this film review almost two months ago after watching the film in Abu Dhabi’s film festival end of October but didn’t have the chance.

I remember that we arrived late to a big hall full of people at the luxurious Emirates Palace on Abu Dhabi. We were rushing despite of my awe of the place with walls tinted with gold, we had no time for that, we wanted to catch the film. But we were not the only ones who were late, the parking lot, elevator, and stairs were full of other Jordanians rushing with us to reach the hall. I was thinking to myself, typical Jordanians, we are always late!

Once we entered the hall and got to our seats, we were mesmerised by the stunning scenery of wadi rum. We missed the first 15 minutes, but something about the image quality on screen captured out attention immediately. Few seconds later and I felt amused by the Jordanian Beduin strong accent which felt familiar and weird at the same time. Later on, I felt myself getting attached to little Theeb and following his adventure in the wilderness of Jordan’s beautiful desert.

To be honest with you, the film felt slow, but that was totally fine because of the scenery that fills the gaps when there is no action.  I do understand that the story was initially written as a short film and could see that now that it is stretched into a full feature. I’d personally classify “Theeb” in the same category of last year’s Sandra Bullock “Gravity” and 2012 Ang Lee film “Life of Pie”. Theeb doesn’t fall short in quality of these hollywood blockbusters and that explains its huge success in international film festivals around the world. The film is done with quality unprecedented in Jordanian cinema. It shows how far we reached with Jordanian talents maturing experience over the past few years. It makes sense knowing that some of the cast members have worked on blockbuster hollywood movies before (Read my interview with Yanal Kassay, first assistant director of Theeb).

The story of Theeb is in par of “Gravity” and “Life of Pie” as well. A human story that has a subtle message. Unlike Sandra Bullock, little Theeb wasn’t lost in space, trying to find his way to earth, and unlike Pi Patel, he wasn’t stranded with a Tiger on a boat floating across the ocean, but his journey was not easier, and his struggle to save his own life was even harsher, not because of the difficult terrain of Wadi Rum, but because of cruelty of his fellow species that often tops the cruelty of nature.

At the end of the film we all stood up in awe and pride, clapping, happy to watch such a quality Jordanian production. Jordan’s film industry is yet to mature, but Theeb is definitely a big step forward.

The Arab Observer interviews Yanal Kassay


When they mentioned the film and Naji, there was a silence that came over all of us. We weren’t sure if we’d heard correctly. And then we started yelling and cheering. It was an amazing moment.

Jordan has many young talents who carved their expertise in the film industry in the past few years. Yanal Kassay worked on international productions including hollywood blockbusters such as The Mummy Returns and The Hurt Locker. He took on the challenge of bringing his skills into local production. The success of Theeb in Venice Festival this years may give us an idea about how far the Jordanian Film industry reached. It has only been a decade, but things are shaping up for a brighter future. I had the chance to interview Yanal and ask him about his experience in the film industry, his work on Theeb, and how he sees Jordan’s film industry going forward.

Theeb Film Poster

Theeb Film Poster

Fadi: Hi Yanal, you must be very excited about the big success of Theeb in Venice. We are all equally excited back in Jordan for the film and for the best director award for Naji Abu Nowar. Tell me more, where you there at the festival? did you expect this success? and what was your reaction when first new about the award?

Yanal: I’m extremely excited about the successes of Theeb so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it is received in the other festivals and screenings. We were there – I didn’t want to miss its global premier. We – the entire crew – put so much of ourselves into making this film. It was a true project of passion for a lot, if not all, of us.

Quote1As to whether we, or I, expected this success, it’s a difficult one to answer. I turned down a lucrative job on another film because I believed in Theeb – I believed in the producers and in Naji. I loved the story and their vision, and the fact that it really felt like a Jordanian project. I knew it was an ambitious film, I knew they had been working on developing it forever, and had even approached me long in advance of preproduction. And at the time I was telling people I had made my decision because I believed the film would do something no other Jordanian film had done. So in that regard, I expected it would be a success.

Yanal Kassay on set

Yanal Kassay on set

But you always wonder how that will translate, how it will be received. You stress out about it. And we were very stressed out up until the screening. Watching a film you put so much into, it’s difficult to be objective, so a lot of it comes down to the reaction of the audience to make you realize it was all worth it. But the reaction, the standing ovation, having the main cast there and seeing their reactions to all of it – that was all the success we needed. We were very proud at that moment. The audience surrounded the cast with a standing ovation. And then to see the utter joy and pride in the faces of these great guys who believed in and gave so much to the film, to see how touched they were by the reaction – that was overwhelming.

When we went to the award ceremony, we didn’t know what to expect, but we didn’t invest emotionally in a win, in that we didn’t want to get our hopes up, but it’s difficult – you can’t help but hope. When they mentioned the film and Naji, there was a silence that came over all of us. We weren’t sure if we’d heard correctly. And then we started yelling and cheering. It was an amazing moment. The screening, seeing many of the crew and the cast in Venice, the award ceremony – they were all such amazing moments.

Fadi:  Yanal, you played the role of the 1st Assistant Director, and Associate Producer on Theeb. I am curious to know more about the production phase and your role. In brief, tell me: What does a 1st Assistant Director/Associate Producer do?

How long did the production take? How smoothly did it go? What were the challenges you faced to bring another Jordanian film up to life?

Yanal: It is difficult to describe what an assistant director or associate producer do in brief, partly because there’s nothing about the role that isn’t complicated. The relationship between an AD and the director is complicated, and it’s completely different from the relationship between an AD and a producer, which is also complicated. It is also difficult to explain because it is very project-based. A lot depends on the rest of the team, particularly the producers and directors, as well as on the experience-level of the rest of the crew.

Yanal Kassay on set

Yanal Kassay on set

A friend of mine once said that the AD department is like the nervous system of the film, and that’s not wrong. I basically have to know everything regarding the other departments. I knew the script by heart – Naji and I would almost have our own scene-based language on set, and how we intended to shoot it. I will decide what scenes we’re shooting when and I’ll know why (because you generally don’t shoot a film in sequential order). I’ll organize tech recess, make-up tests, I’ll know when actors are available, when locations are ready, I’ll look at weather and light changes throughout the shoot, holidays – all of that goes into scheduling. And budget, which is Diala, will play a heavy role in all of that too.

I also have to be able to make very quick decisions that will affect the rest of the shoot, because we have working hours to keep in mind, and a certain number of days in which we can shoot. So if the producers would come to me while filming and tell me that based on the edit so far, we need to fix something, then I might have to wrap the crew on the spot so that we can bring them out the next day. Certain things you can’t fix – sand storms are not very predictable, and when we shot at one of the wells, a storm suddenly hit and we were at risk of a flash flood – we had one of the Bedouins that was helping us specifically keep an eye on water levels on the upper rocks, and eventually we had to evacuate the entire crew on that day. And then we need to figure out how we can get that day back.

There are so many stories of challenges we faced, but we faced them as a team, and that’s what was important.

Quote2Theeb took about 5 weeks to shoot. We could have used more, but there are budget issues to take into account, as well as crew availability and so on. About how smoothly it went, I mentioned before it was an ambitious project. It was going to be extremely tough because of that, but the crew made it all possible. The passion that went into the project by Naji, Basel Ghandour and Rupert Lloyd (producers) was infectious. Our executive producer (Nadine Touqan) and the co-producers (Laith Majali and Nasser Kalaji) were heavily involved too. The whole crew believed in the film, and made serious compromises in order to achieve that vision. We became a family. That happens a lot with filming crews, but Theeb was beyond. We lived in a camp together in tents and became very close. Even still, all of the crew that worked on Theeb is a family. And I like to think that everyone that didn’t work on it wished they did. It was that kind of job – incredibly tough, but so worth all of the sweat and blood that went into it.

Fadi: I checked your IMDB profile and realised you have impressive past record working on top notch international films. Your portoflio lists The Hurt Locker (2008), Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Fair Game (2010). How did you manage to secure roles in such big blockbusters and how did that help in shaping up your expertise and carve your skills to take on Theeb’s challenge? How do you compare Theeb to such big budget films? and how do you compare your experience working in a Jordanian film vs a Hollywood one? 

Yanal: Personally, I loved working on Transformers because I’d never flown in a helicopter before, but that’s not what makes a film important. It’s not about having a huge budget. It’s more about having a story to tell and the need to tell it and making do with what you have to deliver the best film you can.

Quote3I wanted to work on a film that I could see being someone’s favorite movie. And as many attempts as there were, Naji’s passion for and knowledge of cinema was a natural draw for me. Now I primarily work on independent and Jordanian films. Theeb was the start of that. I’m proud of the work I’ve done on the big-name productions, but I like to think I’ve reached a point where I can choose to work on films that I love, with people who have a vision and who want to go somewhere with it.

When I started working in film, there wasn’t a huge industry in Jordan, but even then your performance on every film was likely to affect whether or not you got that next job. We do this job because we love it, but not everyone is cut out to work on a film. It might seem glamorous, but it really isn’t – it’s a lot of hard work. Grueling hours and sometimes intense weather conditions, and you have to keep going.

It’s also very difficult to have a life when you work in film. It takes up so much time and energy, and you rarely will see your friends who don’t work in the field – it’s difficult to explain to people that it really is a full-time job like no other. And then when you’re done with a project, you’re done – you become a family struggling together like that, and then often you won’t see some of those family members again. It’s not only physically and mentally hard work, but it can be emotionally exhausting as well.

Much of the work in the early days were on big foreign productions. In fact, I worked on The Mummy Returns back in 2000. But as it went on, more people in Jordan started thinking, “I can do that,” and so a real Jordanian industry started to blossom in parallel with a surge of foreign productions filming in Jordan.

Theeb, a local production

Theeb, a local production

But a lot of Jordanian films weren’t getting the top Jordanian crew – the crew that had sharpened their skills on the international productions. It’s still the case that some of our best crew will generally take the big-budget Hollywood job over the local production, and I can understand that. But I didn’t want to have learned the skills I learned on those projects and not use them to be part of something that could be great. Hopefully the success of Theeb will change people’s minds on that. It already has. It was a first for a lot of us and in a lot of ways – it was an opportunity for us to invest ourselves and our skills into something special and something ours.

Fadi: We have many young talents in Jordan. The Royal Film Commission has done a tremendous job in building the capacity of talented Jordanians in the field. We have seen few features in the past couple of years but the industry is yet to mature. How do you assess the state of the film industry in Jordan? What would you say are the major highlights of the past few years and the challenges ahead of us? and how much do you think Theeb’s success will help in pushing the industry forward?

Quote4Yanal: We’re still in a place right now I think where collaboration is key more than competition. A lot of people are guarded when it comes to their positions or the films they’re working on. I think we need to continue to build a strong crew and to talk to each other. If I think someone has the potential to be a great AD, I’ll try to pull them in that direction. My biggest competition have become my closest friends. And we protect each other.

Yanal Kassay with the director Naji Abu Nuwwar

Yanal Kassay with the director Naji Abu Nowar

At the same time, young filmmakers have to keep in mind that it’s a lot of hard work, and the more experienced you become, the more responsibilities you will have to take on, the more difficult the work becomes. A lot of people I meet now sell themselves as ADs who have no experience or aren’t very good. That doesn’t make Jordan look good when someone comes here looking for an AD and someone wants it but refuses to appreciate the work and years that goes into it. It takes more than a copy of Excel, a degree, or just one experience on a commercial before you can call yourself an assistant director.

In my mind, we also should be concerned about becoming a factory of film. Heart will always be important in the creation of great works – and the fewer powerful projects will do so much more for us than a slew of weak productions. My hope is that Theeb will put that in people’s minds, and will also inspire a lot more Jordanians to reach for something great and to make great cinema.

Fadi: The film hasn’t hit Jordan’s cinemas yet. We are too eager to watch it after this huge success. When do you expect it to be on the big screen? 

Yanal: It’s difficult to explain to people why it has to hit the festival circuit first, but it’s for the best. I’m not the one to ask. I’m very excited to see how it is received. I’ll be in the back of the audience at more than one screening.

More than any other screening, I’m looking forward to the one that brings it to Jordan.

Yanal Kassay on set

Yanal Kassay on set

Fadi: It is also participating in Abu Dhabi Film Festival this year which is happening next week. Theeb’s showing is going to be on October 26 and October 28. I will be in Abu Dhabi in that period and will make sure to attend the film and write my own review. How important are such film festivals to the success of a new film? 

Yanal: Hugely important. The amount of people I’ve met in Jordan who have heard about it is overwhelming. For such a tiny project with such huge ambitions, the word-of-mouth news about it is so great. I’m happy that before it comes home, it gets the proper appreciation abroad, so that by the time it gets here people know it’s hopefully worth watching, and remember that it’s ours.

If you are in the UAE during the Abu Dhabi film festival, don’t miss the chance of watching this great film. Book your ticket now.