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Amman with a Movie Camera: Teaching Documentary in Jordan

By Lisa Leeman

Royal Film Comission students Haya Qbeilat (with camera) and Hana Al-Ramli Madaba (far right) in Madaba, Jordan. Photo: Lisa Leeman

If you Google "Documentary" and "Jordan," you'll find half a dozen entries about basketball superstar Michael Jordan, then a few links about Barbara Jordan, the US Congresswoman, and Jeanne Jordan, the award-winning filmmaker who, along with Steven Ascher, made the wonderful docs Troublesome Creek and So Much So Fast. But that's not why I'm doing this Google search; I'm actually on my way to Amman, Jordan, to teach a workshop on documentary filmmaking.

This is the third year that University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts has sent faculty to teach workshops with the Royal Film Commission of Jordan (RFC) , in preparation for the 2008 opening of Jordan's new film school, the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts. USC has presented workshops in Amman on digital fiction filmmaking, sound design and animation; this is our first documentary workshop there. The relationship began when King Abdullah consulted Steven Spielberg about potential US university partners, and Spielberg suggested USC.

The USC team consists of Associate Dean Michael Renov, graduate student teaching assistants (TAs) Rebecca Flores and Eli Rarey, and myself. Our mission in Amman: lead a ten-day documentary workshop, in which 14 students each make their own five-to-ten-minute documentary.

I limit the assignment to making a portrait of a person, place or process. The students will work in pairs; each project is allowed one shooting day. With the limited time frame, the workshop's success hinges on helping the students develop their ideas and begin pre-production before the workshop actually begins. How do you teach documentary filmmaking to people halfway around the world, without first screening and discussing docs together? Thanks to the Internet, I spend my last week in LA doing intensive story conferencing by e-mail.  

It's a long journey to Jordan, about 20 hours. We leave LA at 11:00 p.m. Thursday night, and arrive bleary-eyed in Amman at 6:00 p.m. Friday evening. To our surprise, Ayman Bardawil, the director of "Capacity Building" (training and workshops) at RFC, shows up to welcome us at our hotel. This is the first of many examples of remarkable Middle Eastern hospitality.  

Our first day, we are given a tour of the RFC, which is housed in a white-stone villa atop a hill in Amman, overlooking four tall pillars, ruins of a Roman citadel. Then they take us to the Books@Cafe. Downstairs is an English-language bookstore; upstairs is an Internet café, where Arab youth use wireless connections while smoking shisha (flavored tobacco in water pipes). As we take a table on the patio, salsa music is blaring from the speakers. Moments later, the afternoon call to prayer begins, reverberating across hills dotted with white-stone buildings and mosques. Contemporary salsa and the timeless call to prayer--it seems to capture a theme reflected in many of the students' documentaries: how to retain cultural identity in a rapidly changing environment.

At the workshop, the students introduce themselves and pitch their doc ideas. The range of topics is fascinating, among them: a portrait of two brothers who carry on the Arab tradition of raising and racing pigeons in a neighborhood rapidly being gentrified; another about the Bedu (Bedouin) outside of Amman; and one exploring whether young Jordanians should care about "old Amman."

I'm told that Jordan's population is about 70 percent Palestinian, plus there's a large influx of Iraqis due to the war in Iraq. Americans aren't the most popular nationality in the world right now, but I remind myself that at this workshop, we all share a common goal: to make meaningful documentaries that authentically express our various truths and points of view. 

Before I left LA, a colleague told me that while there is a rich Arab tradition of oral storytelling, it sometimes translates into local documentaries composed of MOS (mitout sound) images blanketed with narration. I don't feel this is cinematic, but I also want to avoid imposing my culture's values about storytelling, pacing and style. This interests me the most about teaching filmmaking in another country: how to avoid this sort of "cultural imperialism" and how to get to the universals of effective cinematic storytelling.

One issue is what clips to show when teaching students from another culture. Michael Renov and I worked hard to bring an international sampling of different doc genres. Of particular interest to the students was a clip from Wedding in Ramallah (directed by Australia-based Palestinian filmmaker Sherine Salama). The response is surprisingly varied; most  are pleased that I showed something about their own culture, and many are fully engaged and wanted to see the entire film; others feel that the filmmaker is poking fun at their traditional way of life. The students speak  about the fragility of cultural identity, and express valid concerns about who represents their traditions. 

By the end of our first day, it is apparent that most of the students are not ready to shoot on day three. I quickly revamp the schedule, eliminating a precious day of editing, and adding one more day of story conferencing and pre-production. The first three days are a blur of screenings, discussions, story conferencing and technical instruction. 

On day four, half the projects are supposed to shoot today--and it's snowing! One student has thrown out his original idea; now he'll make a doc asking why Amman shuts down when it snows. He has a point: Two students call to say they can't get transportation to the RFC offices, so their partners gamely go off to shoot their films themselves.

Friday is our day off. A student invites me and the TAs to join him and his cousins on a drive to the Dead Sea. As we drive past signs for Mount Nebo, I pinch myself: According to The Bible, this is where Moses laid eyes on the Promised Land. We are enthusiastic tourists: We dip our toes in the Dead Sea and take an obligatory ride on a camel.

Day five is the B projects' day to shoot. The TAs and I visit students on location, and help where we can. We drive to Madaba, past rock-hewn green hills, olive orchards, goatherds and shepherds. In contrast is the E-village--300-year-old stone buildings restored and now used to train local youth in various skills, including Internet and digital filmmaking. Smiling, confident teenage girls in hijab tell our doc students that their camera angle would be so much better if they would just move the camera over a foot or so.

As the workshop progresses and we get to know each other, our conversations deepen, especially about the political situation in the Middle East. Even taxi drivers take care to say that they distinguish between the US government and the people of America. It's embarrassing how much more Jordanians know about my country than I know about theirs. 

With the students, it's more delicate. Some are open with their political views, many are circumspect. We do a tentative dance as we talk about politics, dating,  religion...Our workshop consists of eight women and six men. Only one woman wears a veil. I'm told that at universities, about half the women wear hijab. 

We devote days six through ten to editing--not nearly enough time. The RFC staff understands that this was an ambitious schedule, and that most of the docs won't be done by our final screening. They generously invite the students to continue to work on their docs for a month after we leave. Even so, the students don't let up; they are at the RFC at 7:00 a.m., and many are editing until after midnight. Their passion and hard work reminds me of why I love documentary filmmaking.

Students invite friends and family to the screening. Some of the topics of the documentaries include taxi drivers in Amman; Jordanian youth radio; the Palestinian icon Hanthalah; the Madaba Art & Jazz festival; downtown Amman cafes, which represent "old Amman"; the effects of globalization on Jordanian culture; Jordanian attitudes and apathy about recycling; street vendors; and Bisher al Rawi, a Guantanamo prison detainee.

During my short stay in Amman, I have been immersed in the workshop, but I haven't had much time to explore the documentary scene here. One student tells me that the culture of independent filmmaking is new in Jordan, having started in 2003 with the RFC, the Amman Filmmakers' Cooperative and, later, No Budget Films. Most exposure to documentaries comes from Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya and Jordanian television. There are also numerous cultural organizations that hold special screenings of docs; An Inconvenient Truth will screen the week after I leave Amman. As we go to press, the third Aljazeera International Film Festival is opening in Doja, Qatar. According to its website, the festival aims "to promote better cooperation and understanding among peoples and cultures."

It's been striking how many people came through the RFC during my short stay. Patricia Foulkrod (The Ground Truth) was here recently, researching a doc, and Nick Broomfield (Biggie & Tupac) is making a film in northern Iraq. In the last ten days, I've met many westerners who've come to Jordan to publicize initiatives for filmmakers here. Two such initiatives are Germany's World Cinema Fund and Switzerland's Open Doors 2007. Their goals are to "support filmmakers from transition countries, help the realization of films with a strong cultural identity, that could otherwise not be produced, and offer professional development and help find co-production partners for films made in the Middle East." Between these initiatives and the work of the RFC, the Amman Filmmakers' Cooperative, and the upcoming Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts, I predict we will soon be hearing from a new wave of Jordanian filmmakers with much to say and the cinematic skills with which to say it.


Lisa Leeman has been making documentaries for 20 years; most recently, she directed the feature doc Out of Faith. This summer she travels to Beijing, China, to teach a six-week documentary course for USC & CUC (Communication University of China).