Jordanian Animation: Modelling Local Content and Foreign Investment

The Street Artist, directed by Mahmoud Hindawi (2014) © Mahmoud Hindawi
The Street Artist, directed by Mahmoud Hindawi (2014) © Mahmoud Hindawi

A recent Jordanian animated film, The Street Artist by Mahmoud Hindawi, has been winning awards all over the world. This is remarkable, as Jordan, a country where cinema culture is young but growing fast, started making its own films really only in 2008. This was the year in which Amin Matalqa, the first Jordanian graduate of the American Film Institute, directed Captain Abu Raed (2008), an Amman-set narrative that received the World Cinema Audience Award. Bordered by Saudi Arabia to the south and east, Iraq to the north-east, Syria to the north, and Israel and Palestine to the west, Jordan is a small country in a region burdened by war, oppression and instability. Nevertheless, through the nurturing of home-grown talent and the Royal Film Commission’s (RFC) efforts to attract foreign filmmakers to locations in Jordan, the entrepreneurial cinematic spirit in Jordan is booming. In addition to the development of home-grown Jordanian talent, many regional filmmakers choose self-imposed exile in Amman (for example Palestinians and Syrians such as Azza el Hassan and Moustafa Akkad). There, they experience freedom of expression in a more liberal and relatively stable political climate. Jordan is central to the transnational pan-Arab cultural milieu, with companies and entrepreneurs with innumerable connections that branch out across other parts of the world. With all its internal diversity (British colonial history, influx of Palestinian refugees since 1948) the small country is managing to create a sustainable model for a film industry, based on being different from the rest of the region yet present and self-aware within it.

Established in 2003, the RFC develops strategies to attract foreign film projects to Jordan and to nurture a new generation of filmmakers in Jordan through digital training workshops. Films that have been made in Jordan and that have indirectly helped to invest in the film industry are Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg, 1989), The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008) and many more. The fact that the studios behind these big Hollywood productions consider Jordan as an appropriate alternative to the actual setting of the films, speaks volumes about the stability of the country in a tumultuous region, of the effectiveness of the RFC’s strategy to attract investment, and of trust in the local knowhow. While there are hardly any studios, labs or equipment, there is the invitation to freely make films, and the government is actively investing in institutes and education facilities (such as The Red Sea Institute for Cinematic Arts and a number of film festivals) in order to counter these shortcomings. This entrepreneurial spirit and the active investment and pride in local versatility and specialisations is also evident in Jordan’s involvement in important international co-productions for big budget animation blockbusters as well as the development and investment in local animation artists, local production and local festivals.

One of the most rapidly developing entrepreneurial avenues in cinematic digital art is animation. As opposed to most Arab states, Jordan boasts large and professional production companies, evident from the co-production success of the recent Postman Pat: The Movie (Mike Disa, 2014), as well as an ambitious and hugely successful animation film festival, JoAnimate. These production and exhibition strengths, in addition to the development and nurturing of home-grown artists, culminated in some very exciting young animators bursting onto the scene.

Mahmoud Hindawi, artist and entrepreneur in Jordanian animation

Mahmoud Hindawi, artist and entrepreneur in Jordanian animation

Postman Pat was produced by Jordanian animation development and production company Rubicon Group Holding Entertainment, led by female entrepreneur Randa Ayoubi. Since 2004, one of the central artists at Rubicon is Mahmoud Hindawi, whose first independent film, The Street Artist, has recently been winning top awards at local and international film festivals.

The Street Artist looks at the (mis)adventures of an ageing artist who is experiencing a creative block. Hindawi used himself as inspiration for the character of the artist, confirming his interest in the auteurist status of the animator. He is an animator who has worked on children’s films and advertisement videos, and received an MA from the University of South Wales in the UK. His style is one that reminds of cartooning, with characters that have disproportionately large heads, while it also showcases the individual search for love and artistic inspiration. The characters in the film and its locations are a mix of British and Arab-inspired elements, revealing the artist’s transnational outlook on life and art.

The artist in the film encounters universal feelings of fear, compassion and love as he visualises his models’ inner selves: on his easel an intimidating soldier becomes a figure of death, a whispering spy becomes a crow and an angry old lady becomes the potato she peels. As these figures approach him with prejudice and distrust, the artist remains unable to reveal their inner beauty. It is not until a local florist approaches him with compassion and trust that he regains his lust for life drawing. Where the artist is able to really see and understand his models’ inner truth, the models themselves are averse to being confronted with that truth about them. It becomes obvious that, like the florist, the artist practices his art out of love, not for money – another strong statement about Hindawi’s auteurist status.

A showreel of Hindawi’s work and character design on The Street Artist can be found online. Artists like Hindawi thus combine their entrepreneurial strengths on works such as Postman Pat with an artistic auteurism evident from labours of love. His film also won the main prize at JoAnimate, Jordan’s foremost animation film festival.

Set up in 2012 under the more descriptive title Jordan Animation Festival, JoAnimate profiles itself as ‘the MENA region’s leading animation and creative arts and designs event held in Jordan.’ The festival consists of a wide variety of components, including hands-on training and workshops with international industry experts. The festival holds a competition for shorts, offering the opportunity to young, ambitious animators globally to get noticed. When I spoke with Mohammad Abusharif, one of the programmers of the festival, he told me that for the competition JoAnimate only accepts short films by independent artists, not by production companies. The best-represented countries were, perhaps surprisingly in these turbulent times, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine.

Apart from JoAnimate’s focus on local independent talent, the festival also holds a Regional Talents and Business Forum, with an eye to developing a ‘regional animation ecosystem and industry.’ One of their main aims is to attract international players to meet local talent and develop further opportunities, in the context of the speedily expanding role of Jordan in the world of Arab and Middle Eastern cinema. Developing talent in the Middle East is paramount to break the dominant discourse in animation focusing on American, European and Far Eastern animated films. The vast areas in-between, which remain untapped, are fast establishing themselves as important, innovative and exciting new players on the global platform. As Hindawi said, artists aim to counter the stereotypical portrayals of Arabs in Western animation (see for example the backlash on Disney’s problematic depiction of Arabs in Aladdin).

The success of this two-pronged approach to animation in Jordan and the Middle East, as an industry and an art form specific to the region, needs to be acknowledged more readily. The success of Hindawi’s The Street Artist is testament to one extremely talented artist and entrepreneur’s hard work to put Jordan on the animation map.

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