Jordan’s Wadi Rum valley is expected to make an A-list appearance this year as the backdrop to Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic Dune, doubling up for the desert planet of Arrakis at the heart of US writer Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel. The Legendary Entertainment and Warner Bros feature — starring Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson and Javier Bardem — shot against the valley’s iconic red sand dunes and granite rocks in early 2019.
It followed in the wake of a long line of international productions including JJ Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise Of Skywalker, Guy Richie’s Aladdin, Ridley Scott’s The Martian and David Lean’s 1962 classic Lawrence Of Arabia.
Jordan offers a variety of other striking landscapes and sites, from its Dead Sea coastline to the ancient city of Petra. More modern settings include capital Amman, which has doubled for Baghdad and Jerusalem, and industrial sites such as a decommissioned power station outside the city, which Danish drama Daniel (2019) used as a stand-in for Syria.
Beyond the versatile settings, another key draw is the cash rebate of between 10% and 25% depending on the spend, which was introduced by the country’s Royal Film Commission (RFC).
Although the Covid-19 pandemic halted its busy international locations scene in the spring of 2020, Indian drama Goat Days by Kerala director Blessy, and starring Prithviraj Sukumaran as an abused migrant worker, continued to shoot in isolation in the desert.
RFC was proactive in getting shoots up and running again as the first coronavirus wave started to subside, and welcomed Korean filmmaker Yim Soon-rye’s The Point Men (aka The Negotiations) by mid-July. Inspired by the real-life Taliban kidnapping of Korean tourists in Afghanistan, the feature stars Hwang Jung-min and Hyun Bin as a diplomat and a special agent who team up to free the hostages.
“It was the first production to come into Jordan when things were still locked down but our Covid-19 protocols helped a lot and there wasn’t a single case related to the shoot,” says RFC managing director Mohannad Bakri.
It was followed in November by Estonian director Kadri Kousaar’s Dead Woman, her fourth feature after award-winning 2016 comedy Mother. Set in Egypt’s Sinai desert, it stars Palestinian actor Ali Suliman with Swedish actress Frida Westerdahl as a photojournalist who is kidnapped while on assignment.
Local and regional productions shooting in the territory under pandemic conditions have included Netflix-commissioned Jordanian teen drama AlRawabi School For Girls, UK-Palestinian director Basil Khalil’s A Gaza Weekend and drama series hailing from Iraq and Egypt.
Although Jordan’s international location credentials are often associated with US studio blockbusters, Bakri says RFC is keen to entice more Middle Eastern and European projects to shoot in the country. To this end, the commission recently launched incentives for Jordanian and regional productions offering a cash rebate of between 10% and 15%. It is similar to the cash rebate incentive offered to larger international productions but with lower spending thresholds.
RFC is also mulling a similar initiative aimed at independent European productions and is also looking to forge co-production deals with European territories that could further foster co-operation.
Plus, the RFC has secured a large parcel of land midway between the main Queen Alia International Airport and capital Amman for the country’s first studio complex. It hopes to begin construction of two studios by the end of this year in the first phase of a wider project. The country has a growing pool of technicians and line producers with experience on both international and regional productions.