Amman International Film Festival prepares for return

Organizers spoke with Jordan News about preparing amid a pandemic and their vision for the festival

The AIFF team stands outside the official festival office in Abdali in this undated photo. (Photo: Aaron Weintraub/JNews)

AMMAN — When Amman’s streets emptied suddenly in March 2020, the Amman International Film Festival (AIFF) was a month away from its debut. Like every store front in the city, the first Jordanian film festival was shuttered suddenly and indefinitely. اضافة اعلان

Curfew was established. Masks became as important as house keys and wallets. Bedrooms became offices, corner stores had lines that twisted around corners. Arguably, too many people baked bread. It wasn’t long ago, so no need for the refresher.

The festival’s staff left the office and opened their laptops. Through the combination of a couple of month's remote work and desperation, a novel concept was finally established and announced in July.

Amman introduced a drive-in theater for the first time in Jordan, making the AIFF the first in-person film festival since the beginning of COVID-19’s global spread and the lockdowns that followed swiftly. It proved to be an innovation that came to define 2020 film festivals globally.

The AIFF team stands outside the official festival office in Abdali in this undated photo. (Photo: Aaron Weintraub/JNews)

“Until the last moment, we all thought it wouldn’t happen here,” said AIFF Director Nada Doumani. “I think it was, as they (say) in French, a tour de force to make it happen ... But I think we did well doing it, I think it was a very good exercise. It also showed to what extent we could be flexible and adapt to circumstances.”

The 2020 edition of the Amman International Film Festival is pictured in these undated photos. The pandemic forced the festival to think outside the box and incorporate drive-thru screenings for the first time. (Photo: Handout from the AIFF)

The festival will return for its second year on August 23. Along with the drive-in theaters, Taj Mall has also agreed to screen films from the festival’s still-unannounced slate of roughly 50 international, Arab, and Jordanian films.

The festival will also be bringing back a panel of three international jurors to award Best Arab Feature, as well as Best Feature-length Documentary and Best Arab Short. There will additionally be a fourth category for International Features that will be judged and voted on by the festival’s audience. The drive-in theater will remain in place this year as well.

“It was very popular,” said Doumani “I think people were sometimes coming just because of the experience of the drive-in. But, for me, a festival is mainly about theaters and so this year we’re going have also TAJ Cinema and we’re going to have the open-air theater at the Royal Film Commission, which we used already last year. So the same movie will be showcased twice: once in the normal theater, and once either (at the) open-air or at the drive-in.”

“I think the biggest difference this year is that we’re going to have guests, every film will have a filmmaker attached to it. We will have a discussion after the screening. ... we’re going to have film professionals coming because we’re having panels, discussions, talks. And the (Abdali Boulevard) will have a Filmmaker’s Hub, where people can network, mingle, discuss, and move ahead.”

Jordan, like the rest of the world, has seen a crisis with economic and health concerns interwoven in unique, complicated ways unforeseen in the country’s history.

HRH Princess Rym Ali, who serves as President of the AIFF, believes the deeper struggles in the country shouldn’t negate the promise of the festival’s cultural and economic potential. Jordan has become a growing presence in the regions film scene. “The film festival is one outcome of years of investment in developing a culture of cinema in Jordan,” she said.  

“There is still a long way to go, but the benefits are now beginning to be seen, as more and more young people are telling their stories and us, as Arabs, increasingly own our narratives.”

Due to the spread of the Delta variant, there has been renewed concern in Jordan and internationally regarding socializing.

An event that includes international guests and indoor theater screenings would certainly be in jeopardy if the current trajectory of cases were to continue in the coming weeks. Doumani said that the festival is treading with extreme caution.

“For the time being, theaters are open, as you know, at 50 percent capacity at least until the first of September. Honestly, we trust whatever the government, and the (National Center for Security and Crisis Management) say. In any case, if unfortunately for some reason, the situation gets worse, we’ll take that into consideration.”

Along with mandatory spaced seating, proper sanitation stations will be available, and temperatures will be taken at the entrance of the theaters.

“I hope of course that the situation will allow for a safe, in person, second edition of the AIFF. It is important that Jordan be able to welcome international guests, including jurors and film professionals this year so first-time Arab film makers can showcase their work to our Jordanian public as well as to the world,” Princess Rym noted. There are economic impacts that events like the festival can provide down the road.

“And of course, a festival can only help to promote tourism in our country. This year in particular, we are hoping it will also send the message that, after a year and a half of hardship, Jordan is open to the world and ready for business.”

Doumani is also hoping that the expansions of the film festival this year provide an even greater focus on showcasing developing Arab and Jordanian filmmakers.

“I think we have ambitions, and rightly so, to be a festival with an edge, with a niche of its own. We’re focusing on (first-time filmmakers), but not only,” she said. “And I hope that in five years, not even five, even this year it will be professional, useful, seamless and entertaining.”
For Princess Rym, the AIFF shouldn’t be happening despite the continuing pandemic, but because of it. For its organizers, the festival serves as a reinvestment in an exhausted city’s identity.

“The pandemic also made us realize the important role that culture plays in our everyday life: we all read, listened to music, watched shows or films or concerts,” she said. “In a way art has never been so punished by circumstances and at the same time so obviously necessary.”

Read more Lifestyle