Its graduation season. The University of Southern California held a graduation ceremony last week half a world away -- in Aqaba Jordan. USC teamed up with the Royal Jordanian Film Commission to create the first graduate film program for students in the Middle East and North Africa. KPCC’s Shirley Jahad visited the film school last year and tells us about the effort to give Middle Eastern students the tools to tell their own stories …
This story of moviemaking starts with the making of a blockbuster movie. Stephen Spielberg filmed much of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” in Jordan’s ancient stone-carved city of Petra
King Abdullah was intrigued about the storytelling and job-creating aspects of film. So the king met with Spielberg about establishing a film school in Jordan.
Fast-forward nearly 20 years to 2008: the University of Southern California – where Spielberg is a trustee – helps establish Jordan’s Red Sea Institute for the Cinematic Arts. The campus is in Aqaba on the northern tip of the Red Sea.
James Hindman is the Dean. "We always say, who will tell your stories? It shouldn’t necessarily be Americans or Europeans; it should be people from the region. That’s why the Red Sea Institute is so important. It’s to empower people to tell their own stories."
"I think we have one of the oldest storytelling cultures in the world in the Middle East," says Samr Mouasher. Mouasher heads the Royal Jordanian Film commission. The commission worked with USC to establish the Red Sea Institute, or RSICA.
"Trying to bring back to life that storytelling culture that has slowly been dying with time," says Mouasher, "RSICA is trying to nurture the little seeds of storytelling or the storytelling culture in the Middle East using the best technology, using the best talent from around the world to support these students."
Among that talent is Moroccan-born filmmaker Daniele Suissa. The former USC and UCLA film instructor now teaches directing at the Red Sea Institute. "We are really pushing storytellers and creative storytellers so the young people of Jordan can have their voice heard with their own stories."
The Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts operates in unmarked office space inside a modern building. The film school offers the only masters degree in cinema in the Middle East and North Africa. Only students from that region can attend.
They work with top-notch staff and the latest equipment. The program is small but growing.
Amjad Al Rasheed of Jordan was among the two-dozen students in the first graduating class last year. "We have all the tools to tell our stories that will represent us in the way that we see ourselves."
When other people tell the story, Al Rasheed says sometimes it works, but "sometimes, or most times, it doesn't – because still people see us in different way. You know how people outside think that we are the Arabs and Muslims are terrorists or living in tents or riding camels? This is not true."
Al Rasheed says they have many stories to tell. "We have many things, many beautiful things to show. Love stories. Normal stories, normal life."
As the Arab Spring sweeps across the region, Egyptian students a few months ago went back home to participate in the demonstrations in Tahrir Square.
Film teacher Daniele Suissa says storytelling transcends language, politics and culture to bring people together. “We have the greatest weapon. We have 35 millimeter with 24 bullets a second," says Suissa. "That’s really the best gun, the best tool, the best weapon you can have to talk about peace, to talk about human beings, to talk about who you are. It’s a beautiful weapon and I think if we knew more about who everyone is we would have the beginning of an opening to a dialogue.”
The Red Sea Institute for Cinematic Arts plans to open a new building in Aqaba next year.