Amjad Al Rasheed - Inshallah A Boy
Jordan's First Ever Cannes Director, on Filmmaking and the Power of Storytelling
Huda Ismail · September 8, 2023
11 min read
Amjad Al-Rasheed is a Jordanian director, producer and writer born in 1985 in Amman, Jordan. This year, his debut feature Inshallah A Boy became the first Jordanian film to ever premiere at Cannes, winning multiple awards and garnering international attention.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“Being a part of the world of cinema has been a dream I’ve had ever since I was a child.’’Amjad Al-Rasheed tells me.. The gleam in his eyes is apparent, and a smile is drawn upon his face as he speaks, “As a ten-year old, our TV was my portal to viewing the world. In Jordan, we had two channels on TV, one that showed black and white Egyptian films, the ones with Omar El-Sherif, Faten Hamama, Shadia and Abdelhalim. All those films that we grew up watching as Arabs. The other channel showed English and French films. I was very much enchanted by whatever that portal offered me.’’ Some childhood memories and dreams don’t get tarnished by time, they build a home in our limbs and shape us into the adults we become. Al-Rasheed recalls one specific memory fondly, “One day, my mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. My answer was considered unusual, at least to other kids my age. I told her I wanted to become a director.’’ His smile grows wider. “At that age, I obviously didn’t know what being a director meant exactly, but I knew I had so many stories to tell, I knew I always wanted to become a storyteller.’’
“As I got older, my obsession with filmmaking didn’t wane, it kept growing as I started to experience cinema through a wider portal; film theaters,’’ he says.
After finishing high school, the Jordanian director went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in business administration while simultaneously making his entrance and taking the first steps on the path of film-making. “In 2004, I started off as an assistant director, being on set for corporate videos and ads. I was doing all these small scale projects, none of them were TV or film related yet.’’
“From the 1960’s to early 2000’s, film production in Jordan was stagnant. It wasn’t until The Royal Film Commission in Jordan was established in 2003, then there finally existed a place where you could immerse yourself in film studies.’’ After his bachelor’s, Al-Rasheed pursued an MFA from the Red Sea Institute for Cinematic Arts in Amman, with a concentration in editing and directing.
Fast forward: the year is 2010 and Al-Rasheed has ventured with an open mind and a willingness to learn as much as he could on set. From working for 11 years at the Arab Radio and Television Network (ART), to making music videos for local bands like Autostrad and Akher Zapheer and creating original short films. “All of those jobs I took were like an open field to me, I could freely explore and experiment with different tastes and styles. If you watch my short films, you’ll definitely feel that each film is written and shot differently. My goal during those years was to find my own unique voice as a storyteller and that required a lot of openness and experimentation.’’
As we bond over our passion for writing and talking about film, I ask Al-Rasheed for advice. Like many young creatives in the Arab world who find themselves at a crossroads between pursuing stable careers or fully embarking on creative endeavors, I find it hard to balance my day job as a dentist and writing. “When I was making that transition into directing and making short films, some people didn’t fully comprehend what I was doing and I was underestimated and met with disregard.’’ Al-Rasheed generously highlighted some factors that he deems important to help anyone make that shift, “Your talent is something you should have confidence in deep within yourself, along with reading a lot, being consistent, daring and committed to your goals regardless of the results. I’d say that perseverance is the most important factor.’’
Al Rasheed’s latest two films, the 2016 short The Parrot and his debut feature film, this year’s Inshallah A Boy, which crowned him as Jordan’s first ever Cannes director, were the product of personal experiences and instances from the director’s life, in addition to one question that was the catalyst for their genesis. “The Parrot is inspired by my grandmother’s stories of her home in Al-Quds (Jerusalem), and the parrot she left behind before she moved to Amman. Inshallah A Boy’s main character Nawal (Mouna Hawa) was the collective experiences of one of my close relatives and many other women whose lives were affected by inheritance laws in Jordan.’’ He adds, “I asked myself the question ‘What if?’ What if the family of an Israeli director I met at the Berlin Film Festival who settled in the same neighborhood as my grandmother’s, lived with her parrot?’’ on what compelled him to make The Parrot. With Inshallah A Boy he pondered over the idea, “What if a woman that’s embodied by Nawal decided to rebel against the patriarchal laws and societal traditions we’ve grown so accustomed to? What would the consequences be?’’ Al-Rasheed explains that by asking ourselves this question ‘What if?’ we hold the beginning of a thread, which then generates more questions that can shape the entire story. “None of my characters are necessarily fully evil or fully good. I tend to place them in a grey zone. And it’s all about utilizing their stories as a means to ask questions, that hopefully can inspire the audience to think more deeply about what’s been normalized and considered mainstream.’’
The everyday stories that you hear while you’re going about your life, from your colleagues, friends and relatives are the micro building blocks of our societies, and our perception of these societies we inhabit are translated through the films and art we create. Al-Rasheed accomplishes a very real, embellishment-free depiction of Jordanian and Arab society in general through a uniquely humane approach to storytelling. Still, there’s no doubt that showcasing issues like inequality and structural oppression in Arab society in Inshallah A Boy won’t be met with some controversy and backlash. When I ask him if the weight of future backlash lingers in his mind while writing these stories, he replies “When I’m writing, I don’t think about holding a mirror to the problems in society or the provocative nature of the story. I don’t think that art and cinema should be perceived as messages for social change.’’
“Cinema is a means to ask questions, and my only aim is to tell stories that revolve around real humans, whatever they entail. And if the audience can relate to one of these stories or characters I create, then I’ve achieved my goal.’’
Expanding more on how Al-Rasheed and co-writers Rula Nasser and Delphine Agut navigated this sensitive area surrounding the audience’s reaction while working on Inshallah A Boy “It’s important that we had this sense of predicting our audience’s reaction, but at the same time, that didn’t restrict us from exploring the story. We knew we had to keep the Jordanian and Arabic audience in mind but not in any way that would censor or alter the events of the story.’’ He adds, “When you know your audience, you try to find smart ways to reach them, and that adds complexity and dimension to your characters and story.’’
When you’re a writer and a visual storyteller, the beautiful intricacies that lie within the creative process of transforming ideas that conquer our minds into written stories, and finally to the screen, is always worth taking a deeper look at.
“My process changes every project, but some things I’ve noticed have become constants.’’ He further elaborates, “Before I start developing a new film, I come up with many ideas for a story. The idea that usually gets developed is the one that haunts me the longest, which mostly turns out to be triggered by asking myself ‘What if?’, and then it’s the same steps from the logline to as many drafts of the script until I feel like it’s ready.’’Al-Rasheed shared his favourite part of the process, “My happiest moments are whenever I’m on set filming with everyone. Transforming your ideas into something tangible on screen; that’s really the closest phase to my heart.’’
Al-Rasheed’s international achievement in Cannes earlier in May this year with Inshallah A Boy cemented him as a pioneer in Jordanian cinema, becoming Jordan’s first director to screen and win awards for a feature film at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. The gleam in his eyes returns when I ask him about how he’s feeling after Cannes. “I’m still trying to absorb and digest all the love that Inshallah A Boy has received. I’m overjoyed and proud, whether it’s because it’s Jordan’s first ever contribution at Cannes or because of the heartwarming reaction from the audience and critics alike.’’ Al-Rasheed explains that the road to arriving at Cannes wasn’t an easy one, “From my understanding, they receive more than a thousand films, and pick only eleven to screen at the festival. Only seven of them were competing during Critics’ week, and Inshallah A Boy was one of them.’’ On top of bringing Jordan to Cannes, Al-Rasheed’s debut feature won the esteemed Gan Foundation Award for Distribution. “The idea that not only a Jordanian film can compete but also win awards at Cannes motivates me immensely, but there’s also the added challenge to make the next project even better than the current one.’’ Al-Rasheed is still taking Jordan all over the world with Inshallah A Boy and their next stop is TIFF, which he expresses his excitement over participating in.
Al-Rasheed’s love for cinema is palpable in every syllable he speaks. And when I ask him about the blooming movement (according to his description) that is Jordanian cinema, he passionately explains, “The term ‘industry’ is still a little premature. It’s rather this movement that is still in its budding stages. The attention shifted towards cinematic arts relatively recently with the establishment of the Royal Film Commission, and if you look at countries with well-established film industries, you’ll find that they’re industrial in nature and that the investors earn and profit well.’’
“However, that doesn’t negate the fact that we have incredible talent and an extraordinary, professionally trained crew in Jordan that have definitely imprinted their own mark on regional and international cinema. Calling it a movement doesn’t take away from it, it goes to show how determined and hard-working everyone involved is.’’
On his hopes and dreams for the future of Jordanian cinema, Al-Rasheed expresses, “We’re definitely taking consistent steps, and we’re slowly emerging. I hope one day that the strength of the film industry in Jordan will attract investors from all over the world. And that every city in Jordan will have a film theatre so it’s accessible to everyone, not just in Amman or other major cities.’’
Al-Rasheed looks deep in thought as I ask him about three of his favorite films, “Every time someone asks me this question, I can never seem to form a proper answer.’’ We laugh, and he says, “ If you ask me for a list of my top 3, you’ll easily find me slipping into the top 100. The beauty of cinema to me stems from its diversity, I love all the different styles, languages and genres it’s presented in.’’ “One film that really captured my attention this year was Triangle of Sadness. I loved it quite a lot.’’
About his future plans, Al-Rasheed reveals to FilmSlop, “I’m currently working on a project that’s in the early stages of development so I can’t say much, but it’s an idea I feel strongly about.’’ Al-Rasheed lightly laughs as he shares his feelings about approaching new projects, “I feel like I’m back at point zero. The doubts and obstacles are there and I do feel like the pressure increases as you move onto making your next film, so I’m just giving myself the space to discover and navigate this whole process as I go.’’ I ask him if there are any valuable lessons he’d learned from his previous experiences that aid him now, “I’ve definitely learned to be patient. Everything takes longer than we’d expect but it’s important we have patience and keep creating.’’
Huda Ismail is an Egyptian dentist, writer and poet. Her work has been featured in Screen Speck and various literary magazines. She tweets from @hudawrites_
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