Unearthing Jordan’s Soviet Cinema

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One of the 850 film canisters found at the abandoned Jordan-Russian Friendship Society. (Photo: Matthew Epler)

By: Leah Caldwell

Published Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A collection of decades-old films uncover some forgotten truths about Jordan’s dalliance with socialism.

In 2008, Ali Maher, a commissioner for Jordan’s Royal Film Commission, received a phone call from a Russian friend. She was in the process of clearing out the old Amman headquarters of the Jordan-Russian (once Soviet) Friendship Society. The society had moved offices about 20 years prior, but had left behind piles of what appeared to be arcane junk. She thought that Maher might be interested in taking a look around, to see if there was anything worth salvaging.

Maher, a robust man with a greying beard and moustache, was the ideal person to call. Maher’s deceased father, General Fawaz Maher, was once a member of the Friendship Society, and, as the former head of the Circassian tribes in Jordan, had strong ties with the Soviet Union. In the late 1970s, Maher himself studied architecture and art in Moscow and ever since his departure had felt bouts of nostalgia for the former Soviet Union.

When he arrived at the two-story building in the upscale Jabal Amman area, he was saddened by what he saw.

“They were throwing out old Soviet things that don’t exist anymore, like posters, books, medals, whatever. There was a big room full of old movies. [My friend] was about to put it in the garbage, but I begged her to stop and wait,” said Maher.

Not knowing what he was saving, but positive that it shouldn’t be discarded, Maher had 850 dusty metal canisters of 16 and 35mm film transferred to a garage at the Royal Film Commission. These relics of “an era that has vanished,” as Maher called it, sat at the film commission for about a year until, in the spring of 2009, New York University graduate student Matthew Epler, then teaching at the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts, peeked into the storage room and asked: what is this?

Three years later, the film trove is still a big question mark, but Epler continues to slowly piece together its contents.

The faded Russian and Arabic labels on the canisters provided some cursory clues: With Lenin in One’s Heart, Stories About Lenin, and Watch Out for the Automobile are a sampling of the dozens of Soviet titles that dominate the collection. Ranging in date from 1930 to the 1980s, the varied trademarks of Soviet-era state film ventures are displayed prominently on the canisters, but the most ubiquitous label is that of SovExportFilm, a Soviet agency that exported films around the world.

The more local, and at times cryptic, finds were the Arabic-marked 16mm canisters, appearing to include both official state films from the Jordanian Ministry of Culture and Information, as well as more independent documentaries. The labels weren’t too evocative though and Epler, with basic Arabic skills and zero Russian, had difficulty deciphering them. One would think the solution would be to just run the films through a projector, find out what’s there, and be done with it, but things weren’t that simple.

“We’re looking right at them and we’re still lost in the dark because of the medium,” said Epler. That is, the medium of 35mm. There are few 35mm processors in the Middle East (the one in Beirut recently shut down), but even if there were, the precarious quality of the films means that running them through a projector holds the possibility of irreparable damage. It would take money and time to figure out what was in the collection.

The Royal Film Commission would’ve been the obvious choice for funding, but Epler said that there was little interest, despite one of their commissioners salvaging the trove. A glance at the commission’s website hints at more of an interest in promoting Jordan’s scenic filming locations to Hollywood than preserving a rusting batch of Soviet-era propaganda films.

Instead, Epler launched a no frills documentation process. With some help, he took photographs of all the canisters and posted them online with the hopes of crowd-sourcing the Arabic and Russian translations (125 of 850 are translated now). Then he fashioned a rig out of two cardboard boxes, a fluorescent bathroom light, and a point-and-shoot camera and photographed the beginnings of select reels. One frame featured images of King Hussein, who ruled Jordan from 1952 to 1999, and Queen Alia, who died in a helicopter crash in 1977. Epler suspected that this might be of interest to at least a few people.

The Forgotten Past

The Royal Court provided Epler with $10,000, but the money didn’t last long. With some colleagues helping to select some of the more promising titles, Epler could only afford to send ten of the hundreds of canisters to a lab for digitization in Germany. The result was that he got the first moving glances of the films. “As it unravels, it just gets more and more strange,” he said.

In a Soviet-produced film from 1976, a boat cruises on Lake Baikal, a sickle and hammer flag attached to its stern flaps in the wind. Low-grade humming and classical music frame a shot of King Hussein walking along the rocky shore of the lake with a bevy of men in uncomfortable business suits. The narrator’s voice descends on the bright day, stating in Arabic that the clarity of Baikal’s waters is reminiscent of “the Trevi fountain in Rome, where if you throw a coin in, you’re ensured to return another time.”

What follows is a propaganda film recounting King Hussein and Queen Alia’s visit to the Soviet Union: a triumphant visit to an aluminum factory, leisure time in the Black Sea town of Sochi, and a visit with one of the heads of state, Nikolai Podgorny. “Peace and friendship. The Soviet Union is set to preserve and protect friendship with people of the world,” the narrator intones.

A still shot from one of the films found in the trove: a 1960s Vietnamese propaganda film titled Hanh, A Teacher.

Another digitized reel titled Hanh, A Teacher is 1960s-era Vietnamese communist propaganda entirely in Vietnamese with no subtitles. The opening credits declare in English that the film “is a moving indictment of the US aggressors who have brought immeasurable suffering to millions of Vietnamese families.”

The trove is an eclectic bunch of films with socialist ideological underpinnings being the only tangible link thus far. Breaking from this trend of colorful propaganda is the discovery of some Andrei Tarkovsky films. The inclusion of the legendary Russian filmmaker’s work in the collection would hint at what Jamie Miller, author of Soviet Cinema: Politics and Persuasion Under Stalin, described as a certain level of open-mindedness – depending on the decade – in the types of films exported by the Soviet Union. Yet, for the most part, according to Miller, the Soviet Union would export feature films and documentaries to countries with two hopes: profit and persuasion.

“Often, they would send films that were likely to persuade working class audiences of the glamour of that system. [SovExportFilm] was set up as a representative of the government to bring in money and to promote ideology essentially,” said Miller.

Many of the films, like the 1976 state visit, also function as an ideological time capsule of Jordan and the Middle East’s shifting significance in the Cold War. In the 1970s and 80s, Jordan was an “an incorrigible satellite of the West,” as described by a Middle East Report article from 1980, but the royal family still boasted amicable trade and cultural relations with the Soviet Union.

“It was kind of an ideological war with the West to show that [the Soviets] are superior in culture, art, ballet, opera, and everything,” said Maher. “Now it’s just business for them, so culture is at the end of their priorities.”

While King Hussein was peering into the clear waters of Lake Baikal in Russia, he was cracking down on communists at home. The Friendship Society where the films were found was the target of an arrest campaign in 1986 in Amman, according to the Russian daily Pravda, as cited in a book on Soviet policy by Robert Owen Freedman. The endurance of these films throughout decades of crackdowns on freedom of speech and the press in Jordan is noteworthy if not astounding.

The Palestinian Right

Included under the banner of repression in Jordan was the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which also has an interesting tie to the collection. One of the films discovered and then digitized is a 1969 Jordanian Ministry of Culture production The Palestinian Right. The short documentary is composed of shots of Palestinian refugee camps and invokes viewers to support the “just and heroic armed struggle of the Palestine people.” The film’s cameramen later went on to establish the PLO film unit and the film’s director, Mustafa Abu Ali, did prolific work for the PLO, according to documentary filmmaker Azza el-Hassan.

Hassan’s 2004 documentary Kings and Extras followed Hassan on a search for the lost PLO film archive that was reportedly stashed in an apartment in Beirut’s Hamra neighborhood preceding the 1982 Israeli invasion. There are several theories as to the whereabouts of the archive, but Hassan said that every so often, one of the archive’s films pops up in random locations, like the film that surfaced at the Palestinian embassy in Algeria. Hassan speculates that the Friendship Society’s trove could well hold some of the PLO’s earlier work.

“The PLO media unit started first in Jordan and then moved to Lebanon, so when they moved to Lebanon, they didn’t take their stuff with them from Jordan. In a way, if this is part of the PLO’s missing archive, it’s not the missing archive, because the missing archive was in Lebanon,” said Hassan.

The Palestinian Right is not a lost film, but it hints at the texture of the found collection and the potential for recapturing lost memories. While the PLO was in Jordan, there were many that “wanted to forget what happened during that period,” said Hassan, citing the events of Black September. If more of the early films were found, it could help piece together an overlooked history of the Arab Left.

Oraib Toukan, an artist based in New York, is fascinated by the potential ability of the collection to shed light on “how the Left operated in Jordan.” Toukan has done work in Jordan and many of her visual and textual projects use archival material. She noted that the archives of Jordanian Television have recordings of every official foreign affairs visit of the King and said that, in terms of content, there will surely be overlap with the found collection.

For Toukan, the collection also hints at the tangible history of skills exchange between Jordan and the Soviet Union since many Jordanian cameramen and technicians were trained there. It’s just one of many stories that the collection could shed light on.

Despite the language of mystery framing the trove, perhaps its ordinariness is what makes it so interesting; the fact that lost films and hidden archives are often just under our noses. The canisters now sit in the basement of a business park in downtown Amman and Epler continues to solicit for translations.

“My dream for this would be to go to some festival somewhere and have one of these films screened and to hear somebody say that they never thought that they’d be able to see what they saw on that film,” said Epler.

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