The surreal landscapes of Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert, also known as Wadi Al Qamer (Valley of the Moon), provide an unusual backdrop, similar to an alien planet site. The unique area has become a favorite filming location for many Hollywood blockbusters thanks to numerous incentives provided by the Royal Film Commission, the entity responsible for the movie industry in the country.
In 2015, the valley – which is situated in the sandstone and granite rock located in the south of the Kingdom, 60 km east of Aqaba port city – played a vital role in portraying planet Mars in the Oscar-nominated hit movie “The Martian,” starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott.
“The burnt orange sand in Jordan’s largest desert coupled with uneven mountains, sandy dunes, and stunning rock formations, in addition to the sunny atmosphere that reflects beautifully on the various multi-sized rocks, make it – without any doubt – a [scenery] that resembles Mars,” Jordan’s Royal Film Commission Managing Director Mohannad Al-Bakri told Inside Arabia.
“In the past 15 years, Jordan has become a very important and well-structured destination for filming, serving projects from around the world; not only because Jordan is an ideal destination and provides excellent services, but also because we have well-skilled crews with significant experience,” he added.
“Dune,” an upcoming science fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve, with a budget of US$200 million and expected to be released October 1, 2021 was mostly shot in the desert of Wadi Rum.
“Jordan has an impressive record of hosting great movies such as ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Aladdin,’ ‘Prometheus,’ and many others. Jordan brought in an estimate of US$372 million in the past ten years and created approximately 106,000 jobs thanks to the film industry,” Al-Bakri said.
Chaired by Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, the Royal Film Commission was established in 2003 with a vision to develop an internationally competitive Jordanian film industry offering more than 20 key locations that can be used as production sites.
The success of “The Martian” was the inspiration for the Sun City Camp in Wadi Rum where 20 futuristic dome shaped accommodations provide guests with the amazing desert scenery portrayed in the movie. The Camp has attracted many high-profile visitors, including SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
The otherworldly depictions of Wadi Rum did not stop at Mars. The valley took on another role in the blockbuster “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and the saga’s latest and final episode, “The Rise of Skywalker,” as Jedha, a desert moon that orbits the planet of NaJedha.
In 1989, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” another epic movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Harrison Ford, was filmed in the valley with the Rose City of Petra presented as the entrance to a temple housing the Holy Grail.
Disney’s “Aladdin,” starring Will Smith as the Genie, was also filmed in Wadi Rum and the location was praised by its director Guy Ritchie who told the media it was “the natural choice,” while Naomi Scott, who played the character Jasmine stated that it was “beautiful.”
“There is such a peace out there in the desert. There is nothing like it.”
“There is such a peace out there in the desert. There is nothing like it,” added Mena Massoud, the actor behind the main character, the “street rat” Aladdin.
The film dominated the box office after its release in 2019 and grossed US$1 billion worldwide.
Murad Ghsoun, owner of Skygate Travel Agency, believes that the “Lawrence of Arabia” Wadi Rum (referring to the 1962 film) is contributing not only to the global film industry but also to Jordan’s tourism sector.
“Big movies have made Wadi Rum an attraction to movies fanatics who want to see and experience the places where the films were shot. I remember when “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy were filmed all around New Zealand and tourists flocked from everywhere just to see the various locations,” Ghsoun told Inside Arabia.
“We, as Jordanians working in the tourism sector, need to take advantage of such events happening around our beautiful sites and increase marketing globally. It is true that the tourism sector everywhere has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic but things will soon return to normal and we will have visitors who want to see where ‘The Martian’ and ‘Aladdin’ were filmed,” Ghsoun added.
In addition to breathtaking locations, Jordan provides financial incentives.
“We, as Jordanians working in the tourism sector, need to take advantage of such events happening around our beautiful sites and increase marketing globally. It is true that the tourism sector everywhere has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic but things will soon return to normal and we will have visitors who want to see where ‘The Martian’ and ‘Aladdin’ were filmed,” he added.
In addition to breathtaking locations, Jordan provides financial incentives.
“When filming in Jordan, production companies whether global or local enjoy a cash rebate between 10 to 25 percent for a minimum of US$1 million spent in Jordan, in addition to tax exemptions on equipment imported for filming. Jordan’s security and safety also play a great part in attracting the attention of production companies,” Al-Bakri told Inside Arabia.
“But I strongly believe that the amazing sites are the main attraction for filmmakers, and Jordan has many other sites to offer that could fit in the needs of future movies. All this reflects not just creatively and economically, but also on promoting Jordan as a tourist destination,” he added.
According to Al-Bakri, the COVID-19 crisis affected the film industry and “there is a need to increase content because demand is so high. People have been glued to their TV screens as an escape from the harsh times.”
Moving away from depictions of aliens living on Mars and transforming cars in the home of the Jedi, Jordan’s earthly locations hosted the “Zero Dark Thirty” thriller about CIA operatives tracking down Osama bin Laden as well as “The Hurt Locker,” which won Oscars for best picture and best director in 2010.
But long before all the recent blockbusters, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Wadi Rum witnessed the filming of the highly celebrated 1962 epic “Lawrence of Arabia,” a classic Hollywood gem to this day.
“Who could forget Peter O’Toole riding his horse passing through the sandy dunes of Wadi Rum?” Director Mohammed Al Ameer told Inside Arabia. “The film, which critics have described as perhaps the best, or second-best film ever made, placed Wadi Rum on the global film industry map and opened the door for others to come and experience what Jordan could offer.”
“We feel proud of having these blockbusters made in the Kingdom as we can learn so much and at the same time offer so much. The success of such movies reflects Wadi Rum and other sites’ appeal, and we need to capitalize on this,” Al Ameer added.
In addition to Hollywood, Korean and Arab production companies have taken advantage of Jordan’s spectacular scenery for their movies and TV series. Among them, the Korean film “The Negotiations,” directed by Yim Soon-rye and starring top Korean actors Hwang Jung-min and Hyun Bin, based on true events in 2007 when 23 Koreans were kidnapped in Afghanistan. The cast just finished filming in Jordan after suspending activities in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Building on the Commission’s achievements, Al-Bakri stated that the organization is establishing studios where production companies can continue shooting without interruption or the need to travel to other countries, as “this will benefit the filming industry in Jordan.”
Amid the growing allure of Wadi Rum for movie crews and tourists alike, somewhere under the starry, starry night of the Valley of the Moon, with its timeless and breathtaking landscape, an earthling left-behind on Mars, a young Indiana Jones, and a street rat named Aladdin can be heard singing to the music of the “Arabian Nights” with love and passion.