The desert in the South of Jordan is a popular location for multimillion-dollar productions of science fiction films. The combination of vast arid lands and lucrative tax rebates offered by the Royal Film Commission make the Jordanian desert a desirable backdrop for expeditions to hostile extraterrestrial planets. Dune (2021), Mission to Mars (2000), The Martian (2015), Last Days on Mars (2013), Transformers (2007), and The Red Planet (2010) are a few of the feature film titles produced by American companies and filmed in Jordan’s Wadi Rum.
This article argues that the cinematic portrayal of worlds ravaged by resource scarcity and climate peril too often sustains the perception of the desert as an unruly, lawless, and dead land. While the environmental humanities often aim to shift the scale of our historic lens to bear witness to the entire earth, this article reflects on the stakes of further abstracting the specificity of geography and extending the colonial imaginaries of wasteland. Reflecting on the process of capturing images of landscapes in the Middle East, the article considers desert locations as unique “extractive zones” wherein the topsoil is captured and circulated as high-definition images. Thinking of filmmaking as extractive means defining images as materials, and considering the laws, labor, and cultural imaginations merged in this process.
Jordanian location managers who escort Hollywood producers into the desert of Wadi Rum entice their prospective international clients with a glossy image. A slice of land, modelled out of a satellite scan of the vast desert in the south of Jordan, is served up like a slice of cake.1 This land, devoid of scale or proportions, cut out and abstracted, is the location to which Hollywood producers are invited to make their multimillion-dollar films. Their eagerness is no surprise.
Since the early 2000s, Wadi Rum in the southern tip of Jordan has been one of the most popular destinations for shooting high-budget films. Wadi Rum is part of a vast depression extending from the border with Saudi Arabia to the south of the Petra basin. A high concentration of iron oxide causes a red coloration to appear on the desert surface, making the location a suitable backdrop for science fiction films that depict expeditions to extraterrestrial worlds and fictive dystopian planets. The geological features in this geography make it a favorable site for the visual effects supervisors who are put in charge of composing elaborate computerized worlds that dramatize spectacular wars and narratives of human survival in extremely hostile environments. Dune (2021, directed by Denis Villeneuve), Mission to Mars (2000, directed by Brian De Palma), The Martian (2015, directed by Ridley Scott), Last Days on Mars (2013, directed by Ruairí Robinson), The Red Planet (2010, directed by Antony Hoffman), and Transformers (2007, directed by Michael Bay) are a few of the exceptionally expensive ventures produced by American companies in Wadi Rum. “The repetitive and smooth terrain of the desert make it a perfect canvas for applying layers of visual effects,” notes a special effects specialist who worked on The Martian. “That is, if you can afford replacing the deserts of south California with the Middle East and to render them as Mars.”2 Indeed, the thread that runs through most, if not all, of the Hollywood films shot in Wadi Rum is the topographic features of the land, which make an ideal backdrop for films about the struggle to preserve life in the desert, and to secure resources in a dead land.
A brief overview of plotlines reveals a common dominator shared by different films. The Martian tells the story of an American astronaut who finds himself stranded in the extremely hostile Martian ecology. Assumed dead after a monstrous dust storm, astronaut Mark Watney is left behind while his NASA expedition team members return to earth. To survive he must cultivate a dead land, and thanks to his expertise in botany, for a moment he is able to “make the desert green.” Last Days on Mars, similarly, tells of the maddening isolation on Mars, and the eerie agency imbued to desert soil. The discovery of a sinkhole at the center of the plot, and potentially life within it, is a vertical cut into the otherwise horizontal journeys that the astronauts take on the surface of the planet. A Martian bacterium is released from this sinkhole and possesses the astronauts’ bodies, turning them into zombies—neither alive nor dead. Most recently, Dune tells of the desert planet Arrakis, a desolate land that holds the last but rapidly depleting deposits of a mineral drug that extends human life.3 The protagonist of the story is compelled to secure the mining operation of the extracted material. No doubt, all of the films deserve a much closer reading in separate articles, but for now it is worth mentioning that in most of the narratives, human life is threatened by an extremely hostile ecology, and the desert itself becomes the realm wherein Western subjectivity (of a white male) meets its own exhaustion or potential ruin. For this end, the hyper-arid environment in Wadi Rum is of course an asset.
Significantly, the real incentive to produce films in Wadi Rum remains out of frame. The Jordanian government offers Wadi Rum as a prime location for the film industry and offers benefits through special financial schemes and regional laws that restrict and control entrance into the area. I will explain below how the transformation of this area into a unique financial zone operates hand in hand with conservation regulations that protect the environment and preserve it. By pushing out the native Bedouin population from the Wadi, and advancing the perception of the land as empty, ancient, mythical, and unspoiled, the government can offer the territories to ultra-wealthy film production companies and privately owned tourist corporations that cater to the Western imaginary in the Middle Eastern desert.
I argue in this article that the recent arrival of Hollywood-based production companies in Jordan is not merely spurred by the intersection of ecological and geopolitical properties in Wadi Rum but can also illuminate the complex relations that the screen-based industry retains with the hyper-arid deserts in the Middle East. Production companies make use of the desert as a unique “extractive zone” wherein the surface of the desert is extracted as high-definition images.4 I use the term “extractive zone” to draw on Macarena Gómez-Barris, for whom extractivism amounts to more than the extraction of material from the soil. Extraction, for Gómez-Barris, is about the violent reorganization of territories as well as the perpetuation of “dramatic social and economic inequalities that delimit Indigenous sovereignty and national autonomy.”5 It is where private film companies operate in tandem with the government to designate the land as an enclosed zone that caters to foreign and rich companies. Extraction functions where corporate entities and states are indistinguishable in their economic interests and activities, and where states act on behalf of corporations.6 Exploring cinema’s unique extractive desires, I reflect on films as “things” taken as raw material from the visible surface of the desert (and distributed as science fiction films).
Indeed, while the arid desert seems far-flung from the abundant environments that usually attract extractive industries, in Wadi Rum it emerges as an exclusive natural resource. Moreover, it is precisely the perception of the desert as a no-man’s-land and as an otherwise “useless” terrain that makes it an ideal zone oriented for the production of science fiction films. Literary historian Catrin Gersdorf notes that in Western literature the desert is often associated with a certain “lack”: lack of water, lack of vegetation, lack of animal life, but also lack of social organization or law.7 As a region so arid that it supports only sparse and widely spaced vegetation or no vegetation at all, the desert has inspired “cultural fantasies and enabled imagined experiences of solitude, contemplative repose, divine revelation, as well as anxieties of loss, disorientation, war and death.”8 For contemporary Hollywood cinema, this seeming lack is a valuable asset. How and why cinema not only uses the desert as the ultimate location but becomes complicit in sustaining its fallacious imaginary as “lacking,” vacant, and unruly, are the questions at the core of this article. More broadly, I ask what is at stake in sustaining the perception of the desert as the locus of the frontier.
Anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli writes that the desert mustn’t refer in any literal way to an ecosystem that, for lack of water, is hostile to life. Instead, she writes, the desert is “the affect that motivates the search for other instances of life in the universe and technologies for seeding planets with life…and it drives the fear that all places will soon be nothing more than the setting within a Mad Max movie.”9 The desert is often mobilized as one of the figures of late capitalism, resource depletion, and exhaustion. Povinelli’s suggestion that we can learn something from how popular cinema visualizes the deserts should be taken seriously. Yet instead of focusing on representations in films, I take on this issue by pulling the profilmic world “down to earth” to uncover the local politics of land that support the manufacturing of otherworldly territories. For this, it is necessary to define the assemblage of ecological, economic, and legal properties that make Wadi Rum a preferred location for cinema. Unravelling the process by which these expensive films are made, and the property laws that cater to their production, is a strategy of reterritorializing the land, and recognizing the neo-colonial sway that drives this extractive mode of filmmaking. Scenes that combine the landscape with heavy use of visual effects must be “unrendered” to explicate the material conditions of property laws and provisions. Through this process of “un-rendering,” high-budget cinema becomes entwined with modes of expulsion of native populations and expropriation of placeness.
Although this article does not focus on plots and character descriptions, the appearance of the environment in the films emerges as intrinsic to the ways in which it is used as a material basis for cinema. The landscapes that appear in the films overlap with the landscapes of Wadi Rum, generating a disturbing doubling effect.
Lisa Messeri, in her anthropology of Mars simulations in the deserts of North America, refers to this doubling as a kind of “double exposure” that merges multiple locations with multiple temporalities. “Such a double exposure, just as in film photography,” Messeri writes, “is a juxtaposition of time as well as place; a juxtaposition of two snapshots taken under different circumstances.”10 This double exposure speaks to the capacity of abstracting the desert land and expunging it from the unique geopolitics in the Wadi Rum. In this “double exposure” of Wadi Rum with the profilmic world of The Martian, Transformers, or Dune, the far future or deep past are overlayed with and against the present time. On the one hand, the desert surface is too often manipulated to become a generic smooth space, and on the other, the climate and geology dictate an optical regime of enhanced exposure, with the topsoil becoming a photosensitive surface that registers events.11 Satellite imagery that capture the desert are able to detect very fine details due to this visibility, including delicate marks ingrained into geological strata. The environment becomes media.
Before attending to the ways high-budget films are produced in Wadi Rum, I would like to note that this article draws on the rich work in film and media studies that explores how media is materiality bound to the environment. Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski paved the way in their suggestion that media are materially dependent on earth, raw materials, and energy, which imbricate them within issues of finance, geopolitics, and natural resources. “Media infrastructure studies set out to understand the materialities of things, sites, people, and processes that locate media distribution within systems of power,” write Parks and Starosielski.12 Building on their theoretical foundations, I wish to rethink the notion of material infrastructure through and with the desert. If infrastructure is routinely hidden from the final film and remains essentially out of frame, the desert environment is highly visible and inescapable. At the same time, the geography is obfuscated within the film frames through a radical process of abstraction. Exploring the desert as infrastructure means including the desert environment itself as media that can carry other media such as film.
But there is no new thing under the desert sun. “Media,” John Durham Peters writes in his seminal book The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (2015), “sit atop layers of even more fundamental media that have meaning but do not speak.”13 Cinema, in that sense, “sits atop” the mute desert, while the desert behind the narratives and characters communicates and mediates messages that often interrupt, or even contradict, its appearance in the fictional worlds of the final films. Media, as Peters suggests, “enter into nature, not only society.”14
Some have long argued that media are not simply reliant on environments. Instead, the soil and rocks are in themselves media that communicate on much longer timescales that reveal the more elemental essence of media.15 Relevant to my examination is Nadia Bozak’s work, which paved the way for new critical thinking about how “the image—cinematic, photographic, digital, or analog—is…materially and economically inseparable from the biophysical environment.”16 Bozak argues that the relationship of visual media to the natural environment is not based solely on representations but has in fact always been intimately bound with modes of extraction that are often eviscerated or abstracted from the final frame. By this, Bozak addresses both the environmental devastation left behind by the production and consumption of audiovisual media and, perhaps more significant for my own perspective, natural resources as the infrastructure for audiovisual media.
Extending and expanding Bozak’s work, Hunter Vaughn suggests that “our images do not come from nothing, and they do not vanish into the air: they have always been generated by the earth and sun, by fossil fuels and chemical reactions, and our enjoyment of them has material consequences.”17 Vaughn makes the link between the fascination with the spectacle of fiery explosions on the screen and the material residue and scarring that film production leaves in and on the natural environment. By linking the spectacle of burning heat to the cinematographic apparatus, Vaughn considers the medium of film through the “consumption of itself, its own self-annihilation, in the process of its fulfilment.”18 This logic resonates in the pleasure derived from witnessing the spectacle of otherworldly worlds, which at the same time documents the very process of environmental abstraction. The smoother the image and visual effects are, the more difficult it is to link them back to the land that they come to represent. Perhaps differing from films that rely on locations, and that bear an indexical relation to the land itself, in the high-budget science fiction films that are produced in the desert, visual effects better conceal this relation, to allow the illusion of immateriality, or alien gravity that is visualized in the profilmic worlds.
While the attempts made by eco-materialist critique are often intended to shift the scale of the historical lens to bear witness to the entire earth, and the human subject as species, I wish to reflect on the stakes of further abstracting the specificity of regional politics and geology in the Middle East. In other words, thinking about the desert as a valuable material basis for cinema is deeply entangled with a neocolonial enterprise that seeks to preserve the notion of the Western frontier. Pulling profilmic worlds back to native geographies is particularly crucial when examining films that tell stories about humanity under threat. This shift of scale, from the planetary back to the local, can remind readers that experiences of the world ending are neither universally distributed nor novel and have been predicated on conceptions of transnational resource extraction, land grabs, and economic free zones.19 In that sense, the vertically oriented definitions of media proposed by Parks, Gómez-Barris, and others offer important correctives to many Eurocentric theories of both visual power and planetary crisis, neither of which takes proper account of the violence of coloniality and extractive capitalism.20
In 2003, the Jordanian government created a special office to deal with the desert’s appeal for the film industry. The Royal Film Commission was established by the Jordanian royal family to advance the production of cinema in Jordan and promote it internationally. According to George David, the former director of the Royal Film Commission, the beginning of the popularity of Wadi Rum as a location for Hollywood high-budget cinema is David Lean’s 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. The film garnered a cult status of its own, known for its Orientalist depiction of British imperialism in World War I, and most famously, the Arab revolt in the Arabian desert. The film told the story of T. E. Lawrence, an Oxford archaeology graduate and Arabist, who was sent in 1916 as a liaison officer to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he met with the son of the Sharif of Mecca and the future leader of the rebellion against the Ottomans, Emir Feisal. With Feisal, according to the film, Lawrence led a series of raids on the Turkish held Damascus-Medina Railway, and most importantly, on the city of Aqaba in Jordan. Lawrence’s 1926 book on the revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, although a largely unreliable depository of details, triggered Western fantasies of unruly barren lands.21 It was also the main inspiration for Lean’s celebrated film shot in Jordan, where it received the personal support of the Anglophile King Hussein.22 At one of the high points of the film, Lawrence advances a raid on Aqaba through Saudi Arabia, and more specifically, the Nafud desert, which according to the film, is known to the Howeitat tribe to be particularly harsh terrain. On camel backs, Lawrence leads the men through the rough desert plateau. By crossing the desert, and surviving the extreme heat against all odds, Lawrence wins over the hearts of the local nomads. The struggle, it seems, is as much against the environment as it is against the Turks. But the scenes depicting the Al-Nafūd desert region, located in Saudi Arabia, were in fact shot in Wadi Rum.
The estrangement of the landscape, and its appearance as an alien entity that threatens life, is a key element in its contemporary appeal for the eyes of Western tourists. While the film allegedly promotes humanity’s will and innovation, its reliance on a landscape that would simulate the hostile environment is weaved into the visuals in the form of wide-angle shots. In the early 2000s, the Royal Film Commission harnessed the film’s historical success for the sake of inviting Hollywood productions to the desert of Wadi Rum. The rapidly developing tourism in the region similarly recognized the appeal of Lawrence’s familiarity among Western travellers. The Orientalist hallucination of a British man in the desert was easily marketed by travel agencies. “Alongside Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali and Peter O’Toole as British army officer T. E. Lawrence,” a Travel Weekly article notes, “the desert itself is the third character, and just as charismatic. Dry, hot, endless and windblown, it seems an unlikely bucket-list destination, yet who after seeing the film would not want to go there?”23
In Wadi Rum, high-budget cinema and tourism seem to be entangled in a symbiotic relation. Cult films bring in tourists who wish to venture into the fictional worlds of cinema, while the tourist boom fuels the film industry. Often dubbed as “set-jetting,” this new wave of tourists is drawn to fictive worlds and the imaginary of extraterrestrial deserts that loom over the very real geography of Wadi Rum. Video clips of actor Matt Damon treading the deserts of Wadi Rum or probing the red sand are used as enticements. “The landscape here is like something from another world,” writes the CNN tourism column. “It’s perhaps no surprise that a hotel in Wadi Rum has just opened a dramatic Martian Experience in the heart of this wilderness, which lets visitors feel as though they have landed on the Red Planet.”24
The Jordanian government successfully predicted that the landscapes of Wadi Rum would be extremely profitable and that the desert, populated mostly by Bedouin tribes, would present a unique opportunity. Thus, by the turn of the twenty-first century, a special financial scheme had been designed for high-budget films.25 To bring in high-budget film productions, the scheme requires a minimum expenditure of one million dollars in Jordan. The maximum rebate granted to a foreign production has since been lifted to two million dollars and must be provided to a production service company registered within Jordan. Since its launch, Jordan has raised the upper limit of the cash rebate on eligible productions filming in Wadi Rum to 25 percent of all qualified expenses incurred within Jordan on film, television, and other media productions. To qualify, a film production company must employ at least fifty Jordanian crew members and train twenty interns.26 The rebate is in addition to sales tax exemptions for products and services purchased within Jordan, a customs taxes and duties exemption for equipment and material imported into Jordan, and exemptions on salaries and fees for non-Jordanian cast and crew members. Prince Ali bin Hussein, the founder of the Royal Film Commission, claims that “the film industry has created more than 8,000 jobs in the past seven years and, from 2007 until today, almost $140 million was spent in Jordan.”27 Effectively, this financial scheme has created a demarcated zone that operates as a tax haven and caters mostly to wealthy American producers. This nature-sized “studio” is an asset for the film industry.
Significantly, in 1985 UNESCO recognized the city of Petra and large parts of Wadi Rum as a “Protected Area,” banning extractive industries from drilling, digging, or mining in the desert. In 1996, following the peace agreement with neighboring Israel, the World Bank intervened to come up with what it called the “Second Tourism Development Project,” intended to invest in special provisions for developing environmentally suitable tourism in Jordan. The goal was to establish an overall management structure and to reorganize existing tourism-related activities that had been mostly independently managed by the Bedouins for fifteen years, while underlining a new environmental component. Wadi Rum is further recognized as an archaeological site under the Law of the Department of Antiquities and constitutes a Special Regulation Area under the Administration of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority.28 The use of the desert by Hollywood is thus an exemption to a rule that restricts any industrial activity in the area.29
The new provisions on land use have greatly affected the local Indigenous population. Bedouin men leave their traditional pastoral practices to become service providers for visitors, tourists, and film productions. According to anthropologist Mikkel Bille, while UNESCO’s recognition is often presented as the celebration and safeguarding of cultural diversity, the consequences of implementation for those living on or near designated sites are rarely taken into account.30 For the Bedouin communities who lived there, the most immediate effect of UNESCO recognition was their forced relocation to permanent settlements in an effort to protect the site and make way for tourism development. While the effects of the conservation policies on the Bedouin population are far too complex to explicate in this article, it is worth adding that UNESCO stands here for a universalizing force that advances the perception of Bedouin culture as a heritage, and therefore by definition, the past. While demonstrating how heritage is a vehicle for both state development and environmental imagination in Jordan, Bille attends to the central role of the state in operationalizing heritage sites to further political agendas, through using heritage as a means for economic growth and land claims, and accumulation by dispossession. The Bedouin men who can no longer live on their ancestral lands and today assist the cinema industry take part in the economy that mushroomed from their own dispossession. Knowing the terrain better than anyone, men from the Zalabieh tribe, for example, escort American location managers to the different areas in the Wadi, each with a distinctive topography.
Effectively, the enclosure of Wadi Rum as a Protected Zone serves to preserve the environment, but at the same time, to embalm the desert ecology as an empty, uninhabitable space, as often imagined through the fantasy of Western tourism and American film producers. The twentieth-century ruling elite and the urban middle class in Jordan have appropriated the vision of British and French mandate officials, adapting it to the nationalist credo, and have “declared nomadic pastoralism a backward way of life antithetical to social and national development.”31 Since late in the period of Ottoman rule, the aim of the central powers has been to control territory, settle the Bedouins in urban areas and, at a later stage, modernize them though education and projects of economic development devised by international experts. Today, Bedouins work as fixers for foreign line producers, drivers, and desert guides, escorting American producers to the best spots to shoot. All the while, as social anthropologist Géraldine Chatelard describes, the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature “never presents the Bedouins as equal partners but as mere users of the area.”32 Pushed to urban sprawls, they return to their lands as guides for rich Hollywood productions. While the Wadi Rum Protected Zone is essentially closed for any business or industry, and the Indigenous population is driven out, expensive film productions obtain special passes from the Royal Film Commission. Essentially, the conservational project is uniquely compatible with Hollywood’s interests and has culminated as a unique cinematic-environmental complex that closes a full circle: the desert is made to seem evacuated to serve high-budget cinema, which in turn manufactures the image of an alien, hostile, and empty land (never having been inhabited by native Bedouins). A conservation law that bans all industry or construction is, after all, the American producer’s dream and another way of preserving the narrative of the American frontier.33
The Final Frontier
The rush to Wadi Rum could be couched as the extension of the hunger for desert locations in the American Southwest, which supports visualizing expansionist yearnings and nourishes the perception of the desert as the ultimate landscape of the frontier: an empty canvas, denuded of spatial markers, outside of law and time. Seemingly lacking distinct markers that are linked to specific locations, the desert premieres in American films as a space antithetical to the sedentary spaces of urban centers, and as such is often about the possibility of taming nature in some form. Indeed, while the desert has often been a backdrop for the national frontier, in Wadi Rum the land is rendered as extraterrestrial and alien, reminiscent of the recent race to space.
The generalization of desert environments in Hollywood films should be seen as inextricable from the climate, material conditions, and economy that cater to the production machine of popular cinema. Hollywood, it is worth bearing in mind, developed partly out of the search for new shooting locations to evoke the frontier. The emergence of what could be called a “cinematic space” necessitated places that could pass for any place whatsoever; generic enough to support films that take place in a variety of places. At the turn of the last century, the long hours of sunlight and the clear bright sky above brought the film industry to the California desert, where it settled.
The film historian Brian Jacobson, for instance, shows that from its early days “cinema depended on nature—in the interaction of sunlight and light-sensitive materials it activated—even as studio architects and engineers sought to disassociate filmmaking from the natural world by selecting, manipulating, and/or simulating its desirable features.”34 The tale of early Hollywood cinema tells of the search for light and longer shooting days that propelled filmmakers in New York and Chicago to leave their dark homes for wide open spaces. Jacobson notes that remote locations had become more easily accessible due to the increasing mobility of the nation’s railway system, which helped warmer and sunnier California to become the new center of sprouting industries. What was once imagined as the Great American Desert in the West (New Mexico, Arizona, and South California) promised a gold rush of “locations” for the taking. The chance to leave the interior spaces of the studio broadened the range of tools in the hands of producers, making scenes in the Mojave and the Sonoran deserts much more attractive substitutions for the painted landscapes within studios. In this context, the desert was generic enough and well suited to tell the narrative of a terra incognita: a land belonging to no one and therefore up for grabs.
But the search for filming locations has always been intimately tethered to the holding of lands and acquisition of property. “Filming a place,” writes Jacobson, “often meant owning it too.” In other words, while cinema provided a place to tell the story of a no-man’s-land, production companies often purchased that land to keep it as a film lot for themselves.35 Jennifer Peterson similarly claims that while most film histories explain the move West as a result of the mild climate and varied topography of Southern California, “what seemed symptomatic…about this list of factors is the ideology of manifest destiny and settler colonialism that undergirds it.”36 In the 1920s, studio maps of California included names of other places it could represent. For example, a 1920s Paramount studio location map shows that the Sacramento River could be used to represent the Mississippi River; the canals of Venice on the West side of Los Angeles could be Venice, Italy; and the Mojave Desert, the Sahara. Deserts are disguised as other deserts.
The production of the generic and generalized desert is today projected to the new frontier of outer space. Anthropologist Lisa Messeri suggests that the frontier, however false, conjures an image of emptiness that in turn justifies and even invites technological experimentation.37 It is then no surprise, Messeri points out, that from 1969 astronauts and scientists who faced the “new frontier” of the Moon fancied themselves cowboys more than geologists.
But, as Jacobson compellingly argues, the dependence of Hollywood on desert exteriors is yet another myth. Jacobson carefully demonstrates how the Hollywood film productions created the ultimate exteriors in the controlled interiors of the darkened studio. More often than not, the emerging Hollywood cinema of the early twentieth century developed in the small studios, where scenes were shot with the natural landscapes and environments appearing behind actors as a two-dimensional backdrop. Rather than transporting the film crew into the dramatic landscapes of the desert frontier, the frontier was brought to them, into the enclosed rooms, as a background. This early reconstruction of nature in the studio might seem archaic today, but a closer look at the process of production of contemporary multimillion-dollar Hollywood films in Wadi Rum (and other deserts) reveals a similar logic by which “nature” is brought into the studio.
Indeed, the traditional notion of location shoots that lured Hollywood to the American Southwest is gradually replaced with a mode of production predicated on the ability to produce images of desert surfaces and to integrate them into vast computerized compositions. While the desert has long been a popular device in the cinematic exploration of national boundaries and the making of the frontier imaginary, today it simulates the desire to expand out to other planets, fictional or real. To cater to this emerging imaginary, Hollywood has ventured to the Middle East and North Africa—to Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Israel-Palestine, and the United Arab Emirates as new regions that can, with the excessive use of CGI, transform deserts into outlandish terrains. Unique financial zones serve production companies in their portrayal of the (trans)planetary frontier, where colonies are yet to be built, and extractive desires run rampant. Such zones, as I will explain in the next section, are where the desert surface is extracted to be transferred back to the studios.
A recent discovery by the European Space Agency suggests that Mars is only red on its fine surface crust.38 The abundance of iron oxides, which produce the strong red color, is predominantly limited to a fine layer of dust that settles on the topsoil. Surprisingly, according to the report, the “redness” of Mars is incredibly shallow: “if you [dig] just the tiniest bit beneath the surface, the redness vanishes.”39 The superficiality of Mars’ redness is said to be a bad omen for the potential to mine iron from the planets’ surface, a possibility that has fuelled the recent rush to space. The red planet might be a desert mirage; merely an image surface to look at. But in Wadi Rum, the surface image is the resource itself.
How Mars appears to the lenses of cameras is of course important for an industry that wishes to visualize its terrain. The production of The Martian, for instance, looked carefully at NASA-produced images of Mars to remake the red coloration seen in the film. But more surprisingly, even the narrative itself is preoccupied with the value of the fine desert surface and its potential to yield economic value.
Only ten minutes into The Martian, one goal preoccupies the astronaut Mark Watney: surviving in an environment that doesn’t support life. The rest of the film follows Watney’s attempt to carefully calculate food rations, while also figuring out ways of communicating with planet Earth. While the desert around him is strange and eerie, the story and struggle depicted in the film are painfully familiar. Watney is able to overcome his dismal predicament with his human skills and intuition. Reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe, he embodies the myth of a white savior who employs scientific rationality to tame the desert, while also maintaining a personal video log. But where Crusoe held a bible as a guidebook, the character Watney holds a PhD in Plant Biology and Conservation from Northwestern University, which he heroically implements to cultivate a small field of potatoes inside an improvised greenhouse. Watney builds a dome out of leftover plastic tarps and commences a desperate attempt to produce life on Mars. His labor bears fruit: “So, I got to figure out a way to grow three years’ worth of food here. On a planet where nothing grows. Luckily, I’m a Botanist. Mars will come to fear my botany powers!” declares Watney to the camera. His improvised camp becomes the “the first colony on Mars,” as he calls it. Making a garden within the wasteland, Watney can potentially make the desert bloom (only for it to be destroyed and to find himself, once again, alone). The soil itself is at the center of the plot, as both surface and depth.
One scene from The Martian captures a crucial aspect of the production process of the film, and more generally, cinema’s relation to the desert surface. To cultivate the potatoes on Mars, Watney stitches together a hermetically sealed plastic greenhouse out of leftover tarps. He then gathers a sufficient amount of topsoil from the Martian desert and spreads it inside the sealed construction. Watney fertilizes the topsoil with human waste gathered in the space camp, before planting the potatoes within. With that he proves his ability to overcome the limits of the ecosystem and potentially, make a human colony out of it. “Making the desert green,” to paraphrase a slogan mobilized by colonial powers to make legal claim over arid lands, is demonstrated in its most literal sense by Watney.40
But there’s more. The enclosure that Watney constructs to create a suitable environment for the cultivation of potatoes is predicated upon his success in removing the topsoil from the Martian surface and transporting in into his own little studio, effectively staging a controlled environment. By extracting the surface of the desert and importing into his constructed greenhouse, Watney performs the procedure that lies at the core of the production of the film itself: stitching together a world in a studio and deriving value from the topsoil. In the film, as in Watney’s improvised greenhouse, the soil is only one element within an assemblage that is then merged as a final render.
The combination of on-location shoots in the desert of Wadi Rum and the heavy use of special effects has been recently demonstrated in Dune. Like The Martian, Dune was not only filmed in Wadi Rum, but also tells a story that revolves around the land, and the soil. The film was adapted by Villeneuve from the 1965 science fiction novel by Frank Herbert in which the deserts of Arrakis are the backdrop for a story about a desolate planet occupied by a mighty empire. The value of the colonies on Arrakis is the abudance of a rare natural resource called Spice that can be found on the fine surface of the desert. But extracting Spice from the desert proves to be a risky and laborious procedure. Paul, the protagonist of Dune, is a messiah called by oracles to liberate Arrakis from the grips of the greedy empire. To free the planet—so the familiar colonial trope goes—the young man must learn to become part of the desert, and in the words of his father, Duke Leto Atreides, “harness desert power.”
The white savior fantasy that Lawrence enacted in the Nafud desert of Arabia is rehearsed again by Paul. And like Lawrence, his personal journey of initiation is performed within the lawless smooth spaces of the desert frontier. Indeed, Paul will need to venture into the desert, and tread the scorching surface of the land, to fulfill his destiny and while evading the gigantic sandworms that roam the subsoil. The desert surface becomes a kind of touch screen that separates topsoil and subsoil, and upon which the spectacle of the film can be made realizable.
This surface is the element that the screen-based industry is invested in. Unlike the zone of the extractions wherein digging deep into the soil is permitted by the state to serve capital, in the desert of Dune it is the very fine layer that the camera “registers” that is imbued with value. The crimson surface lends itself to recording devices that capture the fine crust of the land, before assimilating it in green screens, combining it with animations and heavy visual effects. The high-definition image is the Spice.
Indeed, the process of making films in Wadi Rum often entails grabbing the images of the landscapes and bringing them back to the studio, not unlike materials that are extracted from the subsoil. Richard Stammers, the visual effects supervisor on The Martian and Prometheus (2012), both directed by Ridley Scott and filmed within Wadi Rum, provides useful descriptions of the production. “We referenced the NASA imagery that most closely matched our location photos and colour matched them to Wadi Rum,” explains Stammers. “This gave them an Earth like white balance, which informed us on which way to proceed with the colorising process for our location photography and digital set extensions of the Martian surface.”41 To facilitate this process, the visual effects teams developed a sophisticated color algorithm filter called “Earth to Mars” that allowed users to match between pictures of Wadi Rum and Mars. Then, explains Stammers, the images are brought into an interior studio with green screens. “Whilst we had many scenes that were shot in the studio, many of these required completing on location with wider vistas of the surrounding areas,” he adds, which “often meant our final scenes were intercutting between green screen shots and practical location shots.”42 The Earth to Mars algorithm made the familiar vistas of Jordan into a foreign land. In this description, the visual effects supervisor emphasizes that while collecting the images two factors were particularly important. First, a desert terrain that is unspoiled and empty, and second, that the images would be easily “converted” into Mars in postproduction. Reminiscent of geological surveys, Hollywood-based visual effects experts venture out into the desert to grab the shots of the sand, the rock formations, and the dramatic cliffs.
The surface of the desert is grabbed by the cameras and scanning devices as raw material. Giuliana Bruno writes that “the material of an image manifests itself on the surface…It is as if it could be virtually peeled off, like a layer of substance, forming a ‘bark,’ or leaving a sediment, a veneer, a ‘film.’”43 Bruno contends that materiality involves a refashioning of a sense of space and contact with the environment. “A film is, above all, a material deposit,” Bruno notes. “It is a residue, a remainder. Its light-sensitive fabric is a thin membrane, as porous as skin, that absorbs time on its surface.” Bruno clearly states that she prefers to speak of surfaces rather than images:
Digging into layers of imaging and threading through their surfaces, my theoretical interweaving of materials will emphasize the actual fabrics of the visual: the surface condition, the textural manifestation, and the support of a work as well as the way in which it is sited, whether on the canvas, the wall, or the screen.44
For Bruno, the production of immaterial digital images is no longer a site of a loss of materiality, but instead a vehicle of multiple planes that “host simultaneity, and foster combinatory patterns and virtual connectivity.”45 Particularly intriguing is Bruno’s conception of surfaces as volume, which contains depth as a result of the “build-up of layers,” giving rise to the concept of “surface thickness” that allows us to rethink “new forms of materiality with different materials, including the digital.”46
With Bruno and by way of conclusion, I would like to return to the question of how and why cinema becomes involved with processes of extraction. Indeed, with Bruno’s understanding of surface, a procedure of extraction is inherently implied. But to convincingly argue that the process of making high-budget cinema in Wadi Rum is extractive in its economic logic, it is necessary to better define what extraction might mean in this context. Thinking this process as extractive necessarily means both defining the surface images as materials, and considering the amalgamation of laws, labor, and cultural imaginations merged in this complex process. I draw on Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson’s definition of extraction as more than the literal sense of mining, commodities, and the plundering of earth and sea. Extraction, they write, “describes any form of economic activity that relies on or benefits from resources or relations that are external to it.”47 This allows an analysis that is attentive not only to native struggles over land but also to more general predations of capital. Mezzadra and Neilson add that extraction takes place “not only when the operations of capital plunder the materiality of the Earth and biosphere, but also when they encounter and draw on forms and practices of human cooperation and sociality that are external to them.”48 The making of cinema here is predicated on this logic, which goes through a radical process of abstracting the land in the multistage assembly line of film production and distribution. Similarly, Anna Tsing outlines how extractive processes involve not only the substance’s coercion from the sub- or topsoil, but also practices of transportation, storage, sorting, and grading.49 Indeed, this is part of extraction, too. Correlatively, the surface of the desert is caught by the lenses of cameras to produce images that are distributed and circulated, commodified and revalued as cinema.
Images of desert landscapes do not bear the marks of the violence of tearing substance from soil. This aspect makes such images particularly prone to easy commodification. Two-dimensional images of the natural environment, writes W. J. T. Mitchell, are objects “to be purchased, consumed, and even brought home in the form of souvenirs such as postcards and photo albums.”50 While the marketability of the desert landscapes lies in the ability to capture and infinitely reproduce images of one specific place, the landscape surfaces in Wadi Rum become valuable precisely due to their potential to function as the generic setup for the ultimate exteriority, repeatedly used without betraying a specific placeness. This surface-image is not only materially and economically inseparable from the geography and geology from which it is extracted, but also—and perhaps obviously so—represents land itself.
Importantly, transforming the Jordanian desert into extraterrestrial worlds caters directly to an implicit capitalist desire to find “new territories,” and with them, new resources. By transforming the land into an extraterrestrial planet, this boutique location for high-budget cinema reshapes perceptions of the natural environment, with consequences for both the native population and those far away. This aspect of extractivism is connected to the imperialist perception of the desert as a wasteland lacking resources, useless, and thus, up for grabs. From this imperial illusion of lack, wealth is accrued.
The affinity between visual media and extraction is often predicated on a vertical movement downward, into the depths of the earth and resulting in the removal of materials essential for the screen-based industry.51 But for us to bear witness to the obfuscation of the geography and geology through the process of making film, we do not need to dig into the ground. Instead, depth is mediated through surface-image. Depth does not entail a literal penetration into the desert surface. It is rather a dimension that ties imagination to materiality, to territory and to the lifeworld that is erased from the desert. While the surface is captured by cameras to produce landscapes of alien worlds, the depth that is mediated through the surface grounds the infrastructure for cinema and the specificity of the territory, with its state laws, geology, and the life that it hosts.52 Through the movement up and down, from surface to depth, the cinematic spectacle is momentarily paused and the desert is repositioned within the wider matrix of political, economic, and ecological qualities of Wadi Rum. Mars becomes Wadi Rum, Arrakis a financial free zone. In this process, cinema is subsumed into the much wider ecology of the desert itself.
Roufan Nahhas, “Compelling Wadi Rum Continues to Drive Jordan’s Film Industry,” Inside Arabia, Oct. 17, 2020, https://insidearabia.com/compelling-wadi-rum-continues-to-drive-jordans-film-industry.
Ian Failes, “Life on Mars: the VFX of The Martian,” Fx Guide, October 5, 2015, www.fxguide.com/fxfeatured/life-on-mars-the-vfx-of-the-martian.
LaToya Ferguson and Tyler Hersko, “‘Dune’: Eleven Things to Know About the 2020 Film and TV Series,” IndieWire, April 17, 2020, www.indiewire.com/gallery/dune-2020-explained-plot-cast-tv-spinoff/screen-shot-2020-04-14-at-7-45-18-am.
Macarena Gómez-Barris, The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).
Gómez-Barris, The Extractive Zone, xiv.
A distinction must be made between the process of making film and the materials that support screen-based culture. Extraction of minerals, as has been argued by Sean Cubitt, Hunter Vaughn, and recently Pansy Duncan, is central to the production and consumption of audiovisual content. My interest, however, lies with the production of films on location.
Catrin Gersdorf, The Poetics and Politics of the Desert: Landscape and the Construction of America (Amsterdam: Rodopi Press, 2008), 45.
Aidan Tynan notes that the word “desert” comes from the Latin desertum, a translation of the Greek erēmos, meaning emptiness or solitude. In German it is Wuste from the adjective wüst, which can mean “wild” but also “vile,” “rude,” “ugly,” and “chaotic.” See Aidan Tynan, The Desert in Modern Literature and Philosophy: Wasteland Aesthetics (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2020), 24.
Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 17.
Lisa Messeri, Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 30.
Eyal Weizman and Fazal Sheikh, The Conflict Shoreline: Colonization as Climate Change in the Negev Desert (Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 2015), 23.
Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski, Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 5.
John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 13.
Peters, The Marvelous Clouds, 17.
Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
Nadia Bozak, The Cinematic Footprint: Lights, Camera, Natural Resources (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011), 26.
Hunter Vaughn, Hollywood’s Dirtiest Secret: The Hidden Environmental Costs of the Movies (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 18.
Vaughn, Hollywood’s Dirtiest Secret, 42.
Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 25.
A verticality most recently explored in Jeff Scheible and Karen Redrobe, Deep Mediations: Thinking Space in Cinema and Digital Cultures (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020).
T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 2nd ed. (Penguin Random House, 1991).
Edward Said addresses Seven Pillars of Wisdom as the ultimate Orientalist narrative. For Said, Lawrence saw the Oriental (the Arab, the Semite) not as an empirical reality (a being who might be met with, spoken to, or observed) but as an ontological and epistemological type; a specific category or essence; a transtemporal, transindividual; and, in a predictive sense at least, inevitable. Inspired by this reading by Said, Ella Shohat addressed the film to argue that it is essentially an Anglocentric perspective that pits the white individual against a generalized population of Arabs, whereby the individual Romantic “genius” leads the Arab revolt presumed to be a passive entity awaiting T. E. Lawrence’s inspiration. See James Chapman, Projecting Empire: Imperialism and Popular Cinema (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), 103–105.
Tom Stieghorst, “Cinematic inspiration for travelling to Jordan,” Travel Weekly, April 19, 2019, www.travelweekly.com/Blogs/Dispatch/Cinematic-inspiration-for-traveling-to-Jordan.
Zeena Saifi, “‘Mars On Earth’ experience opens in the Wadi Rum desert,” CNN Travel, April 20, 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/mars-wadi-rum/index.html.
Saifi, “‘Mars On Earth’ experience opens in the Wadi Rum desert.”
Raied Shuqum, “Jordan hopes to become major filming destination,” Arab Weekly, July 24, 2015, https://thearabweekly.com/jordan-hopes-become-major-filming-destination.
Shuqum, “Jordan hopes to become major filming destination.”
Shuqum, “Jordan hopes to become major filming destination.”
Official site of the Jordanian Government, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Department of Antiquities, https://portal.jordan.gov.jo.
Mikkel Bille, Being Bedouin Around Petra: Life at a World Heritage Site in the Twenty-First Century (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2019).
Martha Mudy and Basim Mussalam, in The Transformation of Nomadic Society in the Arab East, ed. Martha Mundy and Basim Musallam (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 10.
Géraldine Chatelard, “Conflicts of Interest over the Wadi Rum Reserve: Were They Avoidable? A Socio-political Critique,” Nomadic Peoples, New Series 7, no. 1, Special Issue: Mobile Peoples and Conservation (2003), 138–58.
Chatelard, “Conflicts of Interest,” 138–58.
Brian R. Jacobson, Studios Before the System: Architecture, Technology, and the Emergence of Cinematic Space (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 16.
Jacobson highlights one specific case, which appeared in the magazine Moving Picture World in 1911, that warned young filmmakers about the repetition of location and the ability to identify them: “do not stick too close to your indoor studio or outdoor annex studio.”
Jennifer Peterson, “The Silent Screen 1895–1927,” in Hollywood on Location: An Industry History, ed. Joshua Gleich and Lawrence Webb (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2019), 23.
Messeri, Placing Outer Space, 56.
European Space Agency, “Images from Satellite Mars Express,” Mars Express, September 1, 2019, https://sci.esa.int/web/mars-express/-/51860-mars-ferric-oxide-map.
Ethan Siegel, “The Red Color of Mars Is Only Millimeters Thick,” Forbes, March 11, 2021, www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2021/03/11/the-red-color-of-mars-is-only-millimeters-thick/?sh=22511bf03922.
This slogan was famously coined and mobilized by David Ben Gurion in the 1950s in a national effort to take over lands in the desert of Palestine. “Cultivation” is a legal provision for the claiming of land, according to British Mandate laws. See George Prochnick, “The Desert Threshold,” Los Angeles Review of Books, October 18, 2015, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-desert-threshold.
Vincent Frei, “The Martian: Richard Stammers—Production VFX Supervisor,” Art of Vfx, October 14, 2015, www.artofvfx.com/the-martian-richard-stammers-production-vfx-supervisor.
Frei, “The Martian,” 2015.
Giuliana Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2014), 5.
Bruno, Surface, 23.
Bruno, Surface, 7.
Bruno, Surface, 7.
Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Nielson, The Politics of Operations: Excavating Contemporary Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 19.
Mezzadra and Nielson, The Politics of Operations, 138.
Anna Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 51.
W. J. T. Mitchell, Landscape and Power, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994), 15.
Kate Crawford, Karen Redrobe, Jussi Parikka, Sean Cubitt, Jennifer Gabrys, and others have explicated the dependence of media on the materials in the depth of the underground, the sea, or deep space. But little has been written about the surface itself as an extractive zone; it seems to have been brushed away in the attempt to dig down.
Surfaces, notes Jussi Parikka, “are observed to reveal their depths and their secrets.…Their lines and their patterns reveal all sorts of truths, and their surface is the interface to both the political geology and the political geography of the landscape.” In Jussi Parikka, “From Planetary Depth to Surface Measure, or How to Read the Future from an Image,” Deep Mediations: Thinking Space in Cinema and Digital Cultures, ed. Karen Redrobe and Jeff Scheible (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021), 351.