Bottom Line: A rare film from Jordan is a humanistic triumph.
By Stephen Farber
Jan 22, 2008
Sundance Film Festival
PARK CITY — Middle Eastern cinema has been thriving recently, with strong entries from Israel, Lebanon, and Iran. Now one of the first films from Jordan to enter the international arena has its premiere at Sundance. “Captain Abu Raed” belies the inexperience of its makers, for it’s a substantial, deeply moving film that has the potential to captivate audiences everywhere. If it finds a savvy distributor willing to handle it with the loving care it deserves, it could click on the arthouse circuit.
Writer-director Amin Matalqa was born in Jordan but grew up in the U.S. and studied film at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. He was determined to make his feature directorial debut on a story filmed in Jordan. His protagonist, Abu Raed (Nadim Sawalha), is a widower and a janitor in the Amman airport. He has never left Jordan but dreams of traveling the world. When some of the young boys in the shabby apartment complex where he lives notice him wearing a pilot’s hat, they assume he is a pilot and beg him to recount his adventures. Reluctant at first, Abu Raed eventually decides to humor the boys and indulge some of his own daydreams by spinning tales of fictitious travels. But an older neighborhood boy, Murad (Hussein Al-Sous), is suspicious of Abu Raed and eventually finds out the truth and exposes him. There is a heartbreaking moment when Murad takes the other boys to the airport, where they see Abu Raed cleaning the floor; the look of disillusionment on their faces is beautifully caught. Yet that is just the beginning of the story, for the antagonists Murad and Abu Raed eventually form an alliance that changes both of their lives.
Matalqa incorporates a wealth of revealing character details. At the beginning Abu Raed lives a narrow, sheltered life. When he hears a violent domestic dispute in a nearby apartment, he merely closes the window. The dispute is taking place in Murad’s apartment. He lives with an abusive father, and this toxic environment has fostered Murad’s cynicism.
Both Murad and Abu Read are gradually and believably transformed by their encounter. Abu Raed fnds the courage to take a stand, while Murad learns to trust and respect the older man. A subplot concerns a female pilot, Nour (Rana Sultan), who befriends Abu Raed. She has to contend with her parents’ determination to marry her off to men who bore her. All of the characters are observed with affection and precision. Even Murad’s abusive father is presented in three dimensions; we see that his own failures at work lead him to lash out at the people closest to him.
Performances are superb. Sawalha captures the dignity of Abu Raed without turning him into a plaster saint. In fact, it’s clear that in trying to improve the lives of the local kids, he sometimes blunders and makes things worse. But Sawalha illuminates his humility and understated nobility. Al-Sous has a wonderfully expressive face, and Sultan radiates intelligence and quiet strength.
Working with cinematographer Reinhart Peschke, Matalqa makes excellent use of the Jordanian locations. One false note is struck by the music composed by Austin Wintory. It sounds too Western and sometimes falls into sentimentality. The film is too potent to need such underlining. Matalqa has crafted a stirring tribute to the invisible people in our world who may end up changing our lives more profoundly than high-profile leaders. Nothing is more difficult than making an honest film about a good man, but “Captain Abu Raed” accomplishes the feat.