I have a confession to make. Although my father is Jordanian and I come from an extended Arab-American family, I am far more familiar with other cities of the Levant – Beirut and Damascus – than I am with Amman. The Jordanian capital has been a fine place to visit because of our relations. However it is not a city that I think of as beautiful.
I was proven wrong after watching Amin Matalqa’s film Captain Abu Raed. Through the artful cinematography of Reinhardt Peschke, Amman appears as one of the great cities of the Middle East – all because of the breathtaking view from the terrace of the movie’s central character, janitor Abu Raed (played by Nadim Sawalha, a well known actor who emigrated to England in the 1950s from Jordan, and father of the popular UK actresses, Julia and Nadia Sawalha.) Even the stairs that wind their way through Abu Raed’s immediate neighbourhood, where the homes overlook each other and are close enough for sounds of domestic squabbles to travel, were originally shot in Jordanian city of Salt but edited into Amman’s cityscape and gives the film an intimate magical feel.
In such settings, it’s no wonder the director opens with a modern-day fairy tale. The same sense of humorous fantasy plays out in the form of a janitor who is mistaken by the children of his neighbourhood for a pilot because he wears a captain’s hat that he found in the rubbish bin at Queen Alia Airport. However, poverty-stricken Arab life has a gritty social realism of its own. Eventually, true-to-life stories about domestic violence and child labour permeate the film, and left many Jordanians wondering whether this is how they wanted their country to be portrayed in the first feature film made in Jordan for fifty years.
Captain Abu Raed won countless awards, from the Dramatic World Cinema Audience Award at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival to the Best Actor for Sawalha from the 2007 Dubai International Film Festival, and 2008 Variety Middle East Filmmaker of the Year award for director Matalqa who also wrote the film. He grew up in Jordan and moved to the United States when he was thirteen. Interestingly, he went to school in the state that I grew up in, Ohio, and spent his summers in the old country. Matalqa graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in business and then worked for five years in telecommunications – a CV that makes me think that he dutifully followed the advice of his immigrant Arab family before he chucked it all in and fled to Los Angeles. He had made 25 short films before Raed’s producer David Prichard suggested to Matalqa that he write a movie that Charlie Chaplin might want to be in. His Jordanian grandfather and the film Cinema Paradiso also inspired the young director.
Captain Abu Raed draws on elements that I consider as essentially Jordanian from my own family experience – although these could easily be characteristics of wider family culture throughout the region. Above all, there is the importance of story-telling, even when it borders on the phantasmagorical. Cleaner Abu Raed, essentially a lonely, bookish man after his wife passes away, is initially hesitant to pass himself off as an airplane captain to the poor children of his neighbourhood. But once he embraces the persona he revels in telling them stories about Paris, Moscow and New York. He also has the ability to make unlikely friends – another trait I’ve always considered particular to the gregarious Jordanian side of my family. In the film, the touching, if improbable, friendship with a female Jordanian Airlines pilot, Nour, played by the country’s leading television presenter Rana Sultan in her first fictional role, lays the groundwork for saving Abu Raed’s immediate neighbours from a violent ending.
It is the children who shine in the film. Clever Tareq (Udey Al-Qiddissi) is forced to leave school to sell sweets from his father’s kiosk. Murad (Hussein Al-Sous) – who tells the other kids that “pilots don’t come from our neighbourhood” – is an adversary until his abusive father (Ghandi Saber) forces him to switch sides. Matalqa auditioned 200 kids from six refugee camps in Jordan, eventually picking twelve, all of whom happened to be fatherless.
Captain Abu Raed, which was also the only Jordanian film ever submitted for the Oscars, did not make the 2008 shortlist for foreign films. Perhaps another future film to come out of the Royal Film Commission of Jordan stable will carry the country’s cinema further. All in all Captain Abu Raed represents a very auspicious beginning.
Malu Halasa is the Writer in Residence for Safar: A Journey though Popular Arab Cinema, a season of classic and contemporary Arab cinema at the ICA from 21 – 27 September 2012.
Captain Abu Raed is screening tonight at 7pm with a post-screening Q&A with star Nadim Sawalha and director Amin Matalqa.