A Movie for Troubled Times in the Arab World
Movie: Captain Abu Raed (2009) written and directed by Amin Matalqa
A Guest Post by Jane Boursaw
You know a movie is good when you’re still thinking about it years later. Such is the case with Captain Abu Raed, a touching, uplifting film I saw at the Traverse City Film Festival in 2008.
The first independent film to come out of Jordan and the country’s first feature of any kind in the last 50 years, Captain Abu Raed tells the story of a loveable but lonely old janitor who finds an airplane captain’s hat in the trash, which convinces the kids in his neighborhood that he’s been around the world.
Abu obliges the kids, telling stories of far-off lands he’s never seen, hoping to expand the minds and improve the lives of the poor children who are starting life much like he did.
Captain Abu Raed won the Audience Award in the World Cinema Competition at Sundance, and scored another 14 wins and 3 nominations. It had a limited release in U.S. theaters on Aug. 14, 2009, and is now available on Amazon.com.
I talked with writer/director Amin Matalqa in 2008, shortly after he arrived in Traverse City. Read on for his thoughts on filming in Jordan, celebrating unsung heroes, and breaking down the walls of social class.
Jane: I watched a screener of Captain Abu Raed last night. It’s such a beautiful film, such a quiet, powerful story about the choices ordinary people can make to bring about change. Was that a central theme when you were making it?
Amin: Absolutely. I’ve always been interested in the person we pass by and ignore, and we don’t know how much is below the surface. The script I just wrote is about a man who plays the cello in the streets. People pass by and don’t even notice him, but then you find out what a rich life he had. So, I’m always interested in the unsung heroes.
Jane: It seems like the people in this film are living these quiet lives of desperation, especially Abu and Nour, but they come together to do some good for others — the children and their mother.
Amin: He’s different from the world he lives in, and she’s different from the world she lives in. So they connect, and by them connecting, they help the kids at the end of the film. Social class differences are something you see very clearly in places like Jordan and other developing countries. The rich are rich and the poor are poor and the middle class is fading. So I wanted to suggest that people can connect across these social classes.
Jane: What you see on the surface may be something totally different than what’s really there.
Amin: Absolutely. Likewise, the pilot, Nour, is in this social class, and finally one day connects and sheds the wardrobe, metaphorically speaking. On the roof, neither of them is dressed as the janitor or the pilot. They’re dressed in normal clothes, and so they’re humans to each other. It’s funny how we’re all defined by what we do for a living. The first thing you ask someone is, what job do you have? You’re put in a category so quickly … janitor: nobody; pilot: somebody.
Jane: I love Abu, because he’s sort of been hiding from his own life. Then when he connects with the children, he has a purpose and doesn’t back down from what he knows is the right thing to do. When he’s in the guy’s kitchen waiting for him to come home, you know what’s going to happen, but Abu is ready for it. It’s like he’s giving himself up to save the family. Am I off base on that?
Amin: No you’re not. In my opinion, Abu is an optimist and he tells the man, let me help you.
Jane: Right. Even then, after everything that’s happened, he wasn’t going to give up on the abusive father.
Amin: So much of it is embedded in the mythology of the hero’s journey. Here is this guy who lives on his own and then has this call to adventure, which is the introduction of the kids in his life. First, he decides he doesn’t like it and denies the violence outside. He shuts his window, but then realizes he has to take responsibility. So he starts helping Tareq and intervening with Murad and connecting with them beyond the stories.
Jane: Talk a little about Nadim Sawalha, who plays Abu. It’s amazing to me that he’s been in the film business for 40-some years. He’s one of those actors who says so much without a whole lot of words.
Amin: Absolutely, he’s amazing. I talk to him every week, you know, like Tuesdays with Morrie? I need my Nadim time every week. I visited him in London after we were done filming, and he’s so full of wisdom, one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever known.
Jane: Is this the first independent film to come out of Jordan?
Amin: There was a Jordanian-financed movie in 1957. And in 1991, there was a French-financed film with a Syrian director. But this is really the first time we’ve had a Jordanian film — Jordanian cast and crew, Jordanian financing, Jordanian director, Jordanian stars. So, it’s not a government-funded film from France or somewhere else. It’s an independent film from Jordan.
Jane: It sounds like a really big deal. What’s the climate for filmmaking there?
Amin: In 2003, King Abdullah started the Royal Film Commission to encourage American and European films to shoot in Jordan, and also encourage local filmmakers to do short films, workshops, things like that. There’s already one film school in Jordan, and another one opening up. Last year, there were 10 movie shoots in Jordan, including ours.
Jane: The entire film seems like it’s bathed in golden light. Was that deliberate?
Amin: Yeah, I wanted to make a romantic film without being romantic. There’s this Jerusalem yellow stone, and I picked the neighborhood — in a city a half-hour out of Amman — because of the architecture, the brick roads, the arched windows, and most importantly, the yellow stone.
Jane: Is it getting a good reception in Jordan and that region?
Amin: Oh, yeah. It didn’t do as well in Dubai, because they actually prefer big Hollywood movies, which they do in Jordan, too. But, obviously, as a Jordanian film, it did tremendously well in Jordan, and it’s still the talk of the country.
Jane: Well, thanks so much for taking time to talk with me. I’ll for sure spread the word about the film.
Amin: Thanks so much, Jane. Take care.
Jane Boursaw is a family entertainment writer specializing in movies, TV and celebrities. Syndicate her family movie and TV reviews in your publication; visit her at Reel Life With Jane; follow her on Twitter; become a friend on Facebook; email email@example.com.
Images: Captain Abu Raed, Pen & Paper Films in Association with Gigapix Studios, a David Pritchard Production
When I asked Jane Boursaw if she had any films to recommend for my series on Middle Eastern countries, she told me about this film. I am so glad that she was willing to share this interview with us. Thanks Jane!
Although I did not get enough replies to my poll to draw firm conclusions about what country to go to next, I did have several people indicate they were ready to pack their bags and leave the Middle East for a while, so this will be the last of that series. We won’t forget about those countries–just not talk about them every week. Stay tuned.