Dir/Scr: Amin Matalqa. Jordan/USA 2007. 109mins.
Only a handful of full-length films have come out of Jordan in the fifty years since the country's first feature, Struggle in Jarash. This makes Captain Abu Raed's commercial poise and polish all the more remarkable: a moving dramatic fable about an elderly airport janitor's relationship with a bunch of Amman street kids, Amin Matalqa's film has the potential to be the Middle East breakout title of 2008, following hard on the heels of Lebanese title Caramel.
Unashamedly sentimental, but with a toughness to the script that saves it from schmaltz, the film is given sharp dramatic focus by the remarkably nuanced performance of London-based Jordanian actor Nadim Sawalha in the title role - for which he received best actor in Dubai.
With its lush orchestral soundtrack (recorded by the Hollywood Studio Symphony) and universal storyline, Captain Abu Raed makes no secret of its crossover ambitions - though its Arabic dialogue and fiercely local settings preserve it, mostly, from blandness. Given an upbeat, emotional reception at its Dubai premiere, the film is heading for Sundance, where it may well arrive with a specialty-division US studio deal already inked. Given the right marketing, and a release strategy that allows the film the breathing-space for word of mouth to kick in, Captain Abu Raed could play at the wider end of the limited-release niche worldwide, and a Foreign Film nomination for the 2009 Oscars is by no means unthinkable.
Sterner arthouse audiences will be challenged by the film's opening stretch, which paints the life of elderly widower Abu Raed in broad sentimental strokes. Abu Raed lives in a shabby apartment in a poor inner-city district of Amman, the Jordanian capital, and works as a janitor at Amman's Queen Alia airport. One day he finds a discarded pilot's hat; when he wears it home, a local boy refuses to believe the shambling old man's denials that he is not really a captain. Later Abu Raed relents, and begins telling made-up stories about his airborne adventures to a whole gang of ghetto kids who meet to play football among the city's Roman temple ruins.
But the film soon shakes off the whimsy of these storytelling sessions and becomes more grittily conflictual as two of the boys in the group are spotlighted: Tareq (Uday Quiddisi), whose father forces him to skip school so he can make money selling sweets, and tough, angry Murad (Hussein Al Sous), a victim of domestic violence, who sees through Abu Raed's benign pilot fiction and makes it his mission to unmask the old man. The other main plotline hinges on Nour (Jordanian TV presenter Rana Sultan), an attractive single pilot who strikes up an unlikely friendship with Abu Raid, and whose well-to-do family is desperate to marry her off before she spends too long on the shelf.
Two balancing acts keep the film grounded. One is the script's careful play-off between Chaplinesque sentiment, moments of more quirky alternative humour (many of which centre on Abu Raed's lumbering, daydreaming janitorial assistant Sameh, played by Nadim Mushahwar) and tense dramatic cruxes. The other is the successful combination of Sahweh's old-school dramatic bravura with the freshness and spontaneity of the film's child actors - all first-timers cast from local orphanages.
Shot on an Arriflex D-20 digital camera, the film looks richer than its $2 million budget, with just the occasional jarring edit suggesting that more coverage might have come in useful. DoP Reinhart Peschke homes in repeatedly on faces to up the dramatic stakes, and does a good job of milking Amman's old town for atmosphere without coming on all National Geographic. Though Austin Wintory's swelling score, with its repeated harp melodies, initially feels like it's bullying our emotions, the film grows into it. The dark fairy-tale finale feels like something Dickens might have written if he had lived into the cinema age: it's both tear-jerking and oddly spiritual.
Paper & Pen Films (Jordan)
Gigapix Studios (USA)
Hussein Al Sous