Jordanian film promotes hope

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Nadim Sawalha stars in Captain Abu Raed, which was released in 2007 and is the first independent film made in Jordan in 50 years. The screening will be followed by a conversation with director Amin Matalqa. Courtesy Paper and Pen Films Nadim Sawalha stars in Captain Abu Raed, which was released in 2007 and is the first independent film made in Jordan in 50 years. The screening will be followed by a conversation with director Amin Matalqa. Courtesy Paper and Pen Films

Captain Abu Raed is a film of firsts. Released in 2007, it was the first independent film to emerge from Jordan in 50 years, becoming the country’s first official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar category. It received accolades at Sundance, the Seattle International Film Festival and the Dubai International Film Festival, among others. And, to top it all off, it was the first full-length feature film by writer/director Amin Matalqa, who moved from Jordan to the United States when he was 13 years old.

Captain Abu Raed
Indies@Vinegar Hill film series
Light House Studio

Screening followed by a conversation with director Amin Matalqa
7pm Thursday, January 26

“This was 2007—there was no film industry in Jordan at the time, but people like Naji Abu Nowar (whose 2012 film, Theeb, would go on to be nominated for an Oscar) and many others, including myself, were making short films and sharing them,” Matalqa recalls. “There was a real excitement about a budding film community since 2004 when the Royal Film Commission of Jordan was taking us seriously and holding screenings for our short films. For me, I had moved from Ohio to L.A. and was attending the American Film Institute, but my producer, David Pritchard, suggested to go back to Jordan to make my first film.”

Matalqa shot on site in Jordan’s capital, Amman, and in the town of Salt, beginning just after he wrapped his AFI thesis in L.A.

“I was working on rewrites of Captain outside of [the AFI] and raising our funding with my mother through private investors any chance I had to travel to Jordan in 2006,” he says. “I missed my graduation ceremony to make sure we got production started before the summer heat wave kicked in. We had a lot of kids in the film, so I had to shoot before July came around.”

The movie’s plotline follows Abu Raed, a janitor at the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman. After Raed finds a captain’s hat in the trash, the children in his neighborhood mistake him for an airline pilot and ask for tales of his travels. Sensing how much the children need encouragement to believe in dreams, Raed obliges and tells fictional stories of his adventures. (The fact that Matalqa cast children from refugee centers to play the roles of the neighborhood kids makes these scenes all the more poignant.) Raed later befriends Nour—a female pilot whose wealthy family would rather see her married than have a successful career—and she becomes involved in his plan to help a neighborhood boy escape his troubled home life. The result is a breathtaking promotion of hope and courage amid the harsh realities of violence and poverty.

“My love for Charlie Chaplin and Italian films like Cinema Paradiso and Il Postino had a big influence on portraying Amman, Jordan, in a romantic way,” Matalqa says.

When coming up with the internal themes and characters for Captain Abu Raed, Matalqa looked to his family for inspiration. The aviation aspect is a nod to his dad and older brother, who are both pilots, but the heart of the film lies with his grandfather.

“My grandfather had passed away the year I started writing [Captain Abu Raed], and he had that combination of wisdom and humility with a wide view of the world,” Matalqa says. “He was a doctor who’d had a bigger-than-life experience growing up in pre-1948 Palestine, getting educated in Switzerland, escaping wars and finding refuge in Jordan, where he started his life from scratch. With all the losses in his life, he still looked at the world with this beautiful optimism, and if you saw him walking in the street, you would never know the wealth of experience he’d had. He spoke Arabic, French, English and German. He loved poetry, music, cinema and dogs. He was curious about technology until the end, when he was 93. That was the spirit of Abu Raed: the wise, humble man.”

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