Jordanian film Captain Abu Raed is a brave and beautiful piece of work that won numerous awards on its release in 2007. Despite its thread of darkness, the story leaves the impression of light and a renewed understanding of how kindness transforms lives. Directed by Amin Matalqa and starring Nadim Sawalha, we take a look at the film and talk to its director.
by Valerie Grove
We first meet Abu Raed at Amman Airport where he works as a janitor. It is five years since his wife’s death and it is very clear that the time elapsed has not lessened his grief or his loneliness. He goes to work and he comes home. He shuns contact with others, ignores what is happening around him and continues to talk to his absent wife in the apartment they once shared.
One day at work he finds an airline pilot’s hat in the airport garbage. He puts it on his own head and from that point on his life changes profoundly. Mistaken for a Royal Jordanian airline captain by the local children, Abu Raed transforms into an international pilot and storyteller to all the children in his neighbourhood. Despite having never left Jordan, Abu Raed shares all that he knows from his numerous books and tells stories about the places he could have visited and the things he would have seen. The kids are captivated by his tales of travel and adventure and it’s beautiful to watch both Abu Raed and his young audience as they become transformed by the power of imagination.
At the same time he forms a friendship with a real Captain, a young woman named Nour, who is frustrated by her father’s dogged determination to marry her off. This relationship not only allows us to learn more about Abu Raed’s life and character but becomes instrumental to the denouement of the story.
Murad, an older boy whose family live very close to Abu Raed, knows his true identity and becomes obsessed with revealing who he really is to the other children. This begins a chain of events in which Abu Raed becomes inextricably linked to Murad and his difficult family life.
The film’s story is unusual but straightforward, enabling it to explore the emotional complexities and fragilities of all its main characters. Each of their actions and reactions are rooted firmly in their own particular situation, and this presents such a full and honest picture that their reality is never in any doubt. This means that the film is able to look directly and steadily at its darker themes of poverty and abuse, even giving a sense of the traumatic context to Murad’s violent father.
There is a completeness to this film that it stays with you long after the credits have rolled. The various relationships, whether between Abu Raed and the kids, or Nour and her father, are all beautifully observed with many moments of humour. Despite its thread of darkness, the story of Captain Abu Raed leaves an impression of light and a renewed understanding of how human kindness can transforms the lives of others as much as it does our own.
Released in 2007, Captain Abu Raed is a brave and beautiful piece of work from all involved in its creation. Nadim Sawalha’s lead performance is sublime as are those of his young co-stars particularly Hussein Al-Sous who plays Murad. It quite rightly received numerous best picture and best actor awards (and even more nominations) at international; film festivals after its 2007 release and was the first ever Jordanian film submitted to the best foreign film category in the Oscars.
Captain Abu Raed was director Amin Matalqa’s first feature, and it is wonderful to revisit the film almost 15 years on. It is even more wonderful to be able to ask Amin a few questions about it.
How did the story depicted in Captain Abu Raed originate?
Captain Abu Raed was born on a napkin at the Cheesecake factory in Beverly Hills after producer David Prichard suggested I write a film set in Jordan. I never thought I’d be making movies in Jordan. I had moved to LA, where I was making short films and was about to begin studying directing at the American Film Institute. This was in 2005 and I thought my focus would be on making American films. But when David suggested that there would be a more unique opportunity to build something new in Jordan (where there was no cinema industry at the time), I scribbled this idea on a napkin over dinner with my friend Laith Majali (who would also become a producer and editor of the film).
That was the year my grandfather had passed away and his spirit is very much the influence behind Abu Raed. The renaissance man who leads the humble life. My grandfather, Wahbeh Jabaji, was a Swiss educated Palestinian eye surgeon who had lost everything in 1948 and took refuge in Jordan where he would rebuild his life. He spoke four languages and loved classical music (my grandmother was a pianist) and yet if you saw him walking on the streets of Amman, you would never know it. He looked at the world with the wide-eyed wonder of a kid and lived till he was 93. He was full of joy, curiosity, and humility. That, coupled with my interest in social class stories and Charlie Chaplin became the beginning seed behind the film. And from there I started researching real issues that could also be universally appealing, which made me focus on child abuse once the film went deeper into the story. 30 plus drafts later, that became the final film.
Captain Abu Raed was made on location in Jordan and that reality comes across strongly in the film. Nothing ever seems like a set. So I’ve often wondered exactly where some of those locations are and were the airport scenes really filmed at an airport?
Yes, it was all filmed on location across the city of Amman, and for Abu Raed’s neighborhood exteriors, we filmed in the narrow alleys of Salt, a town 30 minutes outside of Amman, because of the yellow limestone houses with the arched windows. It gave the film a warmth that we wouldn’t have found in Amman. And the airport was Queen Alia International Airport, a chaotic location to take over with our shoot, but we managed to fit in and around the zones somehow. It’s extra special seeing it now, because that terminal is no longer there. They’ve since rebuilt a new and much larger airport.
Did the darker storyline of domestic abuse and violence in Captain Abu Raed cause any controversy when the film was released?
Not at all. If anything, it inspired discussion. The film continues to be studied in schools to this day. That’s the greatest honor for me.
What are your favourite recollections or stories about the people and process of filming and making Captain Abu Raed?
Oh, so many, but I’ll keep it short. Nadim Sawalha, who played the Captain, is a Jordanian actor who’d been living in London for some 50 years. He had done many BBC TV and radio shows, and had played small roles in Hollywood films like The Wind and the Lion, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Young Sherlock Homes. One summer in 1993, my father was the captain of a Royal Jordanian flight from London to Jordan, and on board were the cast and crew of Son of Pink Panther, starring Roberto Benini. Well, Nadim was on board that flight, and my father invited him to the cockpit. He told him “you know, my son wants to make movies when he grows up” (I was 16 at the time). So Nadim invited me to the set. He was so warm and generous, introducing me to Benini and seating me right behind Blake Edwards, the director. 13 years later, when I finished writing the script, I called Nadim in London and instantly he remembered me and said, “You’re the son of the pilot!” “Yes,” I said, “and I’ve written a film for you.”
Captain Abu Raed was a remarkable debut feature in so many ways. It put you and Jordan firmly on the map in 2007. Over a decade later, how is Jordan’s film industry now and in the region more widely? Also what would help to encourage more young people to become filmmakers?
It’s really thriving now, both as a location for outside films, but also for small local productions as well. There are several excellent crews and many producers constantly working year round. It’s amazing to see how much it’s evolved in the past 14 years. My advice to anyone who wants to make films is to start writing and collaborating with others who are passionate about film and storytelling. Build your community of collaborators. Actors, writers, composers, cinematographers, editors. Filmmaking is best when there’s a spirit of a family of creatives coming together around a project. It’s a tough business, but the creative journey is very fulfilling with the small triumphs of making something together that will always be there to share. And keep reading, watching, listening and learning as your find your voice as a storyteller. It’s incredibly satisfying when it all comes together. And the beauty of it all now is that you can shoot and edit on your phone, so there really are no excuses to stop you. Be fearless and explorative.
Amin Matalqa Bio
Born in Jordan, raised in Columbus, Ohio, and living in Los Angeles for the past 18 years, Sundance-winning writer/director Amin Matalqa makes films about dreamers and unsung heroes, bridging the cultural gaps between East and West. His films include: Captain Abu Raed, winner of the Sundance World Cinema Audience Award (2008) and the first Oscar submission from Jordan; Disney’s soccer drama, The United; Strangely In Love, a Chaplinesque Los Angeles-set comedy adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Russian novella White Nights; and The Rendezvous, a caper adventure starring Stana Katic (Castle) and Raza Jaffrey (Lost in Space). Most recently, he co-wrote the pilot and directed two episodes of Netflix’s first Arabic language teenage supernatural show, Jinn (2019).