Captain Abu Raed: Fable Film from Jordan

Review by Joey Ernand

In the current movie climate, “Captain Abu Raed” is the type of film that would get swept under the rug. However, it just so happens to be the first Jordanian film to be shown in international theaters, and that milestone deserves to be recognized, if not celebrated.

The titular Captain is a janitor at Amman’s International Airport, who one day finds an old pilot¬ís hat in the trash. As a result, the children of Abu Raed’s small neighborhood immediately assume he’s a world-traveling pilot. Feeding off of the children’s awe, Abu Raed begins to tell them stories of his “travels.” However, one sullen little boy named Murad doesn’t fall for the charade, and he soon exposes the Captain as a fraud.

The film is anchored by Nadim Sawalha, who plays Abu Raed in a solid and subtle performance. He comes across as grandfatherly, wise, and extremely kind, a bit weathered, a bit beaten by life, yet dignified and strong. All of these qualities help us believe in Abu Raed’s arc as he is rejuvenated by the newfound attention and gets a fresh handhold on life.

The small details of Abu’s existence are noteworthy. We follow him as he performs his daily tasks at work, then go home and talks with his deceased wife. We also observe his solitary rooftop tea sessions, and his humorous interactions with two work peers. Thus, we are fully immersed in Abu Raed’s life, and the movie is stronger for offering such a fully-fleshed protagonist.

The film’s style–shot selection, blocking and editing–reflect the story’s simplicity, which leaves it up to the performances and writing to carry the film; this is not a movie about flashy camera angles and rapid-fire editing. First time director Amin Matalqa should be commended for following the basic demands of the simple story, even if his style may seem a tad too nondescript at times.

The movie excels at imparting a child’s point of view of the world; specifically, how children see their role models. For example, the scene where the children discover Abu¬ís true occupation is extremely well-handled. Murad convinces three of Abu’s biggest fans to venture to the airport with him. Once there, the boys spot a group of pilots, who are clearly heroes in the boys¬í eyes. The pilots walk by, and their passage reveals Abu Raed, who is cleaning the floor in his janitor¬ís garb. He slowly looks up and notices the crushed children. The image instantly brings us back down to earth along with the boys, and like them, we feel heartbreak and disappointment.

Another effective scene shows Murad and his little brother witnessing their abusive father’s attack on their mother. The boys remain still; everything we need to know is reflected in their eyes. Then, the little brother’s hand clenches onto Murad¬ís shirt, and our hearts break. This is an example of how using silence instead of screams and loud score can make an often-seen movie scenario resonate more strongly.

While the movie succeeds in following Abu Raed as he touches several people’s lives, the situations and characters Abu encounters waver between those rooted in real life and ringing true to those feeling tired and cich?©d. It is a strange balancing act. The writing is heavy-handed at times, but the actors handle the material masterfully. The performances are suitably grounded in realism. The entire cast of relative unknowns, including the children, is great, and the film’s subtle and contemplative tone is commendable; emotional histrionics would have transformed some of the events into sheer melodrama. The weakest storyline is that of a female pilot named Nour, who strikes up a tentative friendship with Abu Raed. Nour’s conflict with her parents, who are eager for her to marry and give them grandchildren, is overused. And while there is no real resolution to her storyline, there is a sweet scene in which Abu offers Nour some advice on marriage and life in general.

The third act shifts onto Abu Raed’s handling of Murad¬ís abuse–and jettisons everything that was established beforehand. If Murad had been featured more prominently throughout the story, maybe the ending would have resonated more. However, it seems as if an emotional payoff was shoehorned in, one that is not earned. Moreover, the bookends that show Murad as an adult aren’t emotionally justified due to the story¬ís lack of focus on the troubled boy.

The movie should have resolved all of its plotlines, or stayed on a single plotline throughout. The fact that the first half of the movie juggles multiple subplots, to suddenly just stay with a single storyline is jarring and unfocused. Also, there is an unexpected and unnecessary death near film’s end that betrays the otherwise realistic tone; it seems to exist just to pull at heartstrings.

Flaws aside, “Captain Abu Raed” is a subdued and affecting movie, a sweet little debut picture that effectively captures what it feels like to come alive again in our twilight years. This award-winning film deserves to be seen, if only for its quiet dignity and the power of its performances.