Captain Abu Raed

Laura Clifford 
Captain Abu Raed

Robin Clifford 

A quiet, book-loving widower busses into Amman from his village to his job as a janitor at the airport.  One day, he finds a pilot's cap lying on the top of a trash barrel and amuses himself by wearing it home.  As he walks up the steps leading to his apartment, Tareq, a young boy, spies him and asks if he is a pilot.  Although he denies it, the next morning Tareq has brought a group of young kids to his door, all wanting to hear about the adventures of "Captain Abu Raed."

Jordan's first ever entry into the Foreign Language Film Oscar pool is both the somewhat sentimental tale of a senior citizen making a change in the life of a child and a movie that forges its own path with unexpected developments.  Writer/director Amin Matalqa celebrates humility and education in this well-crafted film where the children define distinct characters that do not swamp lead actor Nadim Sawalha ("Syriana," TV's "Diana: Last Days of a Princess").

Abu Raed has no desire to fool the children, but he cannot resist the chance to entertain, and perhaps even teach them something, so he dons a fictional character of Captain Abu Raed.  They, of course, pay no attention to his denials and are thrilled to be with this man who has always been in their midst unheeded.  One day, Raed spies an older boy, Abu Murad (Ghandi Saber), watching them from behind a pillar, but the boy resists the urge to join them, telling his younger brother that the man is an airport janitor.

Meanwhile, at the airport, a young and beautiful female pilot, Nour (Rana Sultan), takes an interest in the man who sweeps the floors but becomes absorbed in books during his commute back home.  Nour's father is pressuring her to marry, but she does not respond to any of his arranged suitors.  Raed attracts the attention of a French traveler as well, impressed that the man could not only find his lost bags but speak French as well, and so the jovial tourist presents Raed with a postcard and model of the Eiffel Tower.  Nour brings him a snow globe from New York City. When he tries to give it to Murad, whom Raed knows has an abusive father, the boy just walks away. And yet, when one day Murad 'acquires' some cash and takes three of the boys to the airport, their discovery of what Raed had told them all along, the man's innate dignity shines through along with a wordless communication to Murad.

"Captain Abu Raed" has Won all kinds of festival awards including the 2008 Sundance World Audience prize and it is easy to see why.  This unassuming little film sounds like something we have seen before, and yet it charms us with its simple messages.  When Nour asks Raed why, with all his learning he is a janitor, his response is wonderfully wise.  There is plenty of humor in the film as well - Raed is presented with a trainee, Sameh (Nadim Mushahwar), who views Raed as some kind of chick magnet.  In a montage of the kids enjoying Raed's company, one boy (Rami Samara) performs a funky dance with no self-consciousness.  The filmmakers make the most of their locations, juxtaposing the ancient, terraced village with Nour's modern home and the airport. Raed enjoys a rooftop terrace with uncommonly gorgeous views where Nour receives the advice she needs.

Matalqa makes a choice about his lead character's fate at his film's end that could be argued pushes the film too far into sentimentality, but he, in partnership with Sawalha's subdued performance, has also created a character that is hard to forget.


Abu (Nadim Sawalha) is an aging widower spending his last productive years as an airport janitor. During his rounds, he finds a discarded pilot’s hat in the trash and takes a liking to the gold-braided chapeau. He wears it home and, along the way, one of the local kids asks him if he is a pilot. He denies it but the boy demands that he tell him of his adventures in flying. When the other kids in the neighborhood show up on his doorstep with the same demand, he dons his cap to become “Captain Abu Raed.”

I thought, as I sat to watch the film, that I was about to see a sweet, possibly saccharine, film about an old man who gives a little happiness and hope to the poor kids growing up in a downtrodden part of Amman, Jordan. Wrong. This is how “Captain Abu Raed” begins. However, first time writer-director Amin Matalqa builds a far more complex and moving story as Abu develops a fondness for two of the boys, Tareq and Murad (Hussein Al-Sous and Udey Al-Qiddissi). His liking the youngsters grows protective and he does his best to try to save them from their poverty-ridden lives..

Another story thread follows beautiful Nour (Rana Sultan), a thirtyish woman not yet married - no fault of her father who is constantly trying to get her hitched (and have his grandchildren) – and a commercial pilot. She crosses paths with Abu several times at the airport and is taken by his kindness and helpfulness to sometimes-frantic passengers. They become good friends and Abu enlists her in his plans to save, at least, Tareq from his brutal, abusive father.

Tyro helmer-scribe Matalqa shows incredible skill in visualizing his thoughtful, evocative story. He deftly weaves his simple but elegant tapestry and the result is a captivating and empathetic. Nadim Sawalha is wonderful as the kindly old man. The actor exudes charisma and you grow to love Abu. Rana Sultan exudes chic as Nour and you can see how she would be attracted to and befriend her “Captain.” Ghandi Saber, as Tureq’s violent father, is a monster disguised as a man. The two boys and the rest of the children, I was amazed to find out, are all from a refugee camp but the director garners convincing performances from them all.

This is a loving, sad and tragic film, but a hopeful movie, too. I give it an A-.
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