A Jordanian Hero With The Spirit Of Charlie Chaplin

Director Amin Matalqa i i

Director Amin Matalqa was born in Jordan and grew up in Ohio. A business major at Ohio State — and the son and brother of airline pilots — he went on to study moviemaking at the American Film Institute. Captain Abu Raed is his first feature. NeoClassics Films hide caption

itoggle caption NeoClassics Films
Director Amin Matalqa

Director Amin Matalqa was born in Jordan and grew up in Ohio. A business major at Ohio State — and the son and brother of airline pilots — he went on to study moviemaking at the American Film Institute. Captain Abu Raed is his first feature.

NeoClassics Films

A glimpse into the Arab world that doesn't focus on war or fanaticism, Captain Abu Raed reveals a Jordan that few Western viewers have ever seen. But its story also has commonplace aspects that should appeal to audiences with no particular interest in the region.

That mix reflects the biography of the film's writer-director, Amin Matalqua. The 33-year-old filmmaker was born in Jordan, but he has lived in the United States for 20 years. While most of that time was spent in Ohio, Matalqua is now in Los Angeles, where he studied directing.

"I intended to make American films," says Matalqua, whose role models include Steven Spielberg. "But producer David Pritchard suggested I make a movie in Jordan. And I had just gotten a good response to screening my short films there, so it seemed like it might work."

It was also Pritchard who suggested a central character modeled on Charlie Chaplin. So was born Abu Raed, an airport janitor who is taken for a pilot by local children after he wears an abandoned captain's hat home to his poor (but picturesque) neighborhood.

"I love Chaplin. I grew up watching his films," says the director. "And I'm interested in people you don't pay attention to, but who are actually heroes."

At first, Abu Raed simply entertains the kids with stories of the wider world he has never visited but knows through books. Then he becomes involved with two boys, and finally stands up for one of them against an abusive father. The climax shifts the tone of the previously gentle movie, showing that Abu Raed is indeed a hero.

There's something of Matalqua in his central character. The director's father and brother are pilots, so he knows that world. Matalqua also identified Abu Raed's circumscribed existence with his own adolescence.

"I lived in suburban Columbus, Ohio, and I felt a little trapped there," the filmmaker says. "Abu Raed also feels trapped in his life. He works at the airport, so he's on the verge of the world, but he never gets to travel."

Matalqua cast Nadim Sawalha, an experienced British-Jordanian performer, in the title role. The other cast members had never acted before, although Rana Sultan, who plays a female pilot whose father wants her to marry, had on-camera experience as a TV host.

"I based her character in part on three women pilots I know in Jordan," Matalqua explains. "But it's also universal. It reflects the pressures on women when they reach 30, and the clock is ticking."

Nadim Sawalha and children in 'Captain Abu Raed' i i

Veteran actor Nadim Sawalha plays title character Abu Raed, whose supposed adventures abroad open new horizons for local children. The kids themselves are are played by nonprofessionals — all the child actors are Palestinian refugees from Jordanian orphanages. NeoClassics Films hide caption

itoggle caption NeoClassics Films
Nadim Sawalha and children in 'Captain Abu Raed'

Veteran actor Nadim Sawalha plays title character Abu Raed, whose supposed adventures abroad open new horizons for local children. The kids themselves are are played by nonprofessionals — all the child actors are Palestinian refugees from Jordanian orphanages.

NeoClassics Films

The children all came from orphanages for Palestinian refugees, but their lack of experience didn't slow the production. "They were like adults in 12-year-old bodies," the director marvels. "They were acting with their eyes. I ended up cutting lines of dialogue, because they said it all with their eyes. It gave me goosebumps."

While Captain Abu Raed is a pioneering Jordanian independent film, it was made in a country that recently has become a hot movie location.

"The Iraq war has led to a filmmaking boom in Jordan," reports Matalqua with a chuckle. "The same crew that worked on our film did Redacted, the Brian de Palma film. And after Abu Raed, they went to Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker.

"It used to be Mars," he says of the Jordanian landscape. "They'd put on a red filter, and shoot Martian scenes in the desert. Now it's Iraq."

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