- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2008

Amin Matalqa hasn’t just made his first feature film. He has made, producers say, the first independent film to come out of Jordan in five decades. Moreover, he accomplished this feat while still a student - he’s the first at the American Film Institute Conservatory to have finished a feature film before he graduated.

Even better, “Captain Abu Raed” is no mere curiosity. It’s an accomplished, moving film that is racking up awards as it makes its way through the festival circuit. It won the Dramatic World Cinema Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and took top actor and top actress honors at the Newport Beach Film Festival.

Jordan’s ambassador, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, presented a special screening of the film Tuesday night in the District. (Producers haven’t yet sold distribution rights in the U.S., though the film already has started playing around the world. The Jordanian premiere in February was attended by Queen Rania.)

The film stars Nadim Sawalha (“Syriana” and dozens of other films) as the title character, a janitor in Amman’s airport who, on walking home in a pilot’s cap he found in a trash can, is mistaken for a pilot by the children in his poor neighborhood. At first, the old man tries to tell the youngsters the truth. However, when he sees how starved they are for dreams, he turns himself into Captain Abu Raed, spinning tales of his adventures around the world.

That hat might have belonged to Nour (Jordan television presenter Rana Sultan), a pilot who ends up befriending Abu Raed. She’s a beautiful, independent, modern woman whose father won’t stop setting her up with eligible bachelors in the hope she’ll get married and give him grandchildren.

What starts out as a charming fable turns serious when the wise Abu Raed tries to help not just Nour, but the local children. There’s Tareq, whose father won’t let him go to school until he has made the family some money each day, and Murad, a cynic. (“People like us don’t become pilots,” Murad says when trying to convince the others that the old man is a janitor.)

The film is a deft look at contemporary Jordan that handles weighty issues with grace and manages to leaven the seriousness with humor. (Some of it must be lost in translation, however - the many Arab speakers in the audience were laughing at things that didn’t seem quite so funny in the English subtitles.)

In a question-and-answer session after the film, Mr. Matalqa and executive producer David Pritchard spoke about bringing “Captain Abu Raed” to life. The writer-director grew up in Jordan, coming with his family to the States at age 13. He spent the school year in Ohio and his summers back in Jordan and graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in business.

After spending five years in the telecommunications world, he decided to move to Los Angeles and finally pursue his lifelong love of film. He made about 25 shorts before Mr. Pritchard made a suggestion that led to his first feature: “Why not write a movie that if Charlie Chaplin were alive, he’d want to be in?” (His grandfather and the Italian classic “Cinema Paradiso” also served as inspiration.)

Captain Abu Raed” wouldn’t have worked if not for the talents of its child actors. They were found in “a very unconventional way,” Mr. Matalqa noted: He and producers visited six refugee camps. After meeting about 200 children, they settled on 12, 10 of whom are fatherless. The film has changed their lives dramatically.

More and more movies - including Brian De Palma’s 2007 film “Redacted” - are being filmed in Jordan, as it’s an easy double for Iraq. Most don’t show real life inside Jordan itself. Mr. Matalqa hopes his film will help change that - and present a non-stereotypical view of the Arab world to outsiders.

Mr. Pritchard talked about how just before Sundance, the film was shown to Mormon high schoolers in a small town in Utah. They loved the film and gasped when the beautiful - and without head scarf - lead actress told them afterward that she is a Muslim.

“That’s how you break down the cultural barriers,” Mr. Pritchard said.

The producer predicts the film will end up making a couple more firsts. “I know we’re going to get nominated for the Academy Award. I know we’re going to get nominated for the Golden Globe,” he declared.

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