- The Washington Times - Friday, August 21, 2009

“Captain Abu Raed” is a film of many firsts.

It was Jordan’s first official submission for a best foreign film Oscar — ever. Its producers say it’s the first independent film to emerge from the Middle Eastern country in five decades. The film made its writer and director, Amin Matalqa, the first American Film Institute Conservatory student to finish a feature film before graduation.

“Captain Abu Raed,” though, is more than just a piece of film history. The movie, which won the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival last year, is an intriguing glimpse at a little-known world and a moving testament to the potential that exists there as much as anywhere else — although even its inhabitants have trouble believing it.

Nadim Sawalha (“Syriana”) is the title character, although he’s not really a pilot. He’s mistaken for one by the neighborhood children when he returns one day wearing a cap he found in the trash at work — he’s a janitor in Amman’s airport. He tries to come clean, but realizes these poverty-stricken children might need dreams more than they need the truth. He captivates them with tales of his travels, encouraging them to reach for the stars.

Two boys especially need Raed’s help. Tareq (Udey Al-Qiddissi) is a smart boy, but his father pulls him out of school to sell wafers on the street. Murad (Hussein Al-Sous) is the group’s sole skeptic; his abusive father has turned him into a young cynic who declares, “People like us don’t become pilots.”

They’re not the only ones struggling in society. Nour (Jordan television presenter Rana Sultan) is a real pilot. Beautiful and independent, she’s a modern woman with an old-fashioned father who would rather see her barefoot and pregnant than pursuing a career high up in the skies.

This is a first film, but a well-executed one. Jordan, sometimes used as a stand-in for Iraq, finally gets the chance to show itself off. Mr. Sawalha is a genial guide through the country and its battles with modernity, but he’s matched by those who represent Jordan’s future. The filmmakers found the neighborhood children in refugee camps, which might be why their plights seem so real and moving.

The director was born in Jordan, moving to the U.S. at age 13, but visiting his homeland every year. With charm and grace, in “Captain Abu Raed” he gives us a moving picture of the country.

★★★

TITLE: “Captain Abu Raed”

RATING: Not rated

CREDITS: Written and directed by Amin Matalqa

RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes

WEB SITE: captainaburaed.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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