Can Captain Abu Raed fly?

I’ve never went into a movie theatre with such conflicting expectations as I did today. It didn’t help that I had one tough day behind me at work.

February 6 was finally here. This was the day when the audience in Jordan was supposed to witness the birth of Jordanian cinema in the form of Captain Abu Raed. I made sure I was at the City Mall’s Grand Cinema early so as not to miss a second of the show.

So why the conflicted expectations?

On one end of the spectrum was all the buzz that has been building around Captain Abu Raed in the local press and blogs. The film won a Best Actor award (for Nadim Sawalha) at the Dubai Film Festival. Then there was the Sundance selection, the great reviews and Audience Award at the festival. Heightening my positive expectations were assurances by commenters on this blog that the movie is good. Not to mention my brief, yet informative, encounters with the ever energetic Laith Majali (who edited and co-produced the film) who I bumped into several times over the past year!

On the opposite end of the spectrum was the heavy weight of shattered expectations resulting from living for over 30 years in Jordan. These disappointments range from attending utterly laughable “heavy metal” concerts in the early 90’s, to watching hyped-up, but ultimately not-so-great Jordanian TV productions, to enduring horrible Jordanian amateur-filmmaker shorts a few years ago, to the deflation of enthusiasm caused by the ATV debacle (the private TV station that never launched).

Add to this mix: my distaste for cheering on stuff just because it is “made in Jordan”. I neither voted for Petra nor Diana Karazon!

Deep down inside, of course, I wanted Abu Raed to be good. As someone who works in the media field in Jordan, I would be delighted to be witness to the real birth of real cinema in the country.

So there I was. In front of the big screen, sitting with a group of friends. We had to endure the Rambo and other violent trailers. Then finally Captain Abu Raed started playing..

Scene after the scene, the world of Abu Raed unfolded, revealing what I can honestly describe as a monumental effort by a director and cast and crew that obviously poured their hearts into this production.

The film has been called “universal”, due its universal themes. And, while being applauded by critics, It has also been called “safe” and “conventional” by them.

Thus, the true surprise of Captain Abu Raed for me was that, seen through Jordanian eyes, this film is very Jordanian. It confronts Jordanians, for the first time on the silver screen, with some of our society’s biggest socio-economic realities, “without sugar coating” as fellow blogger Nasim Tarawneh noted in his review.

The gap between rich and poor, social conformity, domestic violence, child labor are realistically and honestly depicted in Captain Abu Raed.

After the film was done, I wished I could see it again through totally non-Jordanian eyes. The group of friends with me enthusiastically embraced the movie, but I, for one, could not easily immerse myself in a film which includes so many familiar location and people that I personally know. This is the first professionally produced feature film I see, where people I know are acting (like my long time friend and teacher, Ali Maher who plays the role of the rich father of Nour, the pilot. He does a great job in that role by the way!).

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Social messages aside, this first Jordanian feature film shows us Amman (as well as Salt) in a pretty amazing manner. As one blog post I read about the film stated, it is a love letter to Amman. The visual contrasts that the city offers and its hilly beauty, chaotic downtown and its new landmarks are artfully captured making Captain Abu Raed a visual feast. One minor complaint here is that I felt it was trying a little too hard to “show” Amman.

But the real stars of the show are the children. These little stars were cast from local orphanages and from Amman’s refugee camps. And boy are their performances real. I can only commend Amin Matalqa and Co. on capturing these boys ‘gritty, macho language as one would hear it on the street. The sadness, loss of hope and anger of these children comes through on the screen, especially in eyes and face of Murad (Hussein Al-Sous), the abused kid who is hell-bent on exposing Abu Raed as a fraud.

We also see very good to excellent performances from the grown-up stars of Abu Raed. Of course there is the experienced Sawalha, but there were also convincing/funny/scary performances from Rana Sultan, Nadim Mushahwar (playing the hilariously clueless assistant janitor) and the people who play the roles of the RJ bus driver, the typical complaining bus driver, the father of Tareq and many others.

For those of you who are technically minded, you might want to know that Abu Raed is also pretty revolutionary and experimental when it comes to digital movie making. More about that here.

I don’t have a “final verdict” yet. I will see the film again, this time with my wife, who missed it tonight.

I cannot say that this film engaged me in a way that, say, Amelie Poulain did, probably because of my overtly Jordanian/critical stance!

But, yes, Captain Abu Raed can fly. And I hope it does. And I think it will, especially with non-Jordanian audiences. It is really a very encouraging first for Jordan. The honesty of its social messages was a big plus for me. The collaboration with global professionals is also paying off.

It is, ultimately, a labour of love. The whole story of this film’s development should be a huge morale booster and a an inspiration for a new generation of Jordanian filmmakers.

[A final word: for marketing purposes, Abu Raed needs a much better poster and a reworked trailer.]


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13 Responses to “Can Captain Abu Raed fly?”

  1. Hal Says:

    One hell of a review.

    I was very curious, though, to know what you thought of the soundtrack? I’ve noticed that it’s usually the most criticized component of the film and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    I completely agree about the wanting to see it through non-Jordanian eyes. Although you think it will fly with non-Jordanian audiences, and it seems to have done so thus far, I wonder if they’ll find some scenes as funny as a Jordanian would – mostly the assistant janitor Samih’s scenes, the scene where the little blonde boy starts dancing for his friends, the very Jordanian dialect and colloquialisms that don’t come through in the translation….that sort of thing.

    I’d like to see a better translation of the movie, that’s for sure.

  2. Heba Shehadeh Says:

    Salam Ahmad,
    I was waiting to for the film impatiently since we went a couple of times to watch the crew in action in the captivating alleys of Salt city.

    Me and Amr are going to watch it tonight inshallah. I think that the promotional material as you said needs to look stronger visually, in fact when I watched the trailer I thought it was just an experimental video.

    The amount of dedication I saw on the set of Captin Abu Raed was truly amazing, I felt everyone was trying to make the best out of every scene, one of the rare times were you don’t see the “Arabic Boredom” take over a project. Amin was trying to be involved in all the details, he was always moving from one place to another on set, and never shouting, instead, he would leave the monitor and move to the actors to communicate his comments in a very personal way.

    Also the amount of support the film was getting on both the official and public levels helped Amin to give the film his best.

  3. Ali Says:

    Thanks for the review, you explained the movie histroy and details very well, I can’t wait to see it. I think we all need to support such intiatives

  4. Musa Says:

    WARNING: COMMENT MIGHT CONTAIN SPOILER:

    After almost two years of endless hype, the expectations were set way too high, and it was impossible to match the hype even if one ended up making the Arabic hybrid-version of The Shawshank Redemption and Trainspotting
    Add to this that I am negative human being by nature, and that cinema taste is a highly subjective matter and here are my brief thoughts:

    The plot had no flow what so ever and was all over the place. The domestic violence thingie takes center stage late in the movie and overpowers everything. The narration gets a little boring especially after the 1:20 mark. Some scenes like the “hunchback of Notre Dame smashing your head with a rock thingie” was absolutely unnecessary, and just like many other scenes it felt like a filler.

    The ending was very irrational with hopes of attracting sympathy; after all who tries to have a life-changing heartily conversation with a drunkard at dawn right after his wife and kids are stolen away …Abu Raed was asking for it. You don’t kidnap the man’s wife and kids and ask him to react rationally, especially when he is drunk. Murad growing up to be a pilot was seen coming faster than the “You’ve got Mail” ending.

    The supporting characters although funny at times were shallow and had minimal contribution to the plot. The lead female character disappears for a good 30 minutes in the middle of the movie.

    While the movie was light on the clichés of Jordanian drama – (it did have its “shoo bitgool” moments like: “But he is beating you up and the kids too!!” but in general it avoided them) but of course not without making up for it through the clichés of American drama. Maybe a justifiable trade for a startup director who is trying to break away from Arab drama clichés. On many occasions it felt like the script was written in English and translated to Arabic. For example when Abu Raed hand Murad the pilot hat the line “It’s ok” worked much better for me than “ma3laish”.

    Camera
    There were some great shots and camera angles in the movie. Unfortunately they were ruined by overemphasis. The director is so in love with his photography he is literarily screaming at you: “Isn’t that a great shot …seriously look what can I do with a camera …can you see Abu Raed standing in the dark in front of this door with a fluorescent light on top…isn’t it great.. here look at it some more (still). What about that split screen with the kids washing their hands and the mother cooking…damn I’m good”. Then you can see him in the background proceeds to high fiving himself. Nevertheless the artsy fartsy part of the shooting was not that bad.

    On many occasions camera zooms were unnecessary and unnatural. When the kid hands Abu Raed his bags back why do we need a zoom and three cuts to the hand exchange and back. In one of Murad’s early encounters with captain Abu Raed you could actually feel the jerking action of the camera as it zooms towards Murad. On end of “Abu Raed and the female lead character are driving away from the airport in her car” scene I can easily tell you the number of Abu Raed nose hairs.

    On a separate note, how many shots of East Amman’s building crammed on top of each can you squeeze in a two-hour film? Okay, we got.it…it is not a secret that East Amman looks great when you look at it while enjoying your 8JDs continental breakfast at Wild Jordan. All fifteen bars, restaurants and coffee shops which have this view know it. And what’s up with the Amman landmarks: the flag, the bridge, the castle mountain, the car museum, the mosque … Ministry of Tourism promotional videos has less emphasis on landmarks…I spent the whole movie waiting a shot of Petra and the guy water skiing in Aqaba. Oh well, I guess one have to keep the target audience in mind.

    Kids exploitation.
    No plot can force the audience into fake “ahhs and ooohs” like a bunch of poor kids. With the chubby dancing kid as the cherry on top. Maybe a few cute cats with pink ribbons could have done a better job. Or maybe a cute dog playing the improbable Ammanite stray doggie. Dureid Lahham played a similar version of Abu Raed in Kafroon , with a tighter plot and a more genuine and loveable lead.

    Sexual tension
    Maybe I have a perverted view on things but wasn’t there a little too much sexual tension between Abu Raed and the lead female character? If anything it was more probable than the unclear father-daughter relationship – if that’s what the director was shooting for. At the conclusion of the “laying on their backs sharing worries on the roof” scene. there could have been easily a cute awkward kiss, ending with uncomfortable silence and “I have to go now” …cut… Now that’s directing.

    Conclusion
    Think about it as a bunch of college students studying abroad who put together a Dabkeh show for international week. It may not be exactly be traditional Dabkeh, the costumes have nothing to do with the traditional ones, the coordination is minimal and three quarters of the participants have never seen a dabkeh before. But with some loud music and jumping around, everybody loves it and it leaves a good impression

    The best thing that can be said about the movie is it is the anti-FUBU. It is a movie made by them for them (and “them” is not meant to imply anything negative). From Amman’s skyline to the made-up kids’ school uniforms (so the brown jump suits does not present Jordan in a positive manner?) the target audience is the international stage and the Sundance film festival.

    The director has never claimed that he is trying to make a cinematographic masterpiece. He wanted to make a decent film with good resources and a professional crew to present Arabs and Jordan from a perspective that breaks stereotypes…..etc, etc. The target audience liked it and that means it was successful. So congratulations

    Personally, I liked Suffi Suffi much better.

    P.S. I don’t know what to make of the shot from the trunk Tarantino tribute, but I hope the sundance people liked it.

  5. Humeid Says:

    WARNING: COMMENT MIGHT CONTAIN SPOILER:

    Wow musa, this is probably the most “thorough” comment I have ever received here! You obviously know your stuff when it comes to film and you make many many good critical points, which I think enrich the discussion.

    As you are a self admitted “negative person” I will not comment the overall “spirit” of your comment :-) . But I have to disagree with your suggestion that the film deals with Eastern Amman touristically (I guess this is what you mean when you talk about the 8 JD breakfast at Wild Jordan). Any such touristic portrayal of the city is balanced with the clear portrayal of hardships the kids and their parents have to live through.

    Just a quick comment on 2 things: The “sexual tension” and the ending.

    I sort of saw the relation of abu raed to nour as giving a sort of “virign rebirth” to murad’s future. Remember that their conversation on the terrace was about marriage and kids.

    As for the ending, one of the people who saw the film with me concluded that abu raed knew full well what the consequences of his actions will be. Murad’s future was “ensured” by the ending, No?

  6. Khouloud Says:

    Great review! I’ve heard a lot about Captain Abu Ra’ed, everybody seems to be talking about it and now after reading your review I can’t wait to watch it, will go watch it tomorrow first thing inshallah!

  7. Heba Shehadeh Says:

    UPDATE: SPOILERS INCLUDED!

    Watched the movie last night, and I have to agree with Musa on most of what he said with a less cynical tone, although I have to admit some of his comments cracked me up several times! I’m no movie expert or anything, Im just a viewer who was looking forward to watch the film.

    First of all the music scoring, I think it took a lot from the movie instead of adding to it, it was not engaging it did not help in peak moments, in fact I can’t even remember it now, someone like maybe Tariq Nasser could have done a much better job and might have had a better understanding of the environment.

    Generally speaking the fast pans from the camera were sometimes jerky especially in the small rooms, close ups were a bit uncomfortable to the eye, sometimes you feel the shot was cramped, like the shot with the policemen sitting at Abu Murad’s house.

    Again as Ahmad and Musa mentioned the Amman scenery looked a bit too forced on the film, sometimes you begin to feel you are watching a documentary about Amman.

    The 2 girls in the boys group! they were totally out of context! with very tidy hair, so West Ammani, plus in 7arrat culture, girls don’t mingle with boys in this way, actually at that age boys and girls start to feel they can’t accept each other, let alone stick together in a gang!
    add to this the school uniforms, they don’t reflect public schools, they could have added a pair of jeans underneath the girls uniform to make it look more real, anyhow the role of the girls was unnecessary even if it’s an attempt to make the story more universal.

    Some shots looked a bit fake like the shot when Nour offers Abu Raed a lift at the airport and all the flight attendants turn their heads together!

    Other shots lacked logic,

    – Like when the bus stops at Nour’s house, why does the driver wait for Nour to reach her front door before he moves? felt more like a school bus dropping a student!
    – When Tariq is selling biscuits at the park, how come he is skipping school while it’s obvious the rich kid and other kids where playing in the park? feels more like an afternoon shot or during school holiday maybe.
    – When Abu Raed enters his house and turns on the lights, all the house is lit, including table lamps!

    The time of shooting sometimes didn’t help the lighting, like when Abu Raed visits Abu Tariq, Abu Raed’s face is over exposed. And when Nour is driving from the airport and Abu Raed sitting next to her, you can clearly see how uncomfortable Rana Sultan was with the sun light in her eyes!

    The film had some strong moments like, Murad looking at Abu Raed while on his knees wiping the floor, very good reaction from Murad, you can see a bit of I’m sorry I did that to you.
    Murad after stealing the miniature RJ plane, the way he smiles and starts to speed up before removing it from his jacket was really successful acting wise.

    The apprentice janitor at the airport, I thought he did a very good job, he looked so comfortable playing the part and he made everyone laugh.

    The shot of Abu Murad selling used clothes at Balleh market down town the movement of the camera was very well done and I consider it one of the strong moments of the film.

    Mainly, I think better cutting might have helped in some of the scenes like some of the examples Musa mentioned, plus the shot when Murad runs back to the house to get the captin hat and going back to Nour’s car with Abu Raed,I thought it was too long.

    For Amin Matalqa, I think it was a good first experience, and what’s really amazing listening to people’s comments on their way out of the movie theater, everyone was sympathetic and supportive because it is THE FIRST JORDANIAN FILM.

    At least the guy should take credit for being the first Jordanian to move and do something about our non existent film industry.

  8. Humeid Says:

    Wow heba.. another thorough “dissection” of CAR. You’re definitely giving a more balance view here.

    Some of the stuff can actually be corrected I think. Can films be in Beta?

    :-)

    Some of the criticisms like the presence of the girls, or the stray doggie I can easily overlook. This is not serious stuff.

    Again, I think our Jordanian eyes (and attitude) make us quite critical (especially those of us working in the media/design sector).

    The great thing about Captain Abu Raed is that it strives to be of top international quality. Striving for that, while at the same time staying true to the culture of the place of the story AND being the first to grapple with the development of a feature film from this country is not easy. That’s why I felt it was a monumental effort.

    I think this effort has elevated the discussion about the film. It is being compared to international examples. Just think how much crap comes out of the Egyptian movie industry, which never seems to manage to break through to the international arena (there are exceptions of course).

    Let’s see the reactions when the film gets proper distribution.

  9. Ahmad Al-Sholi Says:

    so, are the critiques on board professional ones?

    I will take siryana for example as an american movie that deals with the middle east. It contained many wrong details, but yet was never reviewed in such an attitude.

    Yes, thier is no uniform to male public schools and yes the policemen are not always that friendly and many details were changed to suit the story in the way director and production saw best.

    Enjoy as a story, as a film and being jordanian made and stop with the endless empty notes of the matching points between the movie and real amman.

  10. Moey Says:

    Humeid, I like the last final note.

    True, the typo+poster production is not interesting at all. very normal. should have had better elements, maybe a better designer?

  11. Ahmad Says:

    i’m no expert, just my personal view:
    all what Musa and Heba said is true, but is all summarized by Hummeid’s comment: “This is not serious stuff”, “The great thing about Captain Abu Raed is that it strives to be of top international quality”, and “Just think how much crap comes out of the Egyptian movie industry” and i agree.
    but i also agree totally with Musa’s comment: “Dureid Lahham played a similar version of Abu Raed in Kafroon , with a tighter plot and a more genuine and loveable lead” and “The plot had no flow what so ever and was all over the place.” and the characters; just amateurs, even our “treasure” Mr NADEEM SAWALHA!! who is that?!!
    summary: direction in not that important from my point of view, every Hollywood director screws up (example is Titanic, which i personally hate and yet it got 11 Oscars!!)... but why cant we be more creative in terms of story/movie writing? like our close neighbors up north and to the west?
    thank you

  12. Ahmad Says:

    and yea, can i suggest that you add an icon to the comment where people can agree or disagree with a comment instead writing their own.. so for example if i read Musa’s long comment and i agree with it, i would click on an icon (sort of a thumbs up) so people would know that another person other than Musa thinks the same and agrees with the comment..
    this way peole who wirte comments would also know how many poeple agree with their views..
    i think you get the idea, sorry if i over explained it, JIC.
    thanks

  13. William Budd Says:

    “The great thing about Captain Abu Raed is that it strives to be of top international quality.”

    It succeeds! This film is excellent on all the levels the big H’Wood studios try tobe or wish they could be.
    “Captain Abu Raed” is genuine Art of the rarest kind.
    Yes, that was a CAPITAL A!

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