Thursday, 13 September 2012

REVIEW: Captain Abu Raed (2007, released 2012)

Captain Abu Raed is a 2007 Jordanian film, the first for over fifty years, which has been slowly gaining popularity since its release. It was Jordan’s official entry in the category of Best Foreign Language Film at the 81st Academy Awards, placing it alongside such greats as Germany’s Revanche, Japan’s Departures and Israel’s Waltz With Bashir. Since then, it has won awards at the Sundance Film Festival and top prize at the Heartland Film Festival.

Nadim Sawalha, apparently the only professional actor in the film, stars as Abu Raed, a janitor who works at the airport in Amman. One day, he discovers a pilot’s cap in a bin and decides to take it home. Tareq (Udey Al-Qiddissi), a local boy, spots Abu Raed and asks him if he is a pilot. Abu Raed says that he isn’t, but Tareq is not convinced. The local children, led by Tareq, pester Abu Raed with questions until he has no choice but to start making up stories to tell the children, becoming Captain Abu Raed ‘the adventurer’. When he sees how these stories are inspiring the children, most of whom have rather bleak lives, he is unable to stop.

Captain Abu Raed is a very humanist work, which takes as its subject the very Loachian theme of the lack of opportunity to those from poor areas. Tareq is unable to go to school, forced instead by his father (Issa Hilal) to sell flavoured wafers on the streets. Murad (Hussein Al-Sous), a slightly older boy who has his suspicions about Captain Abu Raed, is caught, along with his mother and younger brother, at the wrong side of his father’s (Ghandi Saber) drunken temper. Even Abu Raed himself does not have much of a future, training an apprentice janitor who might just possibly be his replacement. He has a library of over two thousand books and knows all the great French writers, as well as the French language itself, but he has never been abroad.

The airplane becomes, quite typically, the symbol of freedom and prosperity and gives hope to the children who listen to Abu Raed’s stories. However, writer-director Amin Matalqa is wise enough not to hang the whole film up on such a shallow and ultimately wrong-headed notion. Abu Raed’s stories are, after all, lies and the children’s hopes false. The symbolism is critiqued further through the figure of Nour (Rana Sultan), a young and attractive pilot who befriends Abu Raed, who is far from free despite her frequent visits to Paris and New York. She is in her thirties and constantly being introduced to an assortment of ill-matched men that her parents desperately want her to marry. Though clearly well off and despite having the kind of lifestyle that all of Abu Raed’s children dream of, there is something missing in Nour’s life.

Before the film’s halfway point, Matalqa suddenly changes tack and the film takes a darker and more interesting turn, breaking away from the stuff of Hollywood – American Dream nonsense. The film begins to question what just one man can do, encapsulated skilfully and somewhat movingly in Abu Raed’s flawed and ultimately short-lived plan to help Tareq get back to school whilst also fulfilling his obligations to his father. Without giving too much away, Abu Raed can only accept defeat, leaving Tareq to his plight and turning his attentions towards Murad instead. With his attempts to help Murad, the film almost goes one step too far, threatening to collapse into the tired dynamics of the vigilante thriller, but only to further develop its new theme. It pulls itself back into believability, but the desired effect remains – the film shows us that Abu Raed, despite all his good intentions, is ultimately ineffectual, impotent against the forces that keep these children down. The film seems to recognise that one man can make a difference but only for the short term and that it is the responsibility of the society at large to change lives for the better for longer. However, this never materialises, Matalqa being wise enough not to drag his film too far into the realm of fantasy.

However, the film is somewhat let down by its conclusion. Abu Raed becomes a sacrificial figure, though it is unclear why this is so absolutely necessary. Matalqa had thus far avoided and even critiqued easy solutions to complex economic problems, but he ends the film with just such a simplistic movie-solution. But for one well-orchestrated and moving sequence in which Abu Raed finally manages to ascend to the heights, albeit only by climbing up the steep steps of the street on which he lives, the film takes a disappointingly Hollywood turn, complete with easy answers that avoid the political and economic avenues that the film had at least shown an awareness of earlier. It is a cop-out, all the more frustrating since the film had so skilfully avoided such pitfalls before.

Captain Abu Raed is a well-made film with a humanist message, though it asks some important and hard-hitting questions about the nature of society’s culpability for poverty and the lack of opportunities for the poor. Until the end of the film, it does not offer any facile solutions and it does not claim to solve any problems. In fact it is a mark of how good the film was that the ending was so frustrating and disappointing. The film seems to be somewhat indebted to The 400 Blows, name-checking Fran├žois Truffaut at one point, primarily in its use of mostly non-professional actors to give the film the feel of authenticity – most of the child actors in the film were discovered in refugee camps and orphanages. Though the children are a little too well scrubbed, the film is a believable and involving directorial debut from a filmmaker who just might make a great and challenging film that will stick to its guns in the future.

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