For the first time, Jordan has submitted a foreign language film to compete in this year’s Oscars. Call it beginner’s luck – Captain Abu Raed hasn’t even been released but it already feels like a classic. While many have argued that the foreign film category is an unfair way to compartmentalize films from other countries so that the voters can concentrate on American films for the other categories, Hollywood, after all, is a business.
But it turns out that, no matter what the reason for the category, it is one of the most enriching things about the Oscar race, particularly if you are someone who closely follows it. If, say, you decide you want to see each of the five foreign language nominees, you will likely see better films than are offered up in the Best Picture category. If you decide to see those films submitted for the Oscars, not just nominated, you will get a true education and go places you’ve only read about.
Captain Abu Raed, written and directed by Amin Matalqa, is a film that hangs in your consciousness. It is a reminder that we don’t always act in the best interest of others; in fact, we almost always act in the best interest of ourselves. But where does that get us, ultimately? A life that doesn’t matter to the outside world is often the one we should pay closer attention to.
The film revolves around a janitor (Nadim Sawalha) at an airport who finds a pilot’s hat in the trash. When the neighborhood kids mistake him for a pilot he goes along with it, telling them epic stories of travel and adventure. Something about putting on that hat makes him feel differently about himself and his place in the world. He loves the instant admiration it brings.
But one kid is on to him and is determined to expose Abu Raed as a fraud. He does this, we find out, because of his own miserable home life with his alcoholic, abusive father. Why should he put his faith in fantasies and lies when real life is letting him, and his neighbors, down so profoundly?
Abu Raed, in coming to terms with his own long life, begins making subtle changes in the lives of the kids he knows because it’s the right thing to do. This isn’t a film about poverty on the streets of Jordan but that is there, hanging over their heads when there isn’t enough money to buy meat for dinner or when children have to forgo school to sell merchandise on the streets. It isn’t about that, necessarily, but it’s there.
This is a beautiful, agonizing, heartbreaking film. If you pay to see only one film this year make it this one. That may sound like an overstatement but it’s rare that films like this are made at all. Perhaps what makes it special is that it is a blending of ideas and cultures; Matalqa was born in Jordan but raised in the U.S., and attended the American Film Institute. His take on Jordan, its people, and their economic and social value is probably different than it would be had he grown up there. And by the way, this may be his first film but it will launch his career.