Tools of the Trade

Internships and apprenticeships in the film industry are no different than accounting, welding, or social work – the goal is to learn a craft, make contacts, and eventually ‘follow your bliss,’ as an acquaintance nick-named Bobo often said.

That’s pretty much what Amin Matalqa did when he studied at the AFI and returned to his native Jordan to make his feature film debut in 2007, Captain Abu Raed, which is currently enjoying a theatrical release before it inevitably journeys over to DVD, much like any other film.

Raed will probably divide audiences, but not because of politics. It’s the melodrama, the conventions, and the claim one can make of Maralqa making Oscar bait – an inspirational tale of a widower whose life perks up when a group of kids in his poor home turf think he’s a pilot.

Nicknamed ‘Captain,’ Raed spins elaborate tales of worldly travels until a jealous youth breaks his spell over the kids by proving Raed is no pilot, but a lowly janitor at the airport.

That unmasking starts an awkward association between Raed and the boy, and the film swerves towards the darker subject of child abuse, and that’s where Matalqa ably manipulates his dramatic chess pieces until the finale, where things get clunky, clumsy, and either feel like a cheat, or cap a small-town humanistic drama.

It’s a film worth catching on the big screen, though, at least for the sumptuous Jordanian locations. The amber colours are hypnotic, and the HD cinematography is saturated with soothing colours; even the child-beater’s home is a kind of vintage fifties turquoise blue.

Austin Wintory’s score is also memorable for not treading into the kind of treacly manipulative style often grafted onto humanist stories. Wintory’s a very skilled composer whose lush orchestral music for Raed is the polar opposite of Grace (2009), a superb horror score (also available via BSX Records) that isn’t easy exactly listening, but it is rewarding for those wanting a blend of diverse sounds forming a portrait of an intense psychological breakdown.

The reason I focused on Captain Abu Raed here is because it’s the product of a Middle Eastern filmmaker who, while now based in the U.S., learned filmmaking tools to tell a story with a personal cultural angle. The structure and resolution may gel into something familiar (and conventional), but it’s still a personal film.

Matalqa isn’t unique by forging such a career path for himself, but perhaps an early predecessor is the late Moustapha Akkad, the Syrian-born filmmaker who learned the filmmaking ropes in the U.S. before taking a crack at directing with two major efforts: Mohammad, Messenger of God / The Message (1977), and Lion of the Desert (1980), after which he stuck to producing pretty much nothing except the Halloween sequels after the first film made him quite solvent.

I’ll have reviews of both epic films – one about religious faith, the other about a persecuted rebel – next week, since Tadlow just released a 2-disc set of Maurice Jarre’s two scores, which also happen to be among the composer’s best.

Mark R. Hasan, Editor


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