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Arab cinema pulls into focus

By James Reinl

With movies like The Kingdom, Syriana and Redacted being shot in the Middle East, Hollywood is doubtless leaving its print in Arabian sands. But a group of Arab film-makers behind the new low-budget Dh7.3 million film Captain Abu Raed are demanding a little bit more from the film industry.


The feature-length flick about a poverty-stricken Amman community premiered at this week’s Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), which ends on Sunday, and is already causing a stir in the Arab film world. The first homegrown Jordanian feature in decades has already won a spot at Sundance Film Festival, America’s biggest indie film meet.


Writer and director, Jordanian-American Amin Matalqa, is “quite confident” that his 110-minute debut will be picked up by Western distributors and prove a hit on the art house circuit of the US and Europe.


“I think it is going to go out there,” says the 31-year-old. “We all recognise this is a foreign film. People in America and Europe will have to read subtitles. But there is a lot of positive interest in the film and there is an art community of people who go to see movies like this.”


Industry pundits say this film could be the tipping point for Arab cinema. While few would deny the pride associated with George Clooney strutting down the DIFF red carpet or Jamie Foxx running through the streets of Abu Dhabi playing FBI agent Ronald Fleury, insiders have long bemoaned the flying visits Los Angeles crews pay to the region.


Rather than developing the local film industry, critics say, Hollywood’s forays into the Middle East entail entire production units flying in and jetting back out again as soon as their shots are in the can. While LA film-makers may use local fixers and location scouts, they seldom source writers, directors or lead actors from the Arab world. Revenue from these films generally goes straight back into the pockets of movie moguls in Los Angeles and, in the few instances where petrodollars have financed films, the profits are not necessarily ploughed back into future productions.


But not so for Captain Abu Raed – a film shot in just 23 days and funded by a handful of Jordanian investors through the Kingdom’s newly formed Paper and Pen Films, a company with plans to fund a series of Arab-made movies. The film is about an old airport janitor who befriends children from his poor neighbourhood – their lives are shattered by poverty and family violence. They believe Abu Raed is a pilot and ask him to tell them of his travels, forcing him to spin tall tales of colourful adventures. In time Abu Raed, played by Jordanian-born British actor Nadim Sawalha, learns about the children’s grim lives and decides to help them overcome their hardships.


Rana Sultan, the host of a popular Jordanian television morning talk show, makes her movie debut in Captain Abu Raed, playing a young airline pilot who helps Abu Raed make a difference in the children’s lives. According to the film’s executive producer David Pritchard, the movie makes perfect business sense. He should know: the 60-year-old boss of Gigapix Studios owns the production companies behind US hit series like The Simpsons and King of the Hill.


Pritchard says producing high-quality art house movies on a relatively low budget in the Middle East could reap dividends. With good scripts and reasonable production value, films like Captain Abu Raed can turn a profit by winning over art house audiences in Europe and the US – the markets responsible for 70 per cent of the returns on world films.


“I want to produce three or four films a year that have 25 years of library value,” says Pritchard. “If you do that in Dubai, Jordan or Abu Dhabi then you have an entire industry. It’s no different to what the Italians did in the 1970s and what other countries have done since – they have all realised that you have got to get out of the internal market.”


“Captain Abu Raed should compete with [successful world cinema movies like] Cinema Paradiso and Il Postino in terms of quality. Everything we do must have that kind of quality and value attached.”


Arab cinema’s new-found advocates are not only keen to nurture and develop the region’s talent, they also want to highlight positive aspects of life in the Arab world. Matalqa says he wants to show Western audiences there is more to the Middle East than the violence broadcast on news channels, while demonstrating that not all Arabs are terrorists – as the audiences of TV shows 24 and Hollywood blockbusters are led to believe.


“I want people to see a human picture about this part of the world,” says Matalqa. “By design, I wrote this as a universal film and made it accessible to an American audience. I want my audience to see Arabs as human beings and not monsters. We have had enough of these barbaric representations and it is time for something more positive.”


Pritchard agrees, saying producing Middle Eastern movies is one of the best ways to combat negative depictions.


“To break the stereotype is to control your own destiny,” says Pritchard. “On a practical level, cinema is the most widely used from of art. Most people in the world do not know the names of modern fine artists, but they do know the names of movie stars and film-makers. It is a massive language to express you culture.”


Jordanian secret


Captain Abu Raed’s lead actor Nadim Sawalha is described by some as Jordan’s best-kept secret. He was born to a Bedouin family in Jordan in 1935 but later headed to Britain, eventually securing roles in films such as the The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) and James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). More recently he played Hamad Al Subaai in the political thriller Syriana, sections of which were shot in the UAE. Sawalha says his latest movie Captain Abu Raed is “the first serious attempt at making a Jordanian feature film, employing Jordanian and international technical expertise”.


“If it succeeds globally, and I am sure it will, it will attract a lot of attention to Jordan both as a good place to make films and also to visit. Both are important aspects for the economy,” Sawalha says.


Sawalha is hopeful this latest movie will help usher in an era of successful film-making from his native Hashemite Kingdom. “Young Jordanians have risen so quickly to meet the challenge of film-making. I have worked all over the world with the best film crews ever, and I find Jordanians full of confidence, comparable with the finest.”