Award-winning films earn country recognition

LONDON — While investors in the Persian Gulf are getting a seat for themselves at the international film players’ table by inking a stream of billion-dollar real estate deals with U.S. studios, filmmakers in Jordan are announcing their presence on the world stage by actually making award-winning films.

Amin Matalqa’s “Captain Abu Raed,” the country’s first feature in some 50 years, won the World Cinema Audience award, while Mahmoud Al-Massad’s doc “Recycle,” took home the World Cinema cinematography prize.

The brace of victories marks the quiet cinematic emergence of oil-free Jordan. That success is set to continue. Two significant U.S. film companies are vying to buy “Captain Abu Raed,” a heart-warming tale about an airport janitor who pretends to be an airline pilot so he can regale the poor neighborhood kids with imagined tales of his worldly travels, in a deal that may end up being the highest-ever for an Arab film.

Matalqa is already working an a follow-up to his feted debut. The $3 million-$5 million budgeted “Once Upon Amman” will reunite the cast of “Captain Abu Raed,” including Nadim Sawalha who previously won the actor prize at the Dubai film fest, for a fast-paced tale about a student who is in love with his teacher and a parallel story about a taxi driver who tries to lead a model life for his young son. “We got standing ovations in all of our screenings, people were laughing and crying. It was incredible to see that we accomplished exactly what we set out to do,” says Matalqa. “Everyone’s talking about it in Jordan. I even got an email from someone who said he hasn’t been this excited about a film since ‘Lord of the Rings.”

“Captain Abu Raed” opens Feb. 6 in Jordan and will roll out across the Middle East in March.

Al-Massad is also prepping his next project. While “Recycle” was a powerful portrayal of a former mujahideen attempting to rebuild his life in the Jordanian town of Zarqa (also the birthplace of notorious insurgent Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi), Al-Massad is turning to the funny for “Jackie and the 40 Yellow Cabs.”

Laffer is a semi-autobiographical feature about a failed filmmaker who goes to any lengths to finish his own documentary after returning from abroad to lens in his native Jordan.

“Everyone in this film is a failure. That’s why I like it,” says Al-Massad. “So many people are already interested in this story because normally the Middle East is shown as serious but this will be full of humor. It’s really emotional for me to see everything going on in Jordan right now. I hope this young generation will have the chance to express themselves, especially with the new film university opening there.”

Jordan’s Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts (RSICA), a film school developed in partnership with the U. of Southern California and boasting the support of Steven Spielberg, officially opens its doors for applications Feb. 17, with courses beginning in September. The institute will be the Middle East’s first regional film school.

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