Sad, old Abu Raed, airport janitor and white-bearded widower, lives alone in his dim apartment, making tea for his dead wife and telling her about his days. Raed finds a pilot's hat in the trash, wears it up the dusty Jordanian steps of his dusty Jordanian slum, and a big, hopeful lie is born. The kids want Abu Raed to be a hero, Abu Raed wants to be somebody's hero—really, somebody's anything—so he tells them long stories about nonexistent adventures in London, Paris, Egypt, wherever. Of course, the obligatory kid-embittered-beyond-his-years finds out Abu Raed isn't a pilot and informs the others with the sad, sadistic delight of the class bully announcing there's no Santa Claus. "People like us don't grow up to be pilots," he says ruefully, before dragging himself back to his dead-end life and drunken, abusive father.
Captain Abu Raed lives in the tension between high and low: between skies filled with jet planes and the yellow slums of Amman, between the humble life of Abu Raed (fantasy pilot and widower) and the fancy life of Nour (a real-life pilot whose father keeps pressing her to marry rich dolts). Mostly, Abu Raed concerns the kids—some hopeless, some doomed, some destined to find their way out of the slums. It's touching, just this side of cornball, and as sweet and slow as molasses.
The first feature film produced in Jordan in 50 years, Captain Abu Raed has won awards from SIFF to Sundance and will likely make its way into Oscar nominations—thanks to the quietly sad face of Nadim Sawalha as Abu Raed, the visual immersion into Amman's street life, and the unexpectedly heroic turn the film takes in the end (which, in the era of the Iranian uprising, can now be read as a political metaphor for average people standing up to autocratic bullies). Captain Abu Raed will probably become part of the international film lexicon—especially the Arab world's film lexicon—for decades to come.