Sunday, September 14, 2008

Telling Tales

Long before the Egyptians invented heiroglyphics -- even before Neanderthals started drawing on cave walls -- storytelling was the prime vehicle for documenting one's culture and passing the tribal history on to the next generation.  Hawaii's kumu hulas are not just responsible for choreographing dance, but for keeping traditions of the Hawaiian culture alive in modern society as well.

Not everyone has a story to tell (some people are almost incapable of telling a story without fumbling and getting lost).  But there are those gifted souls with an innate ability to keep an audience rapt with attention as they weave a web of magic with words.  Sometimes these people are inspirational.   

Sometimes they're merely drunk.

On the closing day of the San Francisco Fringe Festival I had an opportunity to catch a performance by Canadian comedian Susan Fischer, whose act offers a solid hour of dishing the dirt with Evelyn Reese (one of Toronto's more entertaining suburban drunks who has a great fondness for gift cards from liquor stores).  A sturdily besotted executive secretary who takes great pride in having found such a tiny apartment that she can never be expected to entertain company, Reese has already been through three husbands. Described by some critics as "a trailer park Judy Garland," she minces no words telling her co-workers what fools they are when they purchase  a composter as a going-away present for a retiring colleague.  

"She lives in a high-rise apartment and they're giving her a box with worms in it?" Reese sneers as she inhales more toxic fumes from a cigarette. 

Evelyn Reese (Photo by Richard Ryder)

While Fischer's characterization was lots of fun, the most striking thing about it was how exactly it echoed some of the characters created by Mo Collins on MadTV.   

Exact same voice.  
Exact same inflections.  
Exact same accent.   

It was beyond spooky.

* * * * * *

When I was very young, my father used to tell me bedtime stories about a wonderful character named Pinky, who was only as big as his little finger.  Because of his size, Pinky could go anywhere in the world and had some amazing adventures to share.  As I watched the beautiful new Jordanian film, Captain Abu Read (soon to be seen at the 2008 Mill Valley Film Festival), I couldn't stop thinking about Pinky and wondering how he was doing.

In this charming film, an elderly janitor (Nadim Sawalha) working at the Amman International Airport in Jordan, rescues an airline captain's hat from the garbage and brings it home with him. Tareq (Udey Al-Qiddissi), one of the more inquisitive boys in the ghetto, begs the old man to tell him stories about his adventures as a captain.

Having recently become a widower (and having lost his son in a tragic accident),  Abu Raed succumbs to the demands of a growing audience of neighborhood children and embarks on regular story-telling sessions (filmed at the Citadel in Amman -- now known as the Temple of Heracles).  Although Abu Raed's adventures have all come from books and daydreams, the mere sight of him in a captain's hat imbues his tall tales with a worldly authority which ignites the kids' fertile imaginations.  

As written and directed by Arnin Matalga, Abu Raed becomes a father figure not only to the children, but to Nour (Rana Sultan), a female pilot for Royal Jordanian Airlines who notices his skill with languages one day at the airport.  Nour's biological father keeps trying to set her up with eligible bachelors who have absolutely no appeal to her.   She loves her work, enjoys being single, and has no desire to be grounded with children.

Abu Raed's storytelling eventually leads to meddling in the lives of his young audience.  When he spots Tareq selling candy and water to tourists, he tries to find ways to keep the boy in school. When Murad (Hussine Al-Souse) -- a neighboring boy who lives with his younger brother in an abusive household -- tries to humiliate Abu Raed by taking some kids to the airport where they can  see their revered "Captain" washing the terminal floor on his hands and knees, Abu Raed tells the boy that it's all right.  

He understands.

Eventually, the abuse from Murad's drunken father escalates.  When reporting the domestic abuse to the police proves futile, Abu Raed turns to Nour -- a plea for help across economic class lines that leads to the film's startling denouement.

Captain Abu Raed has many attractions, not the least of which are the aerial views of Amman and the magnificent score composed by Austin Wintory (a graduate of USC's film scoring graduate program). While Nadim Sawalha etches a beautiful portrait of the old man and Rana Sultan has tremendous appeal as Nour (in real life the actress is one of Jordan's leading television news personalities), it is the children who steal the show with their solid acting chops.  The fact that some of them were discovered in Jordanian refugee camps make their onscreen work even more impressive.  Here's the trailer:

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