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Alumnus Laith al-Majali's feature film wins prestigious award at Sundance Film Festival

A feature film edited and produced by Laith al-Majali ’05 captured one of the top awards at the Sundance Film Festival, which concluded Jan. 27 in Park City, Utah. “Captain Abu Raed” is the first feature film to emerge from Majali's native Jordan in 50 years. Details...

Laith al-Majali ’05

“Captain Abu Raed” won the World Cinema Audience Award for drama at Sundance, which announced the festival awards Jan. 27. Majali and his team attended the independent film festival in hopes of capturing an award and securing U.S. distribution for the film.

Sundance accepted 121 films for this year's festival out of 3,624 entries. The film Majali and his team produced was one of 16 selected for the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, out of 900 entries in that category. All eight screenings of“Captain Abu Raed” were sold out at Sundance.

“Captain Abu Raed” tells the story of alonely janitor at Amman’s International Airport who finds a discardedcaptain’s hat in the trash at work. A neighborhood boy spots Raedwearing the hat on his way home and believes Raed is an airline pilot.Raed wakes up the next day to find a group of neighborhood childrenwaiting eagerly at his door. A friendship ensues, and Raed takes thechildren around the globe through his colorful, fictional stories andencourages them to follow their dreams.

"For Sundance, the main thing is to get U.S. theatrical distribution with one of the big studios that distributes independent foreign films,” Majali says. “There has never been a feature film coming out of Jordan fortheatrical distribution around the world, so to be the first, it’squite important. Hopefully, the success of this moviewill start a new movement in Jordan to think about cinema in a moreserious manner.”

Majali says he and his partners in the film always set their expectations high.

“From the moment we started, we never knew how far we could go, but we always thought good about it,” he says. “We thought nothing less than a nomination for the Oscars. It’s gratifying to see all our efforts and the collaboration of 120 people from 16 countries end up in such a beautiful film.”

Through family connections in Jordan, Majali met producer David Pritchard, whose Emmy Award-winning work includes “The Simpsons,” “King of the Hill,” and “Family Guy.” Over coffee one day, Pritchard challenged Majali and fellow Jordanian Amin Matalqa to write an original Arab language film produced in Jordan. It took the pair about 10 minutes to come up with the story, Majali recalls. Matalqa wrote the first draft in a week, followed by two years of re-writes before shooting began. They shot the entire 90-minute film in Jordan over 24 days, with Matalqa serving as director.

Majali also hopes that the success of the book and current film “The Kite Runner” will expose more Americans to Arab culture, including Arab films.

‘“The Kite Runner’ has reached people who may never have thought to see a film in a foreign language,” he says. "Film is the best way these days to communicate with other people. When they see the characters we have in our film, they have such universal appeal that they could be anywhere. Having those universal themes will allow our films to cross over.”

Majali came to Elon in 2001 as the university’s first King Hussein of Jordan Scholar. Hussein’s widow, Queen Noor, established the scholarship to help a Jordanian student attend Elon. A communications major, Majali was one of Elon’s most visible students. He’d been on campus less than a month when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred and served as a unifying voice during campus gatherings. 

Today, Majali splits his time between Los Angeles and Amman. He is looking forward to the film’s premiere in Jordan on Feb. 5. His ultimate goal is to secure an Academy Award nomination for the film in 2009. He credits the skills he learned at Elon for much of his early success.

“Elon is where I got my base and was allowed to develop my own projects,” Majali says. “Doing my own projects and seeking out internships are the main things that have helped me out. And having mentors like professor Ray Johnson and (staff member) J. McMerty to look at my work and help me out, that was the big thing.”

Majali is working on scripts for several films as well as indulging his other passion — photography. “I was lucky enough to get my break and hopefully this will allow me to do my work, which is to make films.”

(l-r)J. McMerty, Laith al-Majali, Ray Johnson and Tom Nelson.

Jaleh Hagigh,
3/11/2008 3:08 PM