The Idol: Hany Abu-Assad’s Tribute to Mohammed Assaf

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The Idol by Hany Abu-Assad, an acclaimed Palestinian director with two Academy Award nominations to his credit, is set for imminent release in US theaters by adopt films. Unlike Paradise Now (2005), which trailed two would-be suicide bombers and Omar (2013), a cat-and-mouse tale about Palestinian collaborators and Israeli intelligence handlers interwoven with a love story, The Idol is not a dark drama full of second-guessing. It is an endearing down-to-earth biopic of Mohammed Assaf, the 2013 winner of Arab Idol, an Arab singing competition modeled after American Idol.

We’re introduced to Assaf (Qais Attallah) as a kid in Gaza, alongside sister Nour (Hiba Attallah) and their friends, Ahmad and Omar (Ahmad Qassim; Abdalkarim Abubaraka). Audience members could be forgiven for thinking they’re watching a remake of Stand by Me, the 1986 Rob Reiner classic. Gaza appears like any other place where kids play street games and ride their bikes around town, with the latter scene set to a beautiful score by composer Hani Asfari. The music suddenly falls silent when the kids bring their bikes to an abrupt halt at the Israeli barrier separating Gaza from Israel. Gaza, after all, isn’t so normal. Abu Assad, however, does not allow the occupation to overwhelm the film; the kids quickly peddle left and the music resumes. We know that the setting is Gaza, and that Gaza suffocates under occupation, but that the Palestinians there also live.

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The film is inspired by a true story,  much of which replays the standard rags-to-riches chronicle; and that’s not necessarily a criticism. Abu Assad is telling a story that has become  folklore and his audience expects their idolization of Assaf to be indulged. Although the backstory drags on a little, It becomes clear why it matters so much to the trajectory of the film. Assaf is a talented child, though unaware of his natural gifts and not much interested in music. Assaf’s gutsy sister Nour is his torch in the world.

Abu Assad places the brother-and-sister duo at the heart of the journey that leads Assaf to Arab Idol and international stardom. It is a smart move that adds emotional weight to Assaf’s story and garners him enormous empathy. Nour, his twin, is a defiant child who’s determined to escape Gaza’s patriarchal parochialism. She plays with the boys, dresses like a tomboy, and when her mother reproachfully asks, “When are you going to behave like a girl you age?” Nour’s rejoinder defines her spirit: “If I’m not allowed to take part in everything, then never.” She steers Assaf and his friends into a band (she’s often forced to play her base from behind a screen due to cultural norms that frown upon the appearance of girls on public stages) and continually reminds her brother that one day they’ll escape Gaza and make their voices heard around the world.

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Forty minutes into the film, we’re transported to 2012 Gaza, a far less lively place than before. The blockade (since ’07) and the destruction from the 2008-09 Israeli assault on the territory are evident. The teenage Assaf (played by the exceptional Palestinian actor Tawfeek Barhom) is a taxi-driving university student who’s still trying to make it as an artist, but his frustration and sense of helplessness are palpable. His audition for a Palestinian singing contest has to be broadcast via Skype due to his inability to travel to Ramallah; a shabby internet connection and power generator explosion combine to sabotage his performance. His aimless despondency inside the cage that Gaza has become is interrupted by a commercial announcing (the very last) audition for Arab Idol in Cairo.

A contemporaneous encounter with a childhood friend convinces him that he must leave Gaza and let his voice be heard for the sake of all the Gazans and Palestinians who have been rendered silent on the world stage. The story of how Assaf got to Cairo through the mostly-closed Rafah crossing has many variations—he went through one of the tunnels, or, according to Wikipedia, it took “two days . . . by car due to complications on the border.” But Abu Assad chooses to create his own version of events: Assaf acquires a forged document and . . . revealing anything more would be a spoiler.

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By now it’s Showtime! We’re finally at the Arab Idol competition but having spent so much time on the backstory, this segment of the film feels a bit rushed. The film even employs a Week 1, Week 2, Week 3 . . . chronicle banner of the contest with actual footage of the judges’ respective comments including describing Assaf as “the rocket” and the “voice of Palestine.” This lopsidedness between backstory and the competition itself may not serve the narrative arc that well. Abu Assad certainly has his justification: much of the film’s audience will have watched the competition in real-time, so why not introduce spectators to the Assaf they never got a chance to meet? Nevertheless, the scenes focusing on Assaf’s early life could have been shorter without losing the essence of his childhood. After all, the Assaf that appears in the weekly competition segments is new to many viewers (including myself), and it is this Assaf who won the hearts of the Arab world – he is the film’s raison d’être.

The build-up to Assaf’s eventual victory feels stunted, even a bit forced in the end, with the rolling news footage of Palestinians celebrating his triumph as the Arab Idol. This last moment, however, will tug at the heart. It is a reminder of just how much Assaf’s win meant for Palestinians. At a time when the Palestinian national movement is at its lowest ebb in decades after years of factional strife and inept leadership; the blockade on Gaza may is estimated to make it unlivable by 2020; Israeli settlements are gobbling up the West Bank; and national liberation appears more and more elusive, Assaf’s soaring victory offered the Palestinians a rare moment of collective celebration. Documentary footage of packed squares from Nablus to Gaza conveys the contagious joy.

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Abu Assad is not at his strongest when making a film that so consciously caters to popular expectations, but The Idol is a thoroughly enjoyable tribute to one of the most iconic contemporary Palestinians. Assaf himself makes a brief appearance at the end. For those hearing his voice for the first time, there’s no need to explain why Assaf astounded the audiences and was adopted by his people as “Palestine’s Dream.”

By Khelil Bouarrouj

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