Filmmaker pays homage to Gaza with biopic on ‘Arab Idol’ singing hero

Raised in a refugee camp in the ramshackle Gaza Strip, singer Mohammed Assaf emerged as a symbol of Palestinian resilience as he persevered to win the Arab Idol television contest.

In a biopic about Assaf’s against-all-odds rise to stardom, filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad has sought to create a similar sense of pride, this time for cinema goers. Entitled "The Idol", the movie is the first feature-length motion picture to be shot at least partially in the impoverished and isolated territory in two decades.

“The movie is an homage to Gaza,” Abu-Assad, a Palestinian and two-time Oscar nominee, told AFP ahead of Friday’s opening of "The Idol" in US cinemas.

“Second, I really want Palestinians to be proud of themselves. It’s not like the movie is going to change their situation, but the movie can help them to change themselves and believe in themselves,” he said.

Assaf, now 26, transfixed television viewers around the Arab world in 2013 as he triumphed in Arab Idol, a contest on the model of Britain’s Pop Idol and its numerous spinoffs such as American Idol.

In a journey portrayed in "The Idol" with all the suspense of an action movie, Assaf overcame nearly insurmountable obstacles just to be a contestant — starting with getting out of the Gaza Strip, which is under a blockade by Israel and Egypt. Assaf had to coax an Egyptian border guard to let him through. In the film version, Assaf sings a religious tune for him.

On arrival in Cairo, he discovered that he had arrived too late to join the competition. However, his singing impressed a fellow Palestinian, who agreed to give Assaf his place in line.

Subtle on politics

Abu-Assad spoke to Assaf about potentially starring in the film version of his life, but instead he chose the Israeli Arab actor Tawfeek Barhom, who portrays the young star as serious and determined in contrast to the giddy world of aspiring pop singers.

“Being a singer is different from being an actor,” the director said, adding that choosing Barhom allowed him the licence to dramatise scenes for effect and not adhere strictly to actual events. The director said he allowed Assaf to view the film before the final cut.

“When he saw it, he cried,” Abu-Assad said.

Abu-Assaf agreed to cut some scenes from the film at the request of Assaf, but described the changes as minor, saying they were because of the sensitivities of Assaf and his family.

Like Assaf in real life, "The Idol" is political but in a subtle way. The film shows Assaf flustered in Beirut, where the contest takes place, as reporters suddenly treat him as a spokesman for the Palestinian cause.

Yet Assaf, while not speaking openly about politics, has emerged as a unifying figure for supporters of the bitter rivals in Palestinian politics, the Fatah movement of president Mahmoud Abbas and the Islamic militant movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

In "The Idol", Israel appears only indirectly, as the viewer experiences the bombed-out landscape of Gaza, which has been repeatedly devastated by Israeli air strikes in response to rocket attacks into the Jewish state.

Finding joy in Gaza

The film, which premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, enjoyed an enthusiastic response when it was screened recently at a rare film festival inside Gaza, where around three-quarters of the 1.7 million people are refugees.

Abu-Assad said "The Idol" was the first movie shot in Gaza since leading Palestinian director Michel Khleifi went there some 20 years earlier. Just entering Gaza was a logistical headache due to a blockade imposed nearly a decade ago after Hamas won elections in the self-governing territory.

The director said he was welcomed by Gazans, who are unaccustomed to film crews other than news media. But after receiving permission from Israel to shoot for only two days, Abu-Assad focused on the atmospherics and filmed most indoor scenes in Jenin in the more accessible West Bank.

Entering Gaza, “everything is designed to make you feel that you are going to hell,” he said. “But when you enter Gaza, you free yourself and you become a free-spirit,” he said.

“It’s crazy. With all the destruction that they have, they still can make a joke, they can sing and they can enjoy life. They have hopes and they are even more courageous.”

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