Movie Review: The Idol by Hany Abu-Assad

The New York Times, in its review of Ben Ehrenreich’s book The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine,  posted the picture below:

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photograph by Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

It is a photograph of unbridled joy, curiosity and innocence set in a refugee camp against the bombed out ruins of Gaza.  The happiness of childhood trumps–at least in this moment–the nastiness of the adult world around them.

This photograph reminds me very much of the first half of Hany Abu Assad’s film The Idol (Ya Tayr Al Tayer). It is a fictionalized account of the true story of Mohammed Assaf, the Palestinian wedding singer who sneaked across the border from his Gaza refugee camp and traveled to Cairo to compete in Arab Idol (the Arab version of “American Idol”). The film is divided neatly into two halves. (Though it is an awkward transition from the first to the second half.)

The first-half begins with a group of young children, riding their bikes, running from bullies, scraping together money, fishing (and then cooking and selling those fish). There is a sense of pure joy and freedom and hope. Except for the background of bombed-out buildings, exposed rebar, enormous piles of rubble and trash and ubiquitous destruction, the scenes could have been written for Hal Roach’s Little Rascals.

the kids

All photos from “The Idol” press kit.

The children want to form a band. The 10-year old Mohammed (Qais Atallah) and his 12-year old tom-boy sister Nour (Hiba Atallah) recruit their friends and begin performing. Mohammed’s talent is evident; his voice is mature and controlled beyond his age. His sister’s charm and grit and ambition push the band forward, and they begin getting hired to play at weddings. (Nour’s being female is a problem. They cannot get hired if they have a female in the band and no one would hire them without her musicality. So she hangs in the background, behind the others, playing guitar and wearing her ever-present backwards baseball cap.)

Young Mohammed (Qais Atallah)and his sister Nour (Hibba Attala)

And they are good. Carried by Mohammed’s voice.

When Nour collapses from kidney failure, the band dissolves, but Mohammed vows to earn enough money singing to get her treatment–thus the quest to appear on Arab Idol. The actual quest begins the second half of the film when Mohammed (now played by Tawfeek Barhom) is 18.

Life hasn’t changed much in the seven years that have elapsed. It may have gotten worse. There are still power shortages, travel restrictions, destruction, hopelessness.  But Mohammed is determined, especially when encouraged by the girl he met while his sister was getting dialysis.

This is not a spoiler. It is the fact that the film is based on. Against, incredible odds, Mohammed Assaf rises to the top of the competition. And it is here that one witnesses the true joy of the film.

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Mohammed Assaf (Tawfeek Barhom) on “Arab Idol”

Every neighborhood, every household, every town square is filled with proud Gazans watching Mohammed on Arab Idol. Their pride and joy is palpable.  There is cheering, fireworks, embraces, flag waving. These people have not had a lot to cheer for, and now they do and it is cause for celebration.

It would be disingenuous to say that The Idol is not a political film, for of course it is. The politics, however, are subtle and act as a patina to a classic story of realizing one’s dreams. It is a joyous film, all the more remarkable for taking place in what appears to be such a joy killing space. And the realizations of Mohammed’s dreams are felt vicariously by the crowds that gather around televisions, big and small, and watch his ascent.

Hany Abu-Assad, who shares writing credits with Sameh Zoabi, has crafted an emotional film that never gets schmaltzy. There is angst and happiness, frustration and success, danger and death and victory and love. But it is all done with an even-hand and a simple narrative. Again, the politics are there–you cannot see Gaza and not wonder how or why? But, that is never the thrust of the film.

It is rare these days to see a film set in the Middle-East in which afterwards one comes out of the theater smiling and happy. Hany Abu-Assad has created such a film. And our joy is not simply for Mohammed Assaf, but for the Gazan people themselves. Sure their lives will remain unchanged for the most part, but the music competition has given them something to be proud of.

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