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:

17Rawlence-master768

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.

oldmohammed.jpg&MaxW=640&MaxH=427&NCS_modified=20150914145945

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.

Series: The Deadly Sins–Envy

"ENVY"   illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

“ENVY”
illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

“In this dream, though, he burned with desire for a woman. It wasn’t clear who she was. She was just there. And she had a special ability to separate her body and her heart. I will give you one of them, she told Tsukuru. My body or my heart. But you can’t have both. You need to choose one or the other, right now. I’ll give the other part to someone else, she said. But Tsukuru wanted all of her. He wasn’t about to hand over one half to another man. He couldn’t stand that. If that’s how it is, he wanted to tell her, I don’t need either one. But he couldn’t say it. He was stymied, unable to go forward, unable to go back.”

Haruki Murakami
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Book Review: The Twenty-Four Hour Mind by Rosalind D. Cartwright

The Twenty-Four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives

illustration 2013 jpbohannon

illustration 2013 jpbohannon

My reading list these days is erratic and wide. I am picking up things that pique my interest without any plan, without any connection to what I previously had been reading. But that’s okay for these summer days.

A colleague had forwarded an article from Maria Popova’s brain pickings blog. It was a review of Rosalind D. Cartwright’s book on the role of sleeping and bookdreaming in our lives. The review (like nearly everything on “brain pickings”) was intriguing and interesting. So of course, I had to find it in our library.

Cartwright is one of the preeminent scientists studying sleep–a relatively new area in scientific research. Her thesis is that sleep is essential to our health, particularly to our emotional health, and that the modern penchant (and desire) for sleeping less is damaging both physically and psychically.

Indeed, the mind does not sleep when we sleep–it goes into over-drive, cataloging memories, cementing new knowledge, mapping neural pathways. Cartwright states:

We can now begin to answer the question, “Where do we go when we got to sleep?” Clearly we do not sink into a void, but instead into a mental workshop where emotionally important information is kept active until it is saved in neural networks. When the highly activated REM sleep comes along, perceptual dreams reveal the matching of new information to old… . Through the night, from REM to REM, new information is integrated, drawing together more and more remote associations.

She continues that there is short-term functionality to these rhythms– “down-regulation of negative mood” –and long-term functionality. The long-term benefits, she lists as “continuously test[ing] and modify[ing] those non-conscious habitual schemas that make up our self-system and influence our behavior choices, based on our emotional evaluation of whether the new experience supports or challenges our present self-definition.”

This is a lot of responsibility thrown onto a good night sleep, and Cartwright’s argument is that we, as modern human beings, are sabotaging that essential need.

Aside from emotional turmoil–and Cartwright’s expertise is on sleep disorders, particular sleepwalking–Cartwright points out physical dangers as well. Those with long-term insomnia are more prone to obesity and diabetes. A famous study by the American Cancer Society was done over a 10-year period and found a puzzling pattern. Those who slept less than six hours a night AND those who slept more than nine hours a night had a higher mortality rate for their age. The conclusion is that we humans are built to sleep about 1/3 of our 24 hour cycles, that magic 7 to 9 hour range.

“We speak prose while awake and poetry when asleep.”

"The Dream," 1932 Pablo Picasso

“The Dream,” 1932 Pablo Picasso

Yet, for Cartwright’s thesis, it is not merely sleep that is essential to human health, but dreaming as well. In her profession, Cartwright is known as “the Queen of Dreams,” and dream-research is what she is interested in and battles for. Here is how Cartwright explains the symbiotic functioning of the waking and dreaming life.

“…[T]he mind is continuously active, although in different modes of expression, during the two major alterating states of waking and sleep. … In waking, there is a wider lens open to receive and respond more to the external world, while in sleep we are mostly confined to a narrower base of internal information both new and old.”

It is this “internal” information that sets us dreaming, that allows us to fit old information with new information, to anticipate new situations and reconcile old. Cartwright firmly believes that our emotions are greatly tied to the functioning of our dreaming, and of our sleeping.

While Cartwright acknowledges the contributions of Freud to dream-analysis and the understanding of the unconscious, she moves decidedly apart from him. (The technological abilities for brain-image mapping, sleep studies, etc. give her a great advantage.) The Freudian concept of the preconscious, unconscious and conscious mind is much too simplistic for what Cartwright sees happening. Here is her take on dreaming:

“So in good sleepers, the mind is continuously active, reviewing experience from yesterday, sorting which new information is relevant and important to save due to its emotional saliency. Dreams are not without sense, nor are they best understood to be expressions of infantile wishes. They are the result of the interconnectedness of new experience with that already stored in memory networks. But memory is never a precise duplicate of the original; instead, it is a contining act of creation. Dream images are the product of that creation. They are formed by pattern recognition between some current emotionally valued experience matching the condensed representation of similarly toned memories. Networks of these become our familiar style of thinking, which gives our behavior continuity and us a coherent sense of who we are. Thus, dream dimensions are elements of the schemas, and both represent accumulated experience and serve to filter and evaluate the new day’s input.”

It all is a lot to digest. But it is something to sleep upon.

Midnight on Revolutionary Road in Paris, County Cork

I am reading a book, The Night Swimmer by Matt Bondurant, where early in the novel, a young, successful couple have these yearnings to chuck it all and to move to Ireland.  They are intelligent and aware of the commonness of this trope–they intentionally nickname their street “Revolutionary Road” after the Richard Yates’ novel.  Earlier, before the dream of starting afresh in Ireland, the couple had wished to live in the time period when the novel Revolutionary Road takes place–a Cheever-esque world where pitchers of martinis and pyramids of cigarettes punctuated each evening. That glamorous “Mad-Men” world had not work out for them, but the dream of emigrating does: the husband wins a pub in County Cork, Ireland.  Needless to say, the paradise/excitement/vigor of the new life they imagined in this other world does not pan out they way it had in their dreams.  And like in Richard Yates’ novel, the marriage suffers more than greatly.

What is it about us that makes us often wish we were in some other place, some other time?  In Midnight in Paris,  Woody Allen wrestles with this question. The protagonist wishes he lived in 1920s Paris, but the 1920s woman he meets wishes she lived in the Paris of the 1890s?  And in fact, the life he is already experiencing in 2011 turns out to be full of promise. Why is this nostalgia for a world other than our own,  for an imagined place and an imagined time, so strong?  Is it  general among everyone?  Or only with a certain type of person?

I walked out to get a coffee today and on my walk home I cut down an alley.  Looking around me, I realized that I could have been walking in any foreign city with any foreign adventure around the corner.  I could have been in Paris, in Cork, but I was merely a short stroll from my own house. I took a picture with my phone.  The concept of a more exotic, romantic other place is just a whiff of smoke–it is always around us if we keep our eyes open.

Now it is often said that one doesn’t appreciated one’s home until one is separated from it. Joyce gave us a loving, photographic picture of Dublin, but only when he was writing in Switzerland and Paris.  Beckett too gives us an unnamed but undoubtedly Irish landscape in his novels and several of his plays and he too was across the sea.  But that is different than romanticizing a place one wishes for, a place that does not exist.  What Joyce and Beckett do is understand what they had left, see it without the distortion of being so close within. This is not the same as dream-manufacturing, as imagining a better world through the kaleidoscope of nostalgia and generalities.

Nevertheless, there are still many days when I wish I was somewhere else, when I don’t appreciate the vitality of the world around me. But in these daydreams, it seems that I am never working, that there is no concern about putting food on the table or where the next dollar is coming from–who wouldn’t find that attractive. And that’s what makes it all somewhat of a sham.