Having built his international reputation with award-winners Omar and Paradise Now, powerful examinations of the hardships and moral complexities of life under Israeli occupation, Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad enjoys a well-deserved change of pace with the irrepressibly optimistic The Idol. A dramatization of the rags-to-redemption rise of Mohammed Assaf, the first Palestinian singer to win Arab Idol (the Middle-Eastern version of American Idol), this endearing, unabashedly sappy tale of underdog triumph is Abu-Assad’s most upbeat since Rana’s Wedding (2002). In all likelihood, it will earn a diplomatic passport to many further festivals and get offshore distributors of specialty fare singing happy tunes.
It’s ironic that The Idol arrives in Toronto at a time when enthusiasm in the West for the TV talent shows that spawned Arab Idol is decidedly on the wane. American Idol is scheduled to finish after its 15th season this year, while sister program The X Factor sputters on in the U.K. amid dire ratings and mass indifference.
During a Q&A onstage at the premiere in Toronto, and again in the film’s press notes, Abu-Assad reiterated that he was more excited about Assaf’s winning Idol than he was about his film Omar taking the top prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard competition. But the marriage between his own naturally stringent sensibility and the frothy vulgarity of the Idol franchise is not always an easy fit. In the end, Assaf’s final victory lap is rushed through via montage and capped by happy-ending subtitles as the credits roll, almost as if the director is a bit embarrassed that it took a tawdry TV show to finally deliver a feel-good story for the Palestinian people.
On the other hand, at times the preceding 90 minutes plays like an art house, voiceover-free version of those manipulative sob-eliciting backstories that are an integral part of the franchise. We learn that Assaf even had a beloved relative who always encouraged him to believe in himself before she died. In this case, it was a tomboy, covert-feminist tween sister named Nour (played with delightful pluck by nonprofessional Hiba Attahllah) whom we first meet as she and a young Mohammed (Qais Attallah) run, Slumdog Millionaire-style, through the streets of Gaza City. It’s Nour who first recognizes the beauty of Mohammed’s voice, who forms their first wedding band with friends Ahmad (Ahmad Qassim) and Omar (Abdalkarim Abubaraka), and who haggles with a shady smuggler (Paradise Now alum Ashraf Barhoum) to buy their instruments. Alas, she’s taken too soon, all for the lack of $15,000 needed to buy her a new kidney.
After her passing, a quietly effective trick-shot transition sees Assaf transform from a boy into a young man (now played by brooding — perhaps too brooding given the sunniness of the real Assaf — Tawfeek Barhom). For a spell, the film then settles into more traditional Abu-Assad territory with its focus on a troubled young men facing an invidious decision. In this case, Mohammed must choose whether to stay in Gaza in poverty with no prospects, or risk arrest by entering Egypt with a fake visa to make the Idol auditions.
History records that he chose the latter, but still the director and his regular editor Eyas Salman notch up the tension by beautiful degrees as Mohammed overcomes each obstacle with ingenuity, charm and, hokey but true, sheer singing skill.
Production companies: A Seville International presentation of a Mezza Terra Media production, co-produced by O3, Majdal Films, KeyFilm, Septmember Film in association with Doha Film Institute, Fortress Film Clinic, Rawabi, Image Nation Abu Dhabi
Cast: Qais Atallah, Hiba Atallah, Ahmad Qassim, Abdelkarim Abu Baraka, Tawfeek Barhom, Saber Shreim, Ahmed Al Rokh, Nadine Labaki
Director: Hany Abu-Assad
Screenwriters: Hany Abu-Assad, Sameh Zoabi
Producers: Ali Jaafar, Amira Diab
Executive producers: Hamed Mokhtar, Tiziana Sousou, Bashar Masri, Badr Jafar, Sassan Ahsani, Khalil Amiouni, Gisel Kordestani, Mufid Shawwa, Wafic Said, Khaled Said, Harold Van Lier, Anick Poirier
Director of photography: Ehab Assal
Editor: Eyas Salman
Production designer: Nael Kanj
Costume designer: Hamada Atallah
Composer: Habib Shehadeh Hanna
Casting: Amer Hlehel
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Sales: Seville International
No rating, 98 minutes