TIFF: Gaza Biopic 'The Idol' Offers Unlikely Uplift

The Idol Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Director Hany Abu-Assad turns dismay into delight with his Toronto festival biopic about a singer from a refugee camp who won the ‘Arab Idol’ competition.

A popular TV show may have already led one feel-good film to Academy Award glory, but seven years on and Toronto could have another Slumdog Millionaire on its hands. Rather than being based on a book, however, the events in Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s The Idol actually took place, and just two years ago.

The story of how Mohammed Assaf in 2013 won the second season of Arab Idol, the Middle East version of the global talent show, almost seems like it was written with a swooping musical biopic in mind. For Abu-Assad, whose previous two features, Paradise Now and Omar, both earned foreign language Oscar nominations, this tale of triumph over adversity gave him “goosebumps,” despite admitting to having never watched such programs.

A 22-year-old wedding singer from a refugee camp in Gaza, Assaf journeyed to Cairo with the hope of auditioning for the popular show, no small feat given the somewhat tight border restrictions around his war-torn homeland. Having persuaded Egyptian security to let him through, he then found that the hotel where the trials were taking place had shut its doors and stopped accepting any more auditions.

The story goes that Assaf climbed over the walls, but without a pass to perform was left waiting in the hall, singing to the other contestants. From there, it’s a classic feel-good trajectory; he was allowed to sing, made it to the finals in Beirut and on June 12, 2013, was crowned the winner as thousands of captivated fans watched from TV sets in cafes and courtyards in Gaza and the West Bank.

Since then, Assaf has toured relentlessly, been named a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador and has become a figure of hope and unity across the occupied territories and wider region.

“It’s not just about the winning, but the route to the winning,” says Abu-Assad. “The story of Gaza is very interesting to me. It’s about people who have been collectively punished, and yet they have this will to survive, the will to succeed. It’s a universal theme.”

Although Assaf was apparently at first “very skeptical” about the film — which has its world premiere on Friday  — Abu-Assad persuaded him that it was more about “positive energy” than simply his own achievements. The singer went on to record two tracks that Abu-Assad says will “be huge,” but stopped short of actually playing himself, a role that went to Gazan newcomer Qais Atallah.

“He and I discovered that it’s better for him not to do it, because he’s too close to the story and isn’t an actor,” says Abu-Assad.

The Idol’s shoot saw the crew actually venture inside Gaza, just months after the Israeli invasion last summer and the first time a film has been made there in 30 years. Abu-Assad claims the experience left him in a state of shock. “You won’t believe the amount of destruction there,” he says. “There are ruins everywhere, there’s no electricity at night, no medicine, good food. It’s a big jail and I just can’t believe that humanity is allowing these kinds of crimes.”

But from this jail came Assaf, and his “amazing, incredible voice.” And unlike Abu-Assad’s other features, which went deep into the world of suicide bombings and enemy informants and left the director feeling disheartened and questioning his choice of trade, Assaf’s story in The Idol “was such a pleasure, such a pleasure oh my god,” to make.

“For me, this movie is about how people can create beauty from ugliness, how you can change things that are being done against you into things that are in favor of you, creating positivity from negativity.”

The Idol – produced by Ali Jaafar and Amira Diab and co-produced by the Dubai International Film Festival, Image Nation Abu Dhabi and MBC in association with the Doha Film Institute with support from the Netherlands Film Fund – is having its world premiere in Toronto on Sept. 11.