Doha Film Institute flew me in via Istanbul to attend the Ajyal Youth Film Festival. My first time in Doha Qatar, I am stunned by the luxury of it all. The area is filled with large buildings, modern and yet very Arabic in style, from the huge gleaming glass and steel airport with its marble floors and empty, at least at 1:30 AM. Awaiting in the posh Al Mira Lounge for my drive to take me to the St. Regis Hotel — again — huge, with its arches and arabesque style towers, to the people, elegantly enshrouded women in black and men in gleaming white.
After a day to recuperate from my 24 hour flight, we, the press, had a welcome dinner and the next day was devoted to “The Idol” Opening Night Film’s press screening and press conference and to Opening Night itself with a lovely party and a band playing American movie tunes.
“Designed to inspire, and it works!” This Palestine/ UK/ Qatar/ Dubai/ Abu Dhabi/ Netherlands coproduction “The Idol” premiered at Toronto’s TIFF this September. After Doha, it won Antalya’s Best Director Award before going on to Dubai Film Festival. This is a feel-good movie which gives a human voice to the Palestinian dilemma without being political or religious. It’s pure heart.
“The Idol” was coproduced by Image Nation of Abu Dhabi, Enjaaz — a Dubai Film Market initiative — Doha Film institute with support from the Netherlands Film Fund. MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Company) also coproduced and is handling the film’s release in the Middle East and North Africa. September’s Hans de Wolf was the Dutch coproducer and is distributing it in Benelux.
Speaking in Doha with producers Ali Jaafar, Amira Diab in the patio of Al Jazeera Press Center I was given an in-depth look at the origin of this production which will be seen across the Arab lands both theatrically and through MBC. MBC was the first to come on board when producer Ali pitched them the idea of making a movie of the phenomenal success story of Mohammed Assaf, a Palestinian who grew up in Gaza and whose voice became the voice of the nation when he won the Arab Idol contest in 2013.
Sydney Levine: Where did you come from? IMDb only lists one credit for you and that’s for “The Idol”.
Ali Jaafar: I was executive director of Tarak Ben Ammar’s Quinta Communications’ film division for five years. The company co-produced Rachid Bouchareb’s Oscar Nominated “Outside The Law’”; Julian Schnabel’s “Miral”; Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Black Gold” aka “Day of the Falcon” starring Antonio Banderas, Tahar Rahim and Freida Pinto, which was distributed by Warner Bros and Universal Pictures and was Doha Film Institute’s first film investment and the first major film to shoot in Qatar. It was an attempt to tell an epic Arabian story for the international audience. Filming took place in Tunisia during the Jasmine Revolution that led to the overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Filming finished on schedule and on budget with no interference, but it was a very difficult time for such a film to break out.
Quinta also co-produced “Where Do We Go Now” by Nadine Labaki known first for Caramel (2007) and more recently for Rio, I Love You(2014). “Where Do We Go Now” was the first Arabic film to win the prestigious Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.
SL: How did you hook up with “The Idol”?
Ali: When the major pop TV show Arab Idol awarded its top prize to Mohammed Assaf, the next morning the media went wild. It was during the toughest time yet in the Arab world, with Tunisia’s Revolution igniting insurgencies in Libya, Egypt, Palestine. It was a great story. I spoke to MBC suggesting they make a movie about it. They said yes and were onboard from the very beginning.
This was my first movie as a producer. I learned so much from Tarak. One of the things I learned was to have the best partners and MBC was just that. They offered critical support, PR support all the way through filming, support in releasing and guidance in what works in the Middle East region.
MBC helped with script development. Sameh Zoabi wrote the first two drafts of the film. With the Number One Media (MBC) company on board, I was able to enlist others to help as well.
SL: How did you get Hany on board as director?
Ali: Hany was my number one choice as director, but during my first year working on “The Idol”, he was busy promoting “Omar” and lining up a project with a big U.S. studio. He was a friend and I was hoping he might at least co-produce; he read the script and gradually, one year later we met in London. He said that the American movie had been pushed back one year so he was available, but he needed to start in January – which gave me three months to put it together.
SL: Amira, so you’re Hany’s wife…where were you working before this film?
Amira: I had been living in London but we’re now living in L.A. My background is in financing.
Ali: Yes she brought in a major part of the financing on the film too.
Amira: I met Hany who said we need more women producers and the timing was right. When Ali called Hany, Hany brought me in to meet Ali. I spent a lot of time on the set with the line producer Baher Agbariya who became a coproducer. I also worked on the rewrite and worked with the kids.
SL: And is it true that TV does not usually show movies? That is what I heard someone say during the Q&A.
Ali: This film is an important bridge in a very crowded marketplace. Cinema is more challenging for breaking out of borders. Usually what is Lebanese stays in Lebanon, what is Jordanian stays in Jordan, etc. Films do not easily cross borders – except for Egyptian films. And usually independent films are more arthouse rather than commercial. “The Idol” about a big pop star has breakout potential.
SL: When Hany came on board, what did he do first?
Ali: He worked on the script, strengthening the relationship between the sister and brother, adding some elements.
Hany insisted on shooting on location in both Beirut and Cairo for the exterior scenes set in those cities so that the film would look and feel real. He was only given a three day permit to film in Gaza. Set in the devastated landscapes of a Gaza still reeling from the month-long bombardment in 2014, Abu-Assad and his crew were still able to find great moments of beauty and surprise. The Gaza Parkour Team, for example, supplies its amazing acrobatic display in the most surprising way in one moment, proving that art can thrive in even the most challenging of situations.
That desire for authenticity is also why Hany insisted on finding and employing real kids from Gaza to act in the film. The crew did a Gaza-wide search, holding casting sessions and rehearsals in schools across the area. Ultimately, the production was blessed to find four amazing Gazan children to star in the film, all first time actors, and all incredible natural performers.
The first half of the film takes place in a war-torn Gaza city which, for Mohammed Assaf, his sister Nour and their best friends Ahmad and Omar. is a playground where they freely ride their bikes, play music, football and dare to dream big. Their band might play on second hand, beat-up instruments but their ambitions are sky-high. Their ambition is to play at the world famous Cairo Opera Hall.
The world around Mohammed shatters. Through it all, however, he retains the hope that his voice will somehow deliver him from the pain that surrounds him and bring joy to others. He sings at weddings, he drives a taxi to pay for his university studies. Even as the siege around Gaza intensifies, the prison around them ever more forbidding, Mohammed knows he has a rare gift, the ability to make people smile and forget their anxieties about day to day living.
SL: How did eOne become your international sales agent?
Ali: The international sales agent was critical for us as filmmakers. We had interest from a number of established European sales agents who would’ve done a good job but when EOne expressed their strong passion for the project it provided us with a great opportunity to position the film in a more commercial space in the marketplace.
EOne’s arthouse arm Seville took it to AFM and they presold almost all the territories, even China and Australia based on the powerful package of the script, MBC, Hany and a great story.
SL: I know international sales by Seville were made before TIFF to some 20 territories including Benelux (September Films — the former Wild Bunch Benelux), France (TF1), Germany (Koch), Japan (New Select), Hong Kong (Edko), Hungary (MTVA), Australia (Umbrella), Latin America (California Filmes), Portugal (Outsider Films), South Africa (Times Media) Switzerland (Praesens), China (Beijing Xiangjiang YiHua Films), India (PVR), Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore (Red Pictures), Taiwan (Spring International), Former Yugoslavia (Discovery Films), Romania (Independenta), South Korea (Kaon Contents & Media) and Airlines (Captive). eOne will directly release the film in Spain. MBC will distribute throughout the Middle East, including Palestine and North Africa.
Ali: We filmed “The Idol” with no advance publicity outside of the Middle East. When it premiered at TIFF, we announced the sales. After it premiered in Toronto we sealed the American deal with Adopt Films which had released Hany’s film “Omar” and a U.K. deal. That concluded world sales to every territory.
SL: Where will it play next?
Ali: After Toronto it played London, Warsaw and Torino Film Festivals. It will go on to play in Turkey and Dubai Film Festivals. Eagle will release the film on December 24th in the Gulf states (GCC) and on January 14th in the Levant (Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan). On the 21st it opens in Egypt. MBC will release on its pan-Arab television network.
Also in January Rotterdam Film Festival will screen it Its U.S. release by Adopt will be sometime between spring and summer.