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‘The Idol’ Director Hany Abu-Assad on Making a Movie Without Cultural Barriers

'The Idol' Director Hany Abu-Assad Speaks about Making a Movie Without Cultural Barriers

“Designed to inspire, and it works!” These were the first words out of my friend Ian‘s mouth as we exited “The Idol,” Hany Abu-Assad’s newest film. Three days later I was still feeling its effect and recommending it to people here at the Toronto Film Festival whenever we discussed the films we had been seeing.

This Palestine/ UK/ Qatar/ Netherlands production was inspired by the true 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.

International sales by Seville (eOne’s arthouse branch) were made before TIFF to some 20 territories including Benelux (September Films is 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 in Palestine and North Africa. Adopt Films just picked up U.S. rights.

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 also coproduced and is handling the film’s release in the Middle East and North Africa. September was the Dutch coproducer and is handling it in Benelux.

Speaking in Toronto with Hany Abu-Assad, he agreed, this film was designed carefully. And at its world premiere here in Toronto, he was so nervous. When the laughter from the audience happened at exactly the right moment, he knew the film worked the way he had envisaged. “They laughed and cried at the same time,” he said. He did not know even though the editing if the emotion will carry it. “You don’t know until you show it. When I knew that people laughed with the kids then I knew I had succeeded. The little laugh when the kids were chased told me it worked.”

“From the small laugh to another point here, and another here, a domino effect starts.”

The original script was written by Sameh Zoabi whose earlier film, “Man Without a Cell Phone” won the Montpellier Mediterranean Film Festival Award for Sameh as Best Director. Hany gave the finished script to his (and my own) friend, colleague and script consultant, Annemarie Jacir, whose own film, “When I Saw You” premiered in Toronto in 2012 and won many awards including the Audience Prize at L.A. Film Festival in 2013 and at Amiens and the Netpac Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2013. “She gave me some notes and worked on some of the dialogue.”

I remarked how much I liked the joke about the distance between Gaza and Egypt being the same as the distance between Cuba and Florida and told him about a parallel joke made in the Cuban film “Barrio Cuba” when the Havana people call those coming from the east (Santiago de Cuba) “Palestinians”. 

Aside from having a top-notch script, the entire film design was also successful because he worked with the same DP Ehab Assal, Editor Eyas Salmon who was also editor of TIFF’s “Dégradé”, Production Designer and Art Director Nael Kanj and the Location Manager who all worked on his last film, the Academy Award nominated “Omar”. They have grown with him are now top quality artists and technicians who can work on both local and international productions.

“During ‘Omar’ we talked a lot about how the film would work, the concept, the core, the score, but on this film we spoke less. We knew each other better and it was much easier to shoot knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. And it was joyful and almost telepathic. We hoped this approach behind the camera would also inform the on-screen experience,” said Hany who also 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.

The key to this film has always been authenticity both in front of and behind the camera. That is why “The Idol” is one of the first, if not the first, international production to shoot on location in Gaza, despite the logistical difficulties to get a film crew in and out safely. 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, supply their 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, beaten 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.

On TV one evening he watches as the auditions for Arab Idol, the most popular show in the Arab world, take place in Cairo. The borders are closed. There is no way out. Somehow, he finds a way and makes it in front of the judges in Egypt. From there, destiny awaits, a chance to change his life and give a voiceless people the greatest feeling of all: the freedom to love, live and feel free.

However success in the weekly competitions bring on anxieties of a new kind, to be the one responsible for being the voice of his people, Palestine takes on more importance than his personal reasons for surviving and succeeding.

This film plays well to children and adults equally. The boy becomes a man, played by Tawfeek Barhom who played in last year’s “Dancing Arabs” and switches gears to his escape to Egypt and his competing in the Arab Idol talent contest. At the very end, Tawfeek’s character becomes the real star, Mohammed Assaf. His voice was always used, even when Tawfeek was supposedly singing.

“I always ask myself why I want to make a movie and spend almost two years of my life working very hard to complete that movie. In the case of ‘The Idol’, the answer was clear and simple. The story of this young man, Muhammad Assaf, is such an incredible story that even somebody like me who, just three weeks earlier had won the Jury Prize of Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, was more excited for Assaf to win Arab Idol than for myself. I was caught on camera between thousands of people gathered in the square in Nazareth to hear the final results for Arab Idol; I was jumping in excitement like a little kid, and I have not had this kind of excitement for a very long time. When Ali Jaafar offered for me to direct Muhammad Assaf’s story, my arms were covered in goosebumps. I knew immediately that I would do everything to make this story a movie.”

“I see ‘The Idol’ as the story of fighting and the will to survive under extreme circumstances. It’s a story of hope and success, where a brother and a sister were able to make from their disadvantages an advantage, and from the impossible possible, who come from nowhere to overcome all odds, beating poverty, oppression, and occupation. They have the ability to convert ugliness to beauty, which, in the end, is the power behind all art and the fuel to nurture hope.”

“The film was designed as a movie with no cultural barriers. You could be Chinese, American or Palestinian and you can appreciate the film. The very old and the very young can all understand the journey. It crosses religious lines. I meant to take a very specific story into a broader context.”

“The story of Mohammed Assaf is a once in a lifetime event, an opportunity to put a human face on a people who have all too often been marginalized and misrepresented. “

“At a time of unprecedented upheaval in the Arab world, with revolutions, civil wars, strife and extremism, Mohammed’s journey from humble wedding singer in Gaza, to the region’s hottest young star played out before our eyes weekly. Every Friday and Saturday night, for a few minutes, viewers could release themselves from the daily struggles and remember how to smile again.”

“Mohammed Assaf represents the spirit and symbol of what might be; of dreams coming true; of the impossible becoming, for a precious moment at least, entirely possible.”

“The children in the first audience loved it.”

“The girl is now with her family as refugees. They escaped and are seeking asylum in Europe. The three boys were in Toronto and one wanted to stay.

I’m happy I gave four Gazan kids the chance to see beyond the ghetto. They have special talent and their exposure now allows the world to come to them. Audiences love these children so much that they have offered to pay for their education. There was even an offer to adopt one. With paid-for education their futures are now more hopeful,” Hany said.

“The girl is so talented. She never acted before but she understood and loved the logic of shooting, of decoupage. ‘Is this a wide shot?’ she would ask. She spent three days asking about the lenses. On the second day an actor off camera forgot his lines. She continued to talk as if he were talking, as if he were acting. She came out of war. Two of her uncles were killed in the war. When you loose your fear of death you are enormously naked, exposed and you become more sensitized. She could become a great actress.”

“I’m glad I could do something for these four children”.

The Filmmaker

Hany Abu-Assad is one of the world’s most distinctive filmmakers. The two-time Academy Award-nominated director – “Paradise Now” (2006) and “Omar” (2013)- has won countless other awards including the Berlin International Film Festival’s prestigious Blue Angel award, Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes and the Special Jury Prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard.

He was born in Nazareth, Palestine in 1961. After having studied and worked as an airplane engineer in The Netherlands for several years, Abu-Assad entered the world of cinema as a producer and produced the feature film “Curfew”, directed by Rashid Masharawi, in 1994.

In 1998 he directed his first film, “The Fourteenth Chick”, from a script by writer Arnon Grunberg, followed by his documentary “Nazareth 2000”, his second feature film “Rana’s Wedding” and his second documentary “Ford Transit”.

In 2006 his film “Paradise Now” about two Palestinian men preparing for a suicide attack in Tel Aviv, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The film won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign language film in 2006.

In 2011 Abu-Assad finished working on “The Courier”, a Hollywood movie starring Jeffery Dean Morgan, Til Schweiger and Mickey Rourke.

Most recently, Abu-Assad’s “Omar”, which featured star-making performances from Adam Bakri and Leem Lubany, garnered the director his second Academy Award nomination for the edge-of-your seat thriller. The film won several worldwide prizes including the Jury Prize of Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival.

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