Directed by Hany Abu-Assad
Screenplay: Hany Abu-Assad, Sameh Zoabi
Starring: Taweek Barhorm
Yesterday Judi and I viewed the wonderful film The Idol, about a Palestinian young man, Mohammed Assaf, who won the Arab Idol contest in 2013. This film captivated me from the beginning to the end. Knowing what the outcome of the film would be, in no way diminished the power of the story.
I don’t do many film reviews because there are few films I find compelling. An exception to this rule has been the biographic films about artists. The films about the lives of Ray Charles, James Brown, and Hector Lavoe were all deeply moving. What I liked about these films is the fact that they gave viewers a glimmer of the lives of these artists. This gave me a richer appreciation of their incomparable music.
The language used in The Idol is Arabic with English subtitles. I clearly do not know Arabic, nor am I familiar with Arabic styled music. This, in no way was a limitation to the film.
In many films of stories about people who have a different culture, writers create western styled characters who help to introduce the audience to a culture we might not be familiar with. This wasn’t the case with The Idol. All of the central characters in the film are Palestinian. While we understand that Palestinians endure routine repression from the state of Israel, I don’t believe there were any Israeli characters.
Growing up in Gaza
What we see in the film is how people manage to live in the Gaza Strip—where bombed out buildings are a common sight. Although we see how Assaf and his family have access to education as well as health care, these services are clearly inadequate to serve the needs of the people.
We see how growing up in this area means that even children need to stand up for themselves, even against seemingly impossible odds. This background was absolutely necessary to give Assaf the determination just to enter the Arab Idol contest.
I don’t remember the exact quotation, but even as children Assaf and his sister talked about changing the world. Here we see how children aren’t burdened by the experiences of adults, and they can see a brighter day even while living under the most horrendous conditions.
Out of this atmosphere we hear the voice of Mohammed Assaf. We know that many artists in this country, like Aretha Franklin, developed their singing abilities in church choirs. Assaf was largely self-taught. He sang at weddings and during prayers at a Mosque. At one point, he sang for an audience through a teleprompter. He needed to stop this performance when the generator that powered the electricity caught on fire.
While the film portrayed the basic life story of Assaf, there appeared to be a few instances where things were left out or changed. These aspects of the story took nothing away from the basic theme, and the film is, for the most part factual.
One item I may have missed was the fact that Assaf was born in Libya and moved to a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip when he was four years old. This reflected the Palestinian diaspora where Palestinians live all over the world because their homeland had been stolen by the state of Israel. The fact that Assaf and his family needed to live in a refugee camp, when Palestinians have lived in that part of the world for thousands of years, adds to the routine injustice of this region.
A message to the world.
The other aspect of the film that might be missed by non-Arabic speakers like myself was Assaf’s concluding song on the Arab Idol contest. He sang of the kaffiyeh that is the scarf and a symbol of Palestinian resistance. This song also was a call for unity in the struggle to liberate his people.
Here we see the transformation of the film. We see how Assaf found the courage to overcome the horrors he faced and show the world the genuine beauty of the struggle to liberate the Palestinian people.
In this country, we see how people celebrate when their favorite sports teams win championships. When Mohammed Assad won the Arab Idol contest, their was an international feeling of ecstasy. This wasn’t just because someone demonstrated how he was an excellent singer, but to give the world a glimmer of what humanity is capable of achieving.