Two years after his film Omar opened Dubai International Film Festival (Diff), Palestinian director Hany Abu Assad returns to the event with his Mohammad Assaf-inspired film, The Idol. The movie is loosely based on Assaf’s journey from the refugee camps of Gaza to global superstardom after his Arab Idol win in 2013. Assaf famously had to jump a wall and take another contestant’s number in order to be considered by the talent show’s judges, but his voice has resonated in the region ever since.
The Idol, which premiered at Toronto International Film Festival in September, will show at Madinat Arena tomorrow night.
Ahead of the film’s screening, Abu Assad spoke about the challenges he faced in Palestine and why he believes Assaf has been able to inspire unconditional love in the hearts of millions.
When was the moment you decided you want to make this film?
Two years ago, in October, [producer] Ali Jaffar saw me at the film festival and told me he’s making a movie about Mohammad Assaf and that he wanted me as the director. I was very happy. When I heard that Mohammad won the Arab Idol and brought people together, in a day and age when we’re fighting, with Fatah and Hamas, and Gaza, and Arabs going against each other, Mohammad’s voice united us. It really impacted me. It made me realise the role of the artist in raising our spirits and returning hope to us.
Who are some other Palestinian artists who have stuck with you?
A lot, but Mahmoud Darwish is one of the ones who are truly historical. He made people feel the beauty of poetry, he drew beautiful portraits of Palestine out of destruction, and because of Mahmoud was stronger than his circumstances, his poetry is going to remain in history, and so will our story. [Writer] Ghassan Kanafani and [political cartoonist] Naji Al Ali really had an impact on me.
What is it about Mohammad Assaf, other than his voice, that inspires unconditional love in people?
It’s strange, right? I think, first of all, because he’s from Gaza. And Gaza, in my eyes, is one of the greatest places in the history of the world. Despite the siege, occupation and destruction, it contains more humanity than anywhere in the world. And Mohammad has come out of that siege and destruction with a beautiful voice — and he’s not angry. People who are in refugee camps, they’re usually angry, but he came smiling. Despite the hurdles in front of him, and how he needed to jump walls, he has optimism, hope and a smile. He came out all dressed up, too. Not barefoot. He came out dressed up.
The Idol is loosely based on Mohammad Assaf’s life, but not totally.
There is no autobiography in cinema that is exactly the life of a person. There’s always something from the imagination. Without the imagination, you can’t create a portrait. Even if you want to photograph something, with the framing you choose and all of that, it’s not reality. How I see you in front of me is not the same as how I see you in a photo. At the end of the day, it’s art. The easiest way is to compare it to food. A meal is created from several ingredients. Without the spices and additions, can you eat zucchini raw without cooking it? You have to cook it and spice it up. Drama transforms the raw material, which is reality, into something beautiful.
Tell me about filming. You were only able to film in Gaza for a few days?
We only filmed for two days [in Gaza] because the Israelis only allowed us to for two days. One day we entered, and two days we filmed — or even a day and a half. It was crucial. Without those two days, we couldn’t portray the soul of Gaza, visually. You’ll see it present — not in everything, but in the important parts.
Were you able to make the most of it?
There are things I had to sacrifice — but that’s with everywhere, not just Gaza. You arrive somewhere with a plan, but the location imposes its own rules on you.
Where else did you film?
Janin as Gaza, in Ariha as the Taba Rafah crossing, Jisr Al Zarqa as the Gaza sea, and in Amman as Beirut and Cairo, and we filmed the exterior of Beirut and Cairo in separate units.
How long did filming take?
It took 41 days of filming.
Was it important for you that any certain person sees the movie before it opens to the public?
Mohammad Assaf and his family. They gave us their feedback and we took it into consideration.
What were some of their suggestions?
For example, certain sayings. Like, instead of ‘we’re going to grow and take over the world’, we used ‘we’re going to grow and change the world’. They were all things that helped make the movie more authentic.
What do you want people to take away from this film?
What I get from it is happiness, but I also cry. You know when you cry of happiness? That’s what I get from the film. From the beauty that Gaza produced out of destruction.