“The IDOL”(Ya Tayr el Tayer) directed by Hany Abu-Assad
(Palestine, 2015)
Review by Cynthia Webb

The Opening Night film in the Brisbane Asia-Pacific Film Festival, screened last night, 19th November 2015.
It was “The Idol”, directed by Hany Abu-Assad of Palestine. Two years ago this same director won Best Feature Film Award at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, with his tense and powerful film, “OMAR”. He is also known for his film “Paradise Now”.

“The Idol” is a different kind of experience – a Bio-pic about Mohammed Assaf, who 3 years ago became the first Palestinian ever to win “Arab Idol”. The typically glitzy event took place in Cairo, when Mohammed stopped and enthralled his entire long-suffering nation, when they paused to watch him sing on TV in the famous singing competition show.
How this unlikely miracle came about is told in a very enjoyable way, in spite of quite a lot of tragedy being always present in his life.

He fled his beloved family, friends and wrecked country, to cross the border into Egypt to participate in auditions. As he slipped past the first border guard post, who I gathered are the Israelis, he has never been allowed to return, although he has been given a diplomatic passport and travels the world.

Mohammed’s life before this life-changing decision shows us how he was encouraged by his feisty sister, Nour, who was always a force to be reckoned with. Her antics provided a lot of amusement and delight for the audience, until suddenly her young life takes a tragic turn for the worse

Because of her courage, Mohammed finds his own. He works hard at his singing…. and the film tells us that he has a voice that mesmerizes all with its tenderness.It’s wonderful, to hear the beauty of the Arabic singing – and when he sings/chants a verse from The Koran, one sceptical (about the singing competition) border guard heart melts and he stamps the passport he knows to be fake, on the spot.

There is a touch of “Rocky Balboa” here, in that the underdog who looked like he had no chance whatever, experiences luck, good turns from strangers to combine with his immense talent, and triumphs in the Arab Idol contest. He hit the headlines around the world, and a CNN broadcaster said he was ‘doing the impossible’: giving the Palestinians something to celebrate.

However, there is something else going on too, in this well-made ‘feel-good’ film. The director shot it all on location in Gaza. So he did not waste his chance to show us our golden-voiced hero at home, in his childhood with sister and friends, and in his early working life as a taxi driver, moving around on roads lined with collapsed buildings, wreckage everywhere in sight. We realize the sheer persistence needed to live day to day in Gaza in such bizarre conditions. But for the Palestinians this area has always been “home”. They love it in spite of everything, and have nowhere to go even if they wanted to.

Twice Hany Abu-Assad shows us spectacular wide shots from the sea, looking across to the Gaza Strip, what’s left of the territory squeezed up against the barrier of the Mediterranean Sea…. pushed to the West, sandy coloured buildings, matching the colour of the beach, densely piled up by the pressure of Israel’s relentless movement in their direction.

These shots of the reality of life in Gaza speak volumes. When Mohammed’s courage fails him, when he is getting close to the final in the IDOL competition, his mother tells him via the telephone – “Nothing is as hard as living in Gaza! Of course you can do it.”

In the final scenes, the director switches over to the archival footage, of the real Mohammed Assaf, and real shots of the Palestinian people gathered in the streets, jubilantly cheering their beloved Mohammed Assaf, who said that he only wanted to use his voice to speak for the people of Palestine.

For a privileged audience in Brisbane, who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the film, these contrasting images brought a ‘reality check’ as we collectively felt grateful and perhaps a little guilty for the fortunate life we lead in our beautiful part of this troubled world.
(copyright, Cynthia Webb, 2015)

About cynephilia

Lifetime student of and devourer of international Cinema. Artist, teacher, traveller - especially to my "other home", Java, Indonesia. Features writer for 14 years, for The Jakarta Post, national English language daily newspaper. I was born in New Zealand, but lived in Queensland, Australia since 1970. My profound link with Indonesia began in 1983, when visiting Bali (then an island of arts and of inspiration for an artist), and then again in 1994 when a visit to Yogyakarta, Java, began a process of that town and it's warm people becoming another home and extended family for me. Yogyakarta is the Artistic capital of Indonesia, and so it was the place for me. In 2000 I became a regular contributor about the arts for The Jakarta Post, and cinema, my lifetime passion, later began to become my focus for writing. The advent of The Asia Pacific Screen Awards, (APSA) in South East Queensland, launched in 2007 gave me opportunities to meet some the great film-makers of Asia, and see their amazing work. APSA is a kind of "Oscars" for the Asia-Pacific Region.
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