Elder statesman of Palestinian film directs true story of Gaza’s ‘Arab Idol’

Hany Abu-Assad was cheering in a crowded square in his hometown of Nazareth, Israel, when Mohammad Assaf — a youth from the southern Gaza Strip — earned overnight stardom by winning “Arab Idol,” the region-wide televised singing contest.

In fact, if you watch “The Idol,” Abu-Assad’s newest film, you can just barely see the director in a split second of news footage shown in the film’s final montage, amid the throngs that gathered across the Palestinian world to watch Assaf win.

When Abu-Assad learned this reporter hadn’t heard Assaf’s story before seeing the docudrama, he was perplexed that the singer’s sudden mega-celebrity hadn’t penetrated Western and Jewish circles.

The 23-year-old won the competition in 2013 and was appointed a United Nations youth ambassador on the spot.

“CNN, BBC, everywhere,” Abu-Assad, 54, said of the young man’s fame, speaking in animated English with an Arabic accent. “It was so huge — why Israelis, just so close, why don’t they want to see this story?”

During an interview in Los Angeles last week with the Jewish Journal, the de facto elder statesman of Palestinian film sat back on a couch, eight stories up inside an art-deco tower on Wilshire Boulevard. Abu-Assad likes L.A. — “there’s space, there’s ocean” — even though he considers it among the “ugliest cities in the world, as buildings, as architecture.”

Asked where he lives these days, he said, “Officially in Nazareth, but practically in my suitcase.”

The filmmaker is touring with his newest film. He started the year in Nazareth, before flying to the Netherlands, where earlier in life he lived for 25 years and worked as an airplane engineer, then to London, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York and back to L.A.

The film opens in six theaters across Southern California on May 27, including venues in Beverly Hills, Irvine and Palm Springs.

Drawing on the limited pool of Palestinian actors, “The Idol” portrays Assaf’s childhood as a would-be musician in the Khan Yunis refugee camp before flashing forward seven years to show his unlikely flight from Gaza to Cairo, where auditions for the television show were held.

It tells a heartbreakingly sad story of how cramped life in Southern Gaza intrudes on Assaf’s dreams, as well as those of his sister, Nour. Circumstances far outside Assaf’s control continually conspire against the singer.

The movie is also highly acclaimed, as is Abu-Assad’s previous work. Two previous films by Abu-Assad have been entered as Palestinian submissions for Academy Award consideration as best foreign-language film — once in 2005 on behalf of the Palestinian Territories and again in 2013 for Palestine — and both films received the nomination, though neither won the award. He is the only Palestinian filmmaker ever to claim that honor.

The filmmaker understands his celebrity, along with Assaf’s, is one answer to a concerted effort to discredit and erase the Palestinian identity.

“By just saying you are still Palestinian after 60 years of [Israel] trying very hard to vanish the word Palestinian, already you are political, even if you do just music,” he said.

Assaf can be explicitly political; The New York Times reported that his winning number, “Raise the Keffiyeh,” was a favorite of Fatah leader Yasser Arafat and thus something of a black eye for Hamas, the faction that rules Gaza.