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.
Abu-Assad, though, described his upcoming film as “post Israel” — a designation he bases on his belief that the Jewish state is a failed experiment headed for the dustbin of history.
“The situation as it is now, I think it’s impossible to keep a Jewish state in that region,” he said. “You can [keep it] maybe another five years, 10 years, 50 years — it’s impossible to keep it for an unlimited time.”
He said he would be a proponent of a two-state solution, if he thought it was workable.
“Some people were born in the settlements,” he said. “You want to throw them out? Are you kidding me?”
Abu-Assad’s forecast for the land, if somewhat apocalyptic, is little more than his worst-case extrapolation of the situation there since 2005, the year the story of “The Idol” begins.
He had to work directly with the Israel Defense Forces to coordinate his two trips to Gaza for the film. The first time his production manager called the military to arrange entry into the militarized enclave, he said they told her, “What are you talking about, you want to shoot a movie in Gaza? Are you crazy?”
The production manager persisted. (“She’s a very tough woman,” the director said.) Eventually, she succeeded and he managed to gain entry — two days for research and another two for filming, restricted to a small crew. The balance of the movie was filmed in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank.
“I was amazed that people from Gaza did not lose their humanity,” he said of his research trip there in 2014. “Because you expect with this siege and destruction, you expect people will be angry, people will be like what you see in the media. They were so humble, human, sharing the little food they have with you, sharing their story, sharing their laughs, sharing their singing.”
For the most part, he said, the story hews to the facts of Assaf’s meteoric rise. Small details have been altered; his sister, Nour, plays guitar in the film rather than keyboard, as in real life, because “guitar is more, you know, it’s sexier,” Abu-Assad said.
When he showed the film to Assaf, the pop star called it 80 percent fact, 20 percent fiction, “but the 20 percent fiction makes [him] realize the importance of the 80 percent. He realized, ‘It’s not what I did, but this is what I felt,’ ” Abu-Assad said.
Though the protagonist is Gazan, Israel is not explicitly cast as the antagonist. When Assaf is nearly apprehended at the border, the troops trying to stand in his way are Hamas Black Shirts, not Israeli soldiers.
Abu-Assad’s other films have taken a more confrontational approach in their portrayal of the Jewish state.
In “Omar,” the 2013 Oscar nominee, the title character is coerced into cooperating with IDF military police. “Paradise Now,” the 2005 Oscar nominee and a Golden Globe winner, tracks two would-be suicide bombers planning an attack on Tel Aviv. Abu-Assad gets screenwriting credits for all three films; for “The Idol,” he said he did a “complete rewrite” of an earlier script.
“The movie is actually not about Israel at all,” he said. “It’s about people in difficult situations, yet they can create their own circumstances.”
This time, Abu-Assad set out to tell a story not directly about politics but rather the transcendence of art and the power of determination.
“What I saw from this phenomenon, Mohammad Assaf, is that you don’t need to wait for somebody to come and help you, you have to help yourself,” he said. “That was an amazing message that I just wanted to share with everybody.”
The director said he hopes members of the Israeli and Jewish communities will come see his film. Given his grim outlook on the future of the Jewish state, he believes they would benefit in particular from the movie’s hopeful message.
“Israelis need more hope than Palestinians,” he said. “Really, I truly think Israelis almost totally lost their hope. They are acting as if there is a lot of frustration.”
However, he has no aspersions about how his film will go over with some elements in the Jewish world.
“If you want my honest opinion, this movie is a nightmare for anybody who will think that they can erase the Palestinian as an identity,” he said.