From real life to reel life: The Idol

Mohammed Assaf represents the spirit and symbol of what might be; of dreams coming true; of the impossible becoming, for a precious moment at least, entirely possible.

The incredible true story of Mohammed Assaf defies belief. The 22-year-old Palestinian refugee from Gaza won the hearts of an entire region when he won Arab Idol (the Arab world’s own version of American Idol) in 2013 is now an inspiring film The Idol, directed by Hany Abu-Assad

“It’s a story of hope and success where a brother and sister who were able to make from their disadvantages an advantage, and from the impossible possible, who come from nowhere to overcome all odds, beating poverty, oppression, and occupation. They have the ability to convert ugliness to beauty, which, in the end, is the power behind all art and the fuel to nurture hope. I see Arab Idol in the tradition of Zorba The Greek, but with the hipness of Slumdog Millionaire. The film will have the honesty of The Class, the energy of Billy Elliot, the determination of The Shawshank Redemption but will have its own unique humor and spirit.” Hany Abu-Assad

The Idol

Tawfeek Barhom in The Idol

Overnight he became a symbol of peace and possibility. He grew up in the urban prison of Gaza, singing at weddings and driving a taxi to support his university studies. He lost friends and loved ones to life under occupation and under siege. Through it all, he never lost hope that he could make a difference. Against all the odds, he managed to escape out of Gaza and make it to Cairo for the Arab Idol auditions. He actually arrived late for his audition and was about to be turned away. He refuses to take no for an answer, though, jumping over a security fence and somehow getting inside the hotel where the auditions were taking place. There, he sang for the fellow contestants who actually had tickets. Once he heard Mohammed’s voice, one contestant gave up his own slot for Mohammed. The rest is history. The finale of the show was one of the most watched TV events in Arab history, with tens of millions tuning in across the entire region as the young singer from Gaza helped a region forget its problems for a few songs every weekend and remember to smile again.

Gaza. Synonymous to so many with conflict, destruction and despair but to Mohammed Assaf, and his sister Nour, Gaza is their home and their playground. It’s where they, along with their best friends Ahmad and Omar, play music, football and dare to dream big. Their band might play on second hand, beaten up instruments but their ambitions are sky-high. For Mohammed and Nour, nothing less than playing the world famous Cairo Opera Hall will do. It might take them a lifetime to get there but, as Mohammed will find out, some dreams are worth living for.
Along the way, Mohammed will experience tragedy and loss. The world around him will shatter. Through it all, however, he will somehow retain the hope that his voice will somehow deliver him from the pain that surrounds him and bring joy to others. He sings at weddings, he drives a taxi to pay for his university studies. Even as the siege around Gaza intensifies, the prison around them ever more forbidding, Mohammed knows he has a rare gift. To make people smile and forget their troubles.
And so, in front of him on TV one evening lies an impossible dream: the auditions for Arab Idol, the most popular show in the Arab world, are taking place in Cairo. The borders are closed. There is no way out. Somehow, he finds a way and makes it in front of the judges in Egypt. From there, destiny awaits, a chance to change his life and give a voiceless people the greatest feeling of all: the freedom to love, live and feel free.

The story of Mohammed Assaf is a once in a lifetime event, an opportunity to put a human face on a people who have all too often been marginalised and misrepresented.

At a time of unprecedented upheaval in the Arab world, with revolutions, civil wars, strife and extremism, Mohammed’s journey from humble wedding singer in Gaza, to the region’s hottest young star played out before our eyes weekly. Every Friday and Saturday night, for a few minutes, viewers could release themselves from the daily struggles and remember how to smile again.

Mohammed Assaf represents the spirit and symbol of what might be; of dreams coming true; of the impossible becoming, for a precious moment at least, entirely possible.

HanyAbu-Assad

Hany Abu-Assad is one of the world’s most distinctive filmmakers. The two-time Academy Award-nominated director – Paradise Now (2006) and Omar (2013)- has won countless other awards including the Berlin International Film Festival’s prestigious Blue Angel award, Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes and the Special Jury Prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard. He was born in Nazareth, Palestine in 1961. After having studied and worked as an airplane engineer in The Netherlands for several years, Abu-Assad entered the world of cinema as a producer and produced the feature film Curfew, directed by Rashid Masharawi, in 1994. In 1998 he directed his first film, The Fourteenth Chick, from a script by writer Arnon Grunberg, followed by his documentary Nazareth 2000, his second feature film Rana’s Wedding and his second documentary Ford Transit. In 2006 his film Paradise Now about two Palestinian men preparing for a suicide attack in Tel Aviv, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The film won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign language film in 2006. In 2011 Abu-Assad finished working on The Courier, a Hollywood movie starring Jeffery Dean Morgan, Til Schweiger and Mickey Rourke. Most recently, Abu-Assad’s Omar, which featured star-making performances from Adam Bakri and Leem Lubany, garnered the director his second Academy Award nomination for the edge-of-your seat thriller. The film won several worldwide prizes including the Jury Prize of Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival.

Director’s Statement

I always ask myself why I want to make a movie and spend almost two years of my life working very hard to complete that movie. In the case of Arab Idol, the answer was clear and simple. The story of this young man, Muhammad Assaf, is such an incredible story that even somebody like me who, just three weeks earlier had won the Jury Prize of Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, was more excited for Assaf to win Arab Idol than for myself. I was caught on camera between thousands of people gathered in the square in Nazareth to hear the final results for Arab Idol; I was jumping in excitement like a little kid, and I have not had this kind of excitement for a very long time. When Ali Jaafar offered for me to direct Muhammad Assaf’s story, my arms were covered in goosebumps. I knew immediately that I would do everything to make this story a great movie.

I see Arab Idol as the story of fighting and the will of surviving under extreme circumstances. It’s a story of hope and success, where a brother and a sister were able to make from their disadvantages an advantage, and from the impossible possible, who come from nowhere to overcome all odds, beating poverty, oppression, and occupation. They have the ability to convert ugliness to beauty, which, in the end, is the power behind all art and the fuel to nurture hope.

Read interview with Hany Abu-Assad

Shooting the film

For filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad the key to this film has always been authenticity both in front of and behind the camera. That is why The Idol is one of the first, if not the first, international production to shoot on location in Gaza, despite the logistical difficulties to get a film crew in and out safely.

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Shooting amongst the devastated landscapes of a Gaza still reeling from the monthlong bombardment in 2014, Abu-Assad and his crew were still able to find great moments of beauty and surprise. The Gaza Parkour team, for example, supply their amazing acrobatic display in the most surprising way in one moment, proving that art can thrive in even the most challenging of situations.

That desire for authenticity is also why Hany insisted on finding and employing real kids from Gaza to act in the film. The crew did a Gaza-wide search, holding casting sessions and rehearsals in schools across the area. Ultimately, the production was blessed to find four amazing Gazan children to star in the film, all first time actors, and all incredible natural performers.

That is also why Hany insisted on using an overwhelmingly local Palestinian crew and also filming in entirely Palestinian locations for the Palestinian scenes, filming in Gaza and Jenin.

Hany has worked with the same DP, Editor, Line Producer and Art Director on all his films. They have grown up with him and learned from him to the point they are know top quality technicians who can work on both local and international productions. It is this approach behind the camera that we hope will also inform the on-screen experience. Hany also insisted on shooting on location in both Beirut and Cairo for the exterior scenes set in those cities so that the film would look and feel real.