dir. Hany Abu-Assad
scr. Hany Abu-Assad & Sameh Zoabi
based on the true story
Commissioned by Lexi Alexander
This is the first of these reviews that was commissioned by a filmmaker. That was a nice surprise. What was even more surprising (unless you know Lexi Alexander) is that she did not commission a review of her own work.
I recognized Hany Abu-Assad’s name from Paradise Now, but it wasn’t until after I sat down to watch the film she picked for me that I realized he was also the director of last year’s The Mountain Between Us. I’d lost track of him after Omar, and I’m not sure why. It’s easy when an international filmmaker’s work isn’t being given a major domestic push. You don’t intentionally lose track of people, but there are already so many films that I watch each year because of the new reviews I write, the podcast I co-host, this project, an upcoming secret project that is the biggest wallow in film history I’ve ever been part of, and more. I have films on deck to be on deck every hour of every day, and I’m fine with that. It’s what I signed up for. But it means that it’s real easy for stuff to just disappear if I don’t make an effort to track it down.
This morning, I looked over at Lexi’s Twitter feed, and the top entry reads, “When you’re an Arab on Twitter and your feed is flooded with news from Syria & Palestine, your neurochemistry is taking constant hits and gets altered. I don’t have any advice, I’m not an expert, but in our culture, we don’t talk about depression so I wanted to at least Tweet this.” Seems fitting. She speaks often about her identity as an Arab and as someone from Palestine, and it’s a voice I don’t read much of in other places. I do my best to follow people from a variety of cultures and backgrounds on social media because it gives me some window into what their concerns and feelings are, and if we’re ever going to get any better at understanding each other, we have to start using all of these amazing communication tools to actually communicate. I’ve told the story before in print about how it was viewings of Pather Panchali and The Seven Samurai when I was young that led to me getting interested in foreign-language films as a way of seeing what it might feel like to live in another place, and what it might be like to have been born somewhere else.
Increasingly, we find ourselves talking about defaults in storytelling, and it’s perhaps the most important conversation you can have before writing something. I’ve been working as a writer for a quarter-century now, and in that time, I’m willing to admit that more often than not, I’ve started from the automatic assumption that if I’m telling a story, it’s going to be about a white guy as the main character. That is not the case today, and I’m not sure how that’s going to impact the next thing I write. It will, though. It has to. And not because there’s some movement telling me what to write, but because now that we’re having the conversation, there are points that seem inescapable. Take Ready Player One, for example. There have been all sorts of conversations about that film and the book it’s based on, and one of the things that the film makes almost painfully clear is that there are characters in that story who would have been far more compelling if they were the leads. Both Aech (Lena Waithe) and Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) are miles ahead of the dull white kid who is the lead, and it really does seem ridiculous that we’re seeing the story from his passive participant point-of-view instead of following these dynamic leads who are actually making things happen and driving the secret revolution. It’s almost baffling that they’d drive right by those characters, but that’s what happens when you have a default. You don’t ask questions that could make your story more interesting, and it feels to me like one of the biggest questions that we should be asking is “Why is this story being told from this point of view?”
In the case of The Idol, it’s clear that Hany Abu-Assad was just one of the millions of people who were inspired by the real story of Mohammed Assaf, which happened recently enough that for many people in the Arab world, it’s still something current, something that matters to them right now. And when I speak of the Arab world, realize… I have an enormously limited view of what that is. My view is informed perhaps a bit more than that of the average American because it actually matters to me. I want to understand the daily life of someone in Palestine and someone in Israel and someone in the Arab Emirates, and I understand enough to know those are all different things. The daily experience of someone in Lebanon is not the same as the daily experience of someone in Egypt, and those cultural differences are lost on most Western audiences. We are largely sold a monolithic view of the Arab world, which does everyone a disservice. Mohammed Assaf won the second season of Arab Idol, and there was no small symbolic power to the idea that he was the only entrant who managed to get out of the refugee settlement in Gaza where he grew up. For a filmmaker like Abu-Assad to decide to tell the life story of someone who was only 20-plus years old, it was clear that the story had some special resonance.
The film, which Abu-Assad wrote with Sameh Zoabi, spends a good 40 minutes on the childhood of Assaf, and the casting for the kids is a big part of what made me fall for the film. Mohammad (Qais Atallah) is a natural singer, a gifted talent, and his sister Nour (Hiba Atallah) spend the days (and some of their nights) unsupervised, running wild amidst the rubble. She sees what his music can do to people, and she wants to support him. She wants him to be heard by other people, and she wants for people to feel the same joy she feels. For a while, the film has this loose shaggy energy as they put together a band with their friends Ahmad (Ahmad Qasem) and Omar (Abdel Kareem Barakeh). They try buying black market instruments, and once they do finally get instruments, they start playing weddings. And through it all, what I took away as a Westerner was the accumulation of the little details that make it clear just how small the world is for these kids and how, even as they dream about a larger life, they are constantly reminded that they are essentially prisoners. Nour is the real firebrand here, and young Hiba Attalah really tore my heart out as a parent and as a viewer. She’s got such a big spirit, and she’s unafraid of anything as a performer. She’s got a great smile, and when she plays anger, there’s nothing phony about it. For a kid to have this kind of access to their emotions is impressive. It’s an adult performance in terms of how controlled it is, but she still strikes me as a genuine child. She’s a tomboy, and there are moments when you can see the 40-year-old she’s going to be someday. She’s precocious, but in a real kid way, not like an obnoxious movie kid.
When she gets sick, I thought I had the film figured out because I didn’t know Assaf’s real story. I assumed he was going to grow up with his sick sister and then go on the show to win enough money to get her a kidney transplant. Instead, the film is unsparing, and when it jumps forward it time, Assaf is missing a key part of who he is as a person. Perhaps the most inelegant portion of the film takes place after the time jump forward. It’s been seven years, so now he’s played by Tawfeek Barhom, who evokes both a young Bob Dylan and a young Frank Sinatra, depending on how clean-cut he is. He’s still interested in singing, and he’s still driven by memories of Nour, but he doesn’t see any way he’s ever getting out of Gaza. When he runs into Amal (Dima Awawdeh), a girl he met when she had dialysis at the same hospital as Nour, she rekindles his interest in using his voice to remake his life. He can’t even get a visa to get to where the auditions are being held in Egypt, though, driving home just how trapped Assaf is. Again… there’s some pretty on-the-nose material here, but what carries it over and above that is the reality of the way this film feels. Abu-Assad finds so many moments where he sells it by simply letting us see. Assaf is driving a cab when he runs into Amal, and he takes her for a drive with her friend. Amal asks him to sing, and when he begins, her friend treats it like a joke… at first. But then Assaf’s voice drops into a groove and Abu-Assad takes the moment to simply give us a long unbroken look at the window. One building after another, one block after another, all rubble. That’s what these people see every day. That’s all they have to look forward to, as well. There’s no options open to them, no future promised to them. And Assaf’s voice, which is trained to sing prayers just as easily as pop music, is unmistakably Arab, and unmistakably lovely, and it feels like the perfect sound to communicate this life, even beyond Abu-Assad’s images.
Once the film gets Assaf out of Gaza, it falls into a pretty basic formula and rhythm, but even here, the details linger. When Assaf makes it to Beirut, which I assume is the Arab Idol equivalent to Hollywood week, he is sent to a hotel with the other contestants. The room he stays in is nicer than anything he’s ever seen, even though it’s a pretty standard luxury hotel room. When he finally sings and his voice reaches audiences throughout the Arab world, the montages that Abu-Assad cuts have a blunt-force power. He doesn’t overdo it with songs, only really showing us Assaf’s first big song and his song for the finale. In-between, the emphasis is on the audiences, on the way he begins to reach people, and on the way it impacts the community he had to leave behind. There is real power, blunt or not, in seeing these people, so often portrayed as impossible to unite, when something as primary and universal as song brings them together. This is what art is supposed to do, and this is what people who are upset about a diversity of voices in our mainstream don’t understand. The mainstream has an infinite amount of room. There is no capacity to what we can love and what we can make room for, and every time someone sees themselves in art and every time someone feels seen by art, we potentially gain another voice that might be the one that tells us the next great story or sings us the next great song. It would be naive to think that any singer is going to heal wounds as deep as the ones that have created the ongoing conflicts in the region, but it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that once you remind people of one thing that they have in common, they may well use that as a way to find more.
The Idol feels like it would have been a big broad mainstream movie if it had been made in America, but it’s hard to imagine any American reality show story that would carry the built-in cultural tensions that this film so expertly charts. In the end, I am haunted by the performance by young Hiba Attalah, and by the idea that something we see in America as just another dumb game show on TV managed to transform so many people with such deeply-held feelings, if even for a moment.