In 2013, a 22-year-old Palestinian named Mohammed Assaf won the second edition of the Middle Eastern singing competition Arab Idol, a spinoff of the same popular British Pop Idol franchise that also gave us American Idol. Mohammed had snuck out of Gaza and crashed the auditions in Egypt before making it all the way to the finals in Beirut, and his underdog victory set off celebrations in his homeland and across the Arab world. In presenting a somewhat fictionalized version of Assaf’s journey, Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad gets the most important thing right: The Idol treats this as a story, not as history. I didn’t know Assaf’s tale going in, and during the film I had no idea I was watching a biopic — for most of the time, anyway.
The first part of The Idol follows Mohammed as a young boy (played by Qais Atallah) as he and his pals, including his beloved tomboy sister Nour (Hiba Atallah), try to put together a ragtag band. They hustle for money selling fish on the beach — chasing down deadbeat customers three times their size — and try to get a local smuggler to sell them some real instruments. As these idealistic and vivacious kids start to play weddings, the grownups watch in disbelief or judgment. To some, it’s perverse to worry about music when people are starving and homeless amid the ruin of Gaza. Others are outraged at the idea of a girl performing with boys. And some consider music the devil’s handiwork; one bandmate decides that he wants to “make sure my afterlife is in heaven” and quits the group.
Abu-Assad’s films have the quality of fables — even the Oscar-nominated Paradise Now, about two suicide bombers, possessed a quiet, childlike simplicity. But they resonate because of the director’s feel for the reality of Palestine. As we watch Mohammed’s story unfold (first as a child, later as a teenager and young 20-something played by Tawfeek Barhom), we can’t help but notice the blasted streets and devastated buildings he walks through and plays in. When he sings at a wedding, we see the men joyously dancing while the women sit in a corner, their faces immobile and their heads covered. Later, when figures from Mohammed’s past show up broken and wounded, we don’t need to be told what exactly happened.
Abu-Assad doesn’t dwell on these elements — at least, not at first. He isn’t a scold or a polemicist. If anything, he finds the humor amid the broader tragedy. When Mohammed attempts to compete in a smaller Palestinian musical contest in Ramallah, he can’t get across because of the barricades and has to appear via Skype. When power cuts threaten to prevent his doing that, he and his friends bring a generator on an old, horse-drawn cart. To keep the generator from rattling too much and drowning him out, Mohammed makes someone sit on it while he sings. That still doesn’t stop it from malfunctioning halfway through the performance and filling the screen with smoke and panicked, fleeing bandmates. The folks at the studio in Ramallah, meanwhile, think that Mohammed’s band has been raided by Israelis and express solemn solidarity with their brothers in Gaza.
The obstacles and absurdities aren’t just there just for gags, of course. Mohammed has a beautiful voice and endless potential as a performer, but he’s a perfectionist, afraid of uncertainty or making mistakes. He needs to open his eyes and learn the lesson those around him have: the parkour teams jumping and running through destroyed buildings, the amputees making their way through the world. This awakens in him a newfound determination, one that’s more personal than political. It’s also why he’s able to do things like fake and lie his way across the border, telling the guards that he’s crossing into Egypt to participate in a Quran recitation contest. I don’t know to what extent all this reflects the real Mohammed Assaf’s story, but here it makes personal, emotional sense. That’s a notable achievement in any film set in Palestine, where everything feels historical, momentous, symbolic.
Unfortunately, as Mohammed approaches his goal, Abu-Assad goes all in on archival footage. In the final act, he incorporates images from the real competition — first of the judges and the audience, then of the real Mohammed Assaf — until the film becomes a full-on documentary in its closing minutes. That backfires. The story we were watching was present-tense, psychologically fluid, even suspenseful. Once the reality show takes over, Mohammed ironically becomes a distant character — a figure on the verge of international celebrity.
Maybe that’s the idea. Maybe this is Abu-Assad’s way of telling us that Mohammed now belongs to the ages, and perhaps the director sees a certain poetry in a simple story that becomes something historic. Isn’t that, after all, what it means to become a myth? But still, I kind of wanted to see what happened to the guy in the rest of the movie.