Matthew Bunkell, Customer Services, previews this week’s Discover Tuesdays presentation, The Idol.
Director: Hany Abu-Assad.
Starring: Tawfeek Barhom, Qais Atallah, Hiba Atallah. Netherlands/UK/Palestine 2015. 99 mins. Arabic with English subtitles.
The Idol is the most recent outing from acclaimed Palestinian filmmaker and two-time Oscar nominee Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now, Omar). A touching retelling of the real-life struggle of singer and Arab Idol winner Mohammed Assaf, Abu-Assad’s ninth feature film is a life-affirming rags-to-riches tale of overcoming extraordinary odds set against the backdrop of the conflict-ravaged Gaza strip. In 2005, four young musicians attempt to scratch the itch of their creativity by forming a band. Armed with little more than ramshackle homemade instruments, Mohammed and friends play whatever they can, whenever they can – whether they’re performing on the doorstep of their aunt’s house or at raucous wedding receptions. The musos’ passion propels them to what they hope will be greater things, until slowly each member abdicates to fulfil a greater motivation – or for a far more tragic reason.
We skip forward to 2013, when Mohammed finds himself in very different circumstances. Having had his world shattered by the untimely death of his sister Nour (played by the wonderfully sassy Hiba Attalah), and shackled to the inane minutiae of working life, the hopeful singer turned cabbie continues to harbour a burning desire for the stage. After a comical attempt to live-stream an audition, Mohammed is invited to Cairo to take part in the main heats of Arab Idol. However, understandably, the journey is not your average flight from Gatwick.
Hany Abu-Assad continues to wow with this touching piece of loss and gain. His connection to the characters and their plight makes for compelling watching. A convincing dynamic is created among the cast of young actors. Balancing the lighter, almost upbeat tone of the story against the more harrowing context of the environment, Hany deftly offers shades of darkly mature humour. When being coached by his vocal instructor, Mohammed is told that he has to merge his voice with his passion and his soul – a rather saccharin and superfluous notion – to which the precocious singer fires back: “And this will get my sister a new kidney?”
The Idol is a self-contained and concise piece of storytelling with plenty of heart and sentiment. The story focuses on following one’s dreams despite seemingly insurmountable challenges, without veering into weightier topics. With a wink to the audience, one of the Arab Idol judges enquires how the situation is in Gaza, to which Mohammed replies: “Are you recording this? Then I’ll tell you later.”
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