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Interview: Hany Abu-Assad on 'The Idol'

by Peter Sobczynski

The award-winning director of '"Paradise Now'" and "Omar" discusses his latest work, "The Idol."

In 2013, a young man and aspiring singer from Gaza by the name of Muhammed Assaf became a symbol of hope to millions of Palestinians when he not only overcame incredible odds to finally make it to Egypt in order to participate on "Arab Idol," one of the many international spinoffs of "American Idol," but managed to win the entire contest as well. The new film "The Idol" charts Assaf's incredible story from his childhood, when his attempts to start a band with his older sister and some friends are sidelined by a personal tragedy, to adulthood, where he uses a combination of luck, pluck and sheer determination to make the forbidden journey to Egypt in order to land a slot on the program. (Though Assaf is not seen in the film save for a brief cameo, that is his voice singing the songs heard on the soundtrack.) Unusual for a film about Palestine, "The Idol" does not focus exclusively on politics or religion - instead, it is a resoundingly feel-good narrative in the manner of films like "Slumdog Millionaire" that can be easily understood and embraced by viewers of all religious and ethnic backgrounds equally.

"The Idol" was directed and co-written by Hany Abu-Assad, the award-winning filmmaker behind such works as "Rana's Wedding," "Paradise Now" and "Omar" (the latter two of which were nominated for the Oscar for Foreign Language Film). In Chicago recently to promote the film, he sat down with me to discuss "The Idol," working on a film in a lighter vein than normal and the importance of creating art in times of conflict.

How did you first become interested in filmmaking?

I grew up in a small town in the north of Palestine and there was no television at all. The first time I watched moving images was in the cinema. It was a Western and there was a lot of horses. I was five and when I saw these horses coming, I thought that it was real. I went under the chairs and was begging to go home. After the show, I went behind the cinema to search for the horses. They tried to explain to me that it was a projection and I couldn't believe it. I think I am still searching for the horses - I want to know where they come from. I think this is the core of why I became interested in cinema. If it is a good movie, you feel as if it is reel - you can be so moved and amazed by it that it can make you a better person. To make a long story short, my interest in cinema was that when I was young, I was searching for the horses and when I was older, I was searching to make myself a better person.

How did "The Idol" come about?

The story of Mohammed Assaf is an inspiring story and when I heard it, I felt like the power of art was so great that it could unite people when all the politicians made them want to fight. Nowadays, everyone is fighting everyone but his voice united them. It was inspiring to see how art can become bigger than all these politicians and bigger than life and connect people together. It is a celebration of art and a celebration of the power of art to find beauty in ugliness and how it can make something positive out of something negative. It can connect people and inspire them and make them feel better and more human again in an inhuman situation.

When Mohammed was becoming an international star through his appearances on "Arab Idol," were you one of those following the story as it unfolded on television?

No. I had heard the story from my sister. I was in Cannes after winning a prize [for "Omar"]. I was happy with the prize. My sister told me the story of a boy coming from Gaza to appearing on "Arab Idol." I followed the last episode and his winning was, for me, bigger than my winning at Cannes. In Cannes, I was happy for myself but the winning was just for me. His winning meant something bigger so I was happier for him winning "Idol" thane winning Cannes. After Cannes, I suddenly realized that I wanted to make this movie so that I could share this feeling with more people, not just Palestinians.

Unlike a lot of films about Palestinians - at least the ones that wind up playing in this country - "The Idol" does not deal in explicit terms with religion or politics. Was doing a story along those lines something that you had been considering even before beginning work on "The Idol"?

No. At that time, I wanted to make a film outside of Palestine but when I heard this, I knew it was a story that I wanted to tell because it made me realize the power of beauty and how it can comfort you.I did not realize until much later that this was a story without politics or religion, even though I think that it is the most political film that I have ever made.

There is one scene towards the beginning where the kids are singing for their friends until the old lady interrupts them and yells about how they can possibly be singing when people are out there dying. For you, what is the importance of art - both yours and that of others - in a time of constant strife?

On the one hand, I as a filmmaker feel the importance of art but I also feel guilty about it as well. Yes, people are dying and we are making movies. For example, the scene with the parkour - we shot it in a place where thousands of people had just died recently. You feel guilty that you are doing a hopeful scene in a place of destruction where people just recently died. It is important to make art but on the other hand, you sometimes feel guilty that you are busy doing non-essential things. If you study the history of art, art was always an important force in human history to fight your defeat. I truly believe that the ultimate goal of art is to find the humanity in an inhuman situation. In this sense, I feel its importance but on the other, there is guilt about it.

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originally posted: 06/10/16 11:53:43
last updated: 06/10/16 13:32:41
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