THE IDOL, drama, not rated, in Arabic with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
For a talented singer trapped in Palestine, international success can be an impossible dream. The Idol is based on the true story of pop singer Mohammed Assaf, who traveled from a refugee camp in Gaza to Cairo in order to compete in the TV show Arab Idol. After witnessing Assaf’s unstoppable rise up the contest’s hierarchy, one Arab
Idol judge nicknamed him “the Rocket.” The United Nations later named him a goodwill ambassador. Oscar-nominated director Hany Abu-Assad delivers a highly watchable film, which, to its credit, relies on a strong emotional back story — rather than Assaf’s celebrity — to draw us in.
Early in the film, four children, including Mohammed (Qais Atallah) and his sister Nour (Hiba Atallah), struggle to acquire musical instruments for their fledgling band. In a standout performance by Atallah, Nour is the band’s guitarist and manager rolled into one. The tween band has barely launched itself with wedding gigs when Nour collapses on stage. She is diagnosed with kidney failure and will need either a weekly dialysis or a kidney transplant at a prohibitive cost of $15,000. Mohammed’s effort to use his talent as a singer to procure money for a transplant is unsuccessful, and Nour’s subsequent death devastates him.
Seven years later, Mohammed is a dissatisfied youth (Tawfeek Barhom) who drives a taxi in order to pay his university tuition. How he goes from this unenviable position to competing for the title of “Arab Idol” is the main thrust of the story. Along the way, we see talented young Palestinians living among rubble and electricity failures. Assaf has rightly assessed that he needs to get out. His voice is beautiful enough to melt the heart of a wary immigration officer. But there are others, not as talented, who will remain hemmed in.
The cinematography is realistic, not gritty, and this strategy works to pull us in and help us identify with the characters. The film falls somewhat short on complexity: It refers to the Palestinian problem and shows us the rubble but doesn’t get much beyond that. In one interesting exchange, Mohammed’s former bandmate (from the tween band), now a religious man, refuses to help Mohammed get to Egypt because a TV show that features singing could only distract from God’s work. Mohammed challenges him by asking why God would be against singing. The question goes unanswered. In real life, Assaf sings a mix of Arabic love songs and patriotic Palestinian hymns, and the songs in the film are similar to those. In a region sorely in need of good news, Assaf shows that even impossible dreams can sometimes come true.
Mohammed Assaf; top, actor Tawfeek Barhom