I didn’t know Hany Abu-Assad’s The Idol was based on a true story until the end when the film began to cross-cut documentary footage that looked just a bit too realistic for it to be simple recreations. Sure enough, the story of Mohammed Assaf—a singer born and raised in a Gaza refugee camp—winning 2013’s Arab Idol competition was based on fact. What’s more, the producers boast that the film was one of the very first international productions to shoot on location in Gaza. Native children were cast in the lead roles and local Palestinians made up most of the crew. The Idol can be decidedly described as Palestinian cinema, part of a filmic culture separate and unique from the influence of Israel and other surrounding countries.
The trouble is that from a comfy, pampered Western perspective, Assaf’s story contains many of the clichéd beats that have dominated and stagnated the old Star Is Born genre. Assaf comes from humble upbringings with nothing but a dream, beats the odds and makes it to the top. Abu-Assad wisely side-steps the preliminary rounds of Arab Idol, thereby streamlining the narrative. He also deliberately detaches Assaf from the political subtexts of his rise. When asked about what he means to Palestinian identity, he balks. Mandatory shots of crowded Gaza streets choked with Palestinian flags during the final round of the competition indicate that he represents something much greater, but Abu-Assad seems interested solely in Assaf’s journey.
The film would feel tepid and forgettable if not for a tremendous opening 40 minutes which detail Assaf (played as a child by Qais Atallah), his friends and sister Nour (Hiba Atallah) struggling to make it as street musicians. They go from banging together instruments cobbled together from kitchen pots and garbage to performing at weddings from the back of a neon-studded laser-light truck. Friendships are made and broken; young love discovered and thwarted. They get ripped off and attacked by a smuggler and find financial salvation in the form of Assaf learning to sing during mosque services. Tragedy strikes when Nour experiences kidney failure and dies, disillusioning Assaf and forcing him to grow up almost overnight. These scenes provide an unexpectedly resonant emotional core that carries the film’s less striking second half involving the competition. The Idol may be uneven to Western viewers accustomed to the genre, but it still succeeds as an uplifting little piece of cinema.