Film review: Mohammed Assaf biopic The Idol showcases incredible journey towards stardom

Hany Abu-Assad’s The Idol is based on the incredible true story of Palestinian singing sensation Mohammed Assaf.

Hany Abu-Assad’s The Idol is based on the incredible true story of Palestinian singing sensation Mohammed Assaf. The film made its debut at the Toronto Film Festival. Abbas Momani / AFP photo
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The Idol

Director: Hany Abu-Assad

Starring: Kais Attalah, Hiba Attalah, Ahmad Qasem, Abdel Kareem Barakeh, Tawfeek Barhom

Four stars

Hany Abu-Assad's The Idol is based on the incredible true story of Palestinian singing sensation Mohammed Assaf, who went from being a wedding singer in Gaza to winning TV singing contest Arab Idol in 2013.

Divided into two parts, the first half feels like a children's film about friendship, ambition and understanding mortality, told in a heavily romanticised fashion. The second jumps to the months before the Arab Idol contest, during which the director takes a more mature look at the problems facing young Palestinians living in Gaza, and how Assaf refused to take no for an answer in his quest to be Arab Idol.

A young boy is being chased through Gaza, Palestine, in 2005. When he arrives at his parents house, he is rebuked and told: “Only your grades are stopping you from receiving a beating.”

It turns out that 10-year-old Mohammed Assaf (played by Kais Attalah) is no ordinary kid. He has a musical talent and, with his sister, 12-year-old Nour (Hiba Attalah), he starts a band with their friends Ashraf (Ahmad Qasem) and Omar (Abdel Kareem Barakeh), playing instruments made of bric-a-brac found on the streets.

Assaf takes his music everywhere – on the streets, to the barber’s, in the mosque, and it becomes clear from the response that he receives that his voice is something special.

Abu-Assad is a filmmaker who built his reputation on thought-provoking dramas such as Paradise Now and Omar, and he struggles during these early scenes that take a light-hearted look at childhood. He pushes the jovial tone a bit too far at times, such as when an auntie throws water out of the window to stop the band playing. Even the "bad guy" comes across as a bit of a pantomime villain, stealing money that the kids have earned from their singing.

Thankfully, the story later calls for more hard-hitting and heartbreaking drama, and once it kicks in, Abu-Assad finds his voice and the right tone. One caveat to this is that he inexplicably gives himself the role of a cigar-chomping businessman, which only serves to show why he’s known as a director and not an actor.

The real star of the movie is Hiba Attalah. When she is on screen, the film lights up. It’s rare to see nuanced performances from children but the script demands that Atallah run the gamut of being a playful child in a band, the bigger person when sexism rears it’s ugly head and also to perform as a sick girl with a kidney problem.

She meets these demands with aplomb. Her performance shows how a person overcoming adversity can win the hearts of the world. Indeed, this is the very reason why Assaf became such an international phenomenon through his performances.

For the second section, the film makes a very abrupt jump to Palestine in 2012. Initially it takes us away from the characters with whom we have just fallen in love: the circle of friends around Assaf, and his loving but concerned parents. But it soon becomes apparent that Abu-Assad has done this because he wants to highlight a tonal shift.

In the background he shows a different side to Palestine, somewhere that has become a place of despair. Without trying to make it a main theme, it’s apparent that life has become tougher, and religious identification is on the rise.

In these 2012 scenes, Tawfeek Barhom plays Assaf. He brings a charm to the role that is endearing. Now working as a taxi driver, Assaf drives two old friends to school, and one of them reminisces about his voice and encourages him to sing – it is one of the most heart-warming sequences in the film.

Abu-Assad then turns to the dramatic barrier that has become his signature in films. Both Paradise Now and Omar have sequences involving the crossing of borders. How to escape from Gaza is the great question he ponders in his films, showing the border as both a mental and physical boundary. The scenes where Assaf tries to get to Cairo to audition for Arab Idol are full of suspense, and are where many of the characters from the first half of the film reappear.

The film concentrates on the events that lead up to Assaf's appearance on Arab Idol. It's the journey, not the destination, that the director is most interested in.

Proving that directors can sometimes make good cameos in front of the camera, there is a lovely sequence involving Nadine Labaki as one of the audition judges. It’s an astute move, because everyone knows what happens at the end of the tale, and so there is no need to hammer home the Hollywood ending.

But for all of Barhom’s charm, there is only one Mohammed Assaf, and it’s too big a challenge to ask any actor to mimic that incredible voice and that boyish manner.