Giving Voice: Hany Abu-Assad recreates the inspiring story of an ‘Arab Idol’

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Twenty-three-year-old Mohammed Assaf had a beautiful voice, and everyone told him he should compete on “Arab Idol,” the Middle East’s equivalent of “American Idol.” But Mohammed lived in the blighted refugee camp of Gaza, and auditions were held in Cairo, 250 miles away. In 2013, Mohammad snuck out of the refugee camp, made the treacherous journey, and evaded security to get into the hotel where competitor Ramadan Abu Nahel heard his voice and handed him his treasured ticket to compete, saying that Mohammed must sing in his place.

Mohammed’s run on “Arab Idol” galvanized the Arab world when he said, “A revolutionary is not just the one carrying the rifle. A revolution is the paintbrush of an artist, the scalpel of a surgeon, the axe of the farmer. Today I represent Palestine, and today I am fighting for a cause through the art that I am performing and the message that I am sending out. The Palestinian people can speak in a million languages full of beauty, love and peace. The Palestinian people don’t love wars and killing and destruction.” Two-time Academy Award nominee Hany Abu-Assad tells Mohammed’s incredible story in The Idol. Judy Gelman Myers of the website Director Talk recently spoke to Abu-Assad.

Director Talk: Sometimes you watch a scene and you’re struck by its beauty, and it keeps going deeper and deeper until your whole body is filled with its beauty. For me, that was the scene on the beach. I saw it as the mirror image of the scene in the taxi, where Mohammed is singing as they look out on all of the destruction in Gaza.

Hany Abu-AssadAs a filmmaker, you’re trying to visualize the character and his journey. You can always talk about it—you can say, “I’m sad, I’m complex, I’m destructive”—but how do you visualize that? You do it by images, by colors, by camera movement, by editing, by combining camera movement with edits. When Mohammad is in the taxi, he’s regaining his confidence. This is what you want to tell; this is what the scene is about. You could use dialogue and say, “I’m regaining my confidence,” or you can do it with visuals: You shoot him singing close up, then his love interest enjoying his voice while she’s watching outside, which contrasts so greatly with the inside. This is what you want to tell: Inside is hopeful; outside is destruction.

This is how you do visualization. At the end of the film, on the beach, is when you realize that even though you don’t want to be the voice of voiceless people but that’s what you become, your voice becomes bigger than life. And then the images should be bigger than life. You have to create images that show life from a huge, big point of view. This is how you do the scenes. This is why I think the beach scene worked for you. It’s like his voice—his power from inside—becomes bigger than life. And the beach images combined with street images mean that nobody can break his spirit anymore. This is what I wanted to say. When the spirit becomes so strong, nobody can break them. They become beauty in itself, such that you can cry from it.

DT: In the film, the character Mohammad Assaf resisted the role of becoming the voice of the voiceless. Is that what happened in real life?

HAA: Yes. The film is very accurate. Mohammad collapsed, he was in the hospital—it’s all true. A lot of hope was put on him, but hope has a dual effect. You can give people hope that you can help them, or you can give people hope to believe in themselves, to help themselves. The first one is a false hope: Nobody can help others in the real sense. You force change when you believe in yourself, and then you can change your situation. Mohammad realized that a lot of people wanted him to help them directly, and this is why he said, “I’m just a singer.” Then he realized he should not help them directly but try to let them believe in themselves. This is why he goes to the beach and gives the people belief in themselves, rather than their waiting for others to come and help them.

DT: How closely did you work with the real Mohammad Assaf?

HAA: I even tried to get him to play the role, but he’s not an actor. I gave him training, but he was scared, for the same reason he was scared on “Arab Idol.” He felt, I’m a singer, now I’m an actor too? It was too much.

DT: Did he advise on the script?

HAA: I talked to him, his family, his friends, I went to Gaza to see where he lived. When the script was finished, the family read it and gave me notes. We incorporated them into the final script, which we showed them before shooting. They’d had objections to certain scenes that for me weren’t crucial scenes, but it’s a sensitivity I understand. Sometimes there’s a scene or a story where you think, Oh, that’s cute, but they’re ashamed of it. It’s funny how people can look at things; they’re too close to what happens, but I’m looking from afar. This is why we took out all of the scenes they weren’t happy with.

DT: Did you and Mohammad discuss his musical training?

HAA: It’s what’s in the movie. The first thing his trainer did was give him a voice. In the beginning, Mohammad was just singing famous cover songs. Then his music teacher wrote him special songs like “Shedi Helek Ya Balad.” This is the first song that was written for him. Before that it was all songs of famous artists like Amr Diab. In the wedding, he sang an Egyptian song, “Ya Bint Al Sultan.” Ragheb Alama sang that, and then Mohammad did his own interpretation. His teacher helped him enormously to develop his own material and voice—in the film, the scene in the studio with the Skype call, was also a song he did with his music teacher.

DT: Can you talk about the logistics of shooting in Gaza and Jenin?

HAA: The only obstacle was checkpoints. Israel forbade almost everybody to go to Gaza. It’s very difficult to go in or out of Gaza, so getting permission took us months of begging and calling the Israeli army spokesman. At the end they gave us two days of research and two days of shooting, and they agreed to take the children outside of Gaza—without their parents. So we shot in Jenin. Jenin is more free. You can go in and out without permission, but there is a checkpoint. It starts at ten o’clock in the morning and closes at seven o’clock, so we had to sleep in Jenin. Other than that there were no obstacles. The people in Jenin were enormously helpful, the people in Gaza were amazing. We had zero obstacles except the Israeli permission to go in and out of Gaza and the checkpoint that closed in Jenin. They open it when they want. Ten o’clock. Who opens a checkpoint at ten o’clock?

DT: You’ve worked with the same crew consistently. Talk about your history with them and how the working relationship has grown.

HAA: We started together on Paradise Now and grew up with Omar. Ehab Assal, the cameraman on this film, was an assistant. Eyas Salman, the editor, was an assistant. Nael Kanj, the production designer, was an assistant. Baher Agbariya, the co-producer, was an assistant. Wajdi Ode, the location manager on this film, was an electrician on Paradise Now. It’s fun to see them coming together. When I knew I was going to do The Idol, we had a meeting, and I called together my golden team. The seven of us met in Nazareth, and we called ourselves the golden seven. It’s amazing to see them coming together with the force to do a whole feature film with no money—two million dollars, it’s nothing to make such a quality movie. It was amazing to see that.

DT: You didn’t go to someone and say, “I want to make this film.” The producers came to you.

HAA: Ali Jaafar, the main producer, bought the rights from the Arabic NBC, the network that runs “Arab Idol.” He called me and told me he wanted me to do the movie. They wrote a script; I read it but felt it needed a huge rewrite. I did the rewrite myself, and this is how I became involved.

DT: This film features big stars—Tawfeek Barhom, Ali Suliman, Ashraf Barhoum—but also first-time child actors. What was the dynamic of working with such varied levels of experience?

HAA: I loved it, because you invent yourself every time. You learn from it. Every actor has his own way of dealing with his craft. There is no formula, and every time you have a new experience with new actors, you enrich your knowledge about how to deal with all actors. What is it to deal with actors? To give them the confidence to do their best and dare to be emotionally naked in front of the camera. If you are honest with your feelings, you feel naked in front of the camera. Every actor is different in how he can be honest.

Working with children but also with Tawfeek Barhom and Assaf Barhoum and Ali Suliman was a joy. It’s like being a racecar driver, because you have to change gears all the time; I’m with the children, so now I go back to second, now I’m with the experienced actors, and I have to go to full gear. You feel the challenge all the time because all the time you’re manually shifting gears. It’s what gives you the excitement of doing movies. As you’re changing gears, you’re becoming a good driver. If you put it on automatic, there’s no fun in driving, but manually shifting gears, you realize what a good driver you’ve become.

DT: Has the film played in Israel?

HAA: It’s going to play in a small festival, and I just heard that Israeli television wants an interview with me. I really want the Israeli public to see it. Most of them don’t want to see Palestinians as human because that makes their oppression of us easier: It’s easier to oppress someone you think of as less a person. These kinds of movies disturb them, yet I think it’s very important to them, because this movie is about hope and they need more hope than anybody else. They put themselves in a dark tunnel and they need to get out. This movie can help them in realizing who they are, and then they can help themselves. Because don’t think the world is going to help the Israelis come out of the tunnel they’ve put themselves into. They are in self-destruction, and they need hope. Believe me, you always wish for yourself a hopeful enemy rather than a dumb enemy. Besides, most Israelis come from Arabic countries. They are Arabs, actually, and they will enjoy the music more than me and you.

Adopt Films opens The Idol in New York City on May 27. Click here for a trailer. The author thanks Denise Sinelov of Required Viewing for arranging the interview. This article is published here courtesy of Director Talk. Copyright © Director Talk 2016.