“People are dying and you’re singing?”
Biopics are often difficult because the subject’s life may not contain the suspense and intrigue necessary for a film to succeed. This is why many focus on a brief period of time rather than a full life—honing in on the moment that made this person worthy of having his/her story told to the masses. You wouldn’t think this would be a problem for Mohammad Assaf, the Gaza-raised Palestinian who defied odds to compete on “Arab Idol’s” second season in Egypt. Here’s a young man born from poverty in a contested region perpetually at war who turned his voice into a way out for himself and a symbol of hope for his people. He brought Gaza into the public consciousness and became an unwitting international hero for it.
While some of the more daring check-stops along his journey appear firmly rooted in truth—his refusal to be denied entrance onto the show is perfectly suited for cinematic suspense—others aren’t. I’m not exactly sure what writer/director Hany Abu-Assad and co-writer Sameh Zoabi concocted for added dramatics in The Idol, but it was enough to warrant a very specific disclaimer stating how “some events were fictionalized” as well as enough to give Assaf second thoughts about starring as a version of himself some “might call a lie”. A cursory search online mentions the pop singer’s six siblings (two of which would love to follow in his footsteps), but not little Nour. If what happens to her cinematically were true, her name would surely be easy to find.
For the first half of the film we follow Mohammad (Kais Atallah) and his sister Nour (Hiba Atallah) as they scrounge every shekel they can to work towards a dream of becoming famous enough singers to leave Gaza and perform in Cairo. He’s on vocals; she’s on guitar. Friends Omar and Ahmad round out the quartet on drums and rhythm for a sound that’s good enough to get them gigs playing weddings. Their enthusiasm is infectious—they try to hire a smuggler (Ashraf Barhom) to acquire instruments for them—but all is not well. Nour falls ill with kidney failure, Omar leaves to focus on religious studies and a military career, and Mohammad drops everything to try and save his sister. It’s a perfect storm of tragedy.
But it’s too perfect because every character met in Mohammad’s youth ultimately comes back to play an integral role in his quest to sing seven years later. It’s impossible not to roll your eyes a bit when you learn what Omar (Ahmed Al-Rokh) does for a living at the exact same time Mohammad (now played by Tawfeek Barhom) needs a friend with that job. It’s too obvious that a girl from the past you didn’t think twice about (Dima Awawdeh’s Amal) returns to his life right when he needs a love interest and support. And no one will be surprised when the smuggler must be approached again considering he’s played by the one actor I recognized in the cast despite providing peripheral purpose to the plot at best.
Luckily for Abu-Assad, Assaf’s inspirational tale triumphs over its by-the-numbers script that feels manipulative before confirming it is. The actual events depicted touched so many Arabs in 2012 so how could it not? But why bother with Nour’s trajectory if it’s fictional? Injecting that type of hardship isn’t unique and it just distracts from the reason we’ve come in the first place: to watch Assaf’s evolution into a hero. There are many interesting moments in Act Two that are glossed over too soon because so much time was spent in childhood. How Mohammad leaves Gaza and the pressure thrust upon him on the show are the most fascinating parts of the adventure, but both are delivered with a rosy glow rather than dramatic gravitas they deserve.
I can’t fault Abu-Assad for choosing this direction because “feel-good” sells and Assaf’s continued success is nothing if not explicitly that. The Idol relies too much on our knowing he prevails in the end, though. The hiccups along the way are rendered without stakes. We know he gets to Egypt because we know he performs. We know he at least gets to the finals because the frenzy surrounding his rise made this movie possible—a Cliff Notes media montage arrives to recap his impact. So the moments that should make us worry can’t. Characters are positioned to prove specific purposes and they do. Assaf is therefore the only real person involved; everyone else merely revolves around him to propel his progress forward and this can’t be ignored.
I’d rather see his internal wrestling with the ramifications of what he’s doing as an adult than his youthful promise to live out his sister’s dream. I’d rather learn more about Gaza and its position in the Middle East than watch it jokily dismissed with a child delivering “WacDonald’s” to Egypt by running through underground tunnels. Even when the smuggler pulls a gun I felt nothing. There’s no edge to action—something that makes it more palatable to a family audience while also ensuring it never lives up to the potential it had of being a great film. I won’t lie: I got teary-eyed and invested in the journey like everyone else. I only wish its main goal was to tell Assaf’s story, not purely tug at heartstrings.