'Mohammed Assaf is the voice for a voiceless people': The Idol's director

Published December 14th, 2015 - 11:04 GMT
Hany Abu-Assad talks about the power of art in his latest Mohammed Assaf biopic 'The Idol.' (Facebook)
Hany Abu-Assad talks about the power of art in his latest Mohammed Assaf biopic 'The Idol.' (Facebook)

A spotlight shines on the stage. An unknown contestant stands in front of the microphone. A familiar song starts and the judges scrutinize everything. Confidence, poise, body language, style and, of course, the voice. The formula repeats itself over and over again and we watch as singer after singer makes it or crashes and burns.

Over the years, there has been no better entertainment than the bombardment of live musical competitions from American Idol to The X Factor and The Voice. Rarely do we remember the millions of hopefuls that enter the competitions looking for fame, nor do we hear from the handful of winners who take home the coveted recording contract prize.

One singer that goes beyond the thresholds of yet another music reality competition is Palestinian Mohammad Assaf who won Arab Idol in 2013. Assaf's companionate story is the subject of the Academy Award nominated director, Hany Abu-Assad's latest film, The Idol, screening at the Dubai International Film Festival.

We all love a rags to riches tale, however Abu-Assad's latest offering takes this familiar narrative and roots it in reality and unexpected backdrops. The climaxes and lows, the music and the performances take us on an uplifting journey of compassion, resilience and a dream. We spoke to the award-winning director about the power of art and what it means to call himself a Palestinian director.

What drew you to the story of The Idol to take it on as your project?

Really many reasons. But the main reason is that I realised, as an artist, how important art is for the progress of life. How important art can be in a time where we now have the most horrible time in the Arab history, I think. Where we kill each other and our politicians are dividing us. Art and intellectuals are the only people who are bringing us together. This is the main reason why I want to do this movie because I've realised how art can bring us together in times where politicians try to divide us.

Do you mean Mohammad Assaf's journey as a singer is inspiring?

Mainly it's his voice. His voice is beautiful. When you hear it or let's say my brother who is from another party, fighting me, hears it, he can enjoy the voice, I can also enjoy the voice. It's connecting us. His story is the second level connecting us where the will of surviving, the will of fighting, the will of resistance . . . art can carry weapons and shoot, art resists too. The idea is that the voice of Mohammad Assaf, gives a voiceless people a beautiful voice. All these ideas, motivated me to do this movie.

Do you watch programs like Arab Idol and The X factor?

No way. I think the beauty of Mohammad Assaf is that he wasn't a regular one (contestant). He didn't do it for his own sake, he became a voice for a voiceless people. And this is why, I felt like OK, these programs in general are meant to just entertain and suddenly Mohammad Assaf makes it more than just entertainment.

As a director, what is the process of balancing true stories with movie reality and story telling?

There is no fiction and reality. There is no drama in reality. But what you do is you take the ingredients of reality and you make a meal. When you want to make a meal, rice doesn't exist without cooking. Now, when you cook it and put salt and pepper it becomes a meal. And this is exactly how you deal with the difference between reality and fiction.

Is it a difficult process? Do you enjoy it?

Yeah I enjoy it, but it's a very careful process. You don't want to spoil anything. If you add too much salt it will destroy the meal. It's a very careful process, which is why I enjoy it. You have to keep it believable, yet you have to make it tasty.

Would you call yourself a director or a Palestinian director? Do these labels mean anything?

In my case, yes, they do mean something. Because we as Arabs, and as Palestinians in particular, have been dealt with injustices. And in my case as a Palestinian, the occupation wants you to lose your identity, then he wants to occupy you without justifying it. By insisting that you're a Palestinian director it's an act of resistance, you are telling the occupation that despite your F16 and tanks, I still consider myself a Palestinian and have the right for independency and to be equal. Just saying you're a Palestinian already you're entering this field of resistance. Now, if I was born in Europe, I wouldn't mind to be (sic) a director, just a director. But I was born in Palestine and you have a choice. To betray your background your cause or to say no, I won't betray myself, I am a Palestinian director, with this, it's an act of resistance.

Do you feel that having that label is empowering or has it hindered your journey as a director?

Both. I think that, let's say, the bigger factor, is deciding that you're a Palestinian director prohibits you from growing. I'm still growing, but I wish I can grow further.

But yes, sometimes being a Palestinian director means that it's an act of resistance and it will help you. A lot of people will support you because you are doing it. But if you put them on a balance, the counter power is much bigger than the supporting power.

You've been nominated for two Academy Awards, you haven't won yet, but do you think it's important to win awards like that? Do you really care?

Sure, but it's not my decision. Any director, not just a Palestinian director, wants to win an Oscar. It's a kind of recognition and exposure that will help make your work, make it more visible.

Is being nominated the same as winning?

It helps a lot. But winning is different.

By Maan Jalal

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