Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Idol (QFT 12-18 August)

The Idol opens with a sequence that’s right out of an episode of Homeland or a Bourne movie: a chase in and out of buildings, across rooftops and through crowded markets … except it’s a gang of four kids. They’re already entrepreneurs, learning that everything has a price in the squeezed economy of Gaza.

This is a film of two halves. Mohammed Assaf (played by Qais Atallah) dreams of being in a band with his older sister Nour (Hiba Atallah, who is the star of this section of the movie) and his two school friends. Sweet feel-good music accompanies the foursome as they ride through the dirt streets on their bicycles until they reach the razorwire fence.

Despite being warned that “you’re aiming too high, you’ll be disappointed”, they listen to Nour and are spurred on by her mantra that “we’ll be big and change the world”. Skilled negotiators, enthusiastic, able to generate cash and driven to improve, all they need is practice! Like all bands, there are romantic and creative differences that challenge the status quo. But it’s a renal medical side plot that provides the emotional crisis that brings the curtain down on the ‘early years’.

Jumping forward in time, we’re now in a busier, much more populated Gaza, with bombed buildings lying in ruins and power cuts interfering with life. This time with his mother’s sage words – “To succeed you have to be open to failure” – Mohammed (now played by Tawfeek Barhom) dips his toe back into musical waters, entering local and regional TV talent shows. Figures from the first half are neatly reconnected with as the plot heads towards its well-documented finale.

Real life footage of Mohammed Assaf’s actual success in Arab Idol is blended in with foreign news footage commenting on the Gaza singing phenomenon and a small number of close up shots of the actor playing Mohammed. The continual swapping between real and reconstructed footage distracts and it’s a pity the director wasn’t able to completely switch to using the real Mohammed Assaf for the final fifteen minutes of the film (or alternatively kept the actuality for during the credits).

While some scenes feel contrived, all too conveniently bringing characters from the first half back into the later action, the script incorporates many of the unlikely happenstances that propelled Mohammed across the Gaza/Egypt border and onto the hit TV programme where he gains the tongue-in-cheek nickname of “The Rocket”.

What the film does well is gently highlight the difficult conditions in Gaza, the disparate political factions, the relatively impervious border as well as the cultural norms that made it difficult for young Nour to perform in public. 

Even discounting the absence of Bollywood, The Idol is less slick and glamorous than Slumdog Millionaire. But there’s still something very sweet about this tale.

In this part of the world we like stories about wee lads battling against the odds and making a splash. Mohammed Assaf was certainly “big” and may well “change the world” in his UN ambassador role and diplomatic passport (that gets him into most countries, but not Gaza without permission).

The Idol is being screened at the Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 18 August.

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