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The Idol / Ya Tayr El Tayer Palestine 2015

Posted by keith1942 on April 3, 2016

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This film was screened at the Leeds Young Film Festival. It does not have a UK release and the only other screening in Britain was at the London International Film Festival. It really deserves wider exhibition, both because it is a very well-done biopic and because it deals with the major contradiction in the Middle East, Israeli aggression against Palestinians.

The central character is Mohammad Assaf, born and bought up in Gaza, in 2013 he was the winner of a major Arabic Television competition, ‘Arab Idol’. He has since become a popular singer across the Arab world and also have been made a UN ‘goodwill’ ambassador.

The film opens with Mohammed in 2005. Mohammed, along with his sister Nour and two male friends, has an amateur band with him as lead singer. Scrimping and saving they buy second hand musical equipment and start to perform at local weddings. Their budding career is interrupted when Nour develops a failing kidney and has to undergo Kino therapy. The alternative of a kidney transplant is beyond the family’s scarce means. They and Mohammed are distraught when Nour dies.

The film moves forward to 2012 when Mohammed is working as a taxi driver in order to fund his University studies. With the help of friends and Gazans involved in illicit smuggling he is able to leave Gaza for Cairo and enter the prestigious competition. The film ends with his success, the start of a popular career and the celebrations among people in Gaza at his victory.

The film presupposes some acquaintance with the popular culture in the region. So I had to look up ‘Arab Idol’ after seeing the film. The programme, ‘Arab Idol : Mahboub El Arab’, was based on the British TV programme ‘Pop Idol’. It commenced in 2011, following on from an earlier set of programmes, ‘Super Star’. Mohammed’s audition was in Cairo but the actual contest takes place in Lebanon. Applicants who passed the auditions compete over a series of weeks as, one by one, some are eliminated through audience voting. The finale presents the winner. Mohammed was successful in the second series in 2013.

Effectively the film falls into three parts. Mohammed’s early life in Gaza in 2005. Then his adult life in Gaza around 2012. And finally the television competition. In the 2005 sequences Mohammed is played by Qais Attallah.  I found the first part the most interesting and affecting. This is very much down to the character of Nour (Hiba Attahllah). She is the most dynamic character and something of a tomboy. And she is at this point in the film enjoys equal attention with Mohammed. The memory of her remains an important motivation for Mohammed later on.

The 2012 Gaza sequences emphasise the effects of the Israeli blockades and attacks. There is equal emphasis on the effects of Hamas rule. One of Mohammed’s erstwhile friends and band members is now a convinced member of the Islamic organisation, The film does generate a sense of Mohammed (Tawfeek Barhom) caught between the Israelis and Hamas. There is a despairing quality about his attempts to leave Gaza, very different from the élan of the youthful band seven years earlier. There is also a slight romantic interest in the character of Amal (Dima Awawdeh) who he met in the hospital where she received the same treatment as Nour.

Idol,Gaza

The third sequence commences in 2012 as Mohammed manages to leave Gaza and arrives in Cairo for the ‘Arab Idol’ auditions at the city’s Opera House. He has to overcome a succession of obstacles but succeeds and we then watch the succeeding stages of the competition. As Screen International commented this is the most ‘formulaic’ part of the film. There is intensive parallel cutting between the television auditorium, watching audiences in Gaza and elsewhere in Arabia and the situation of Mohammed, psychologically divided after his earlier travails. There are also several scenes on beaches or waterfronts, paralleling earlier scenes in  Gaza. In one of these we see a flashback montage to his early years, Nour and the band. It is now that he finds the resolve to carry on. As we view these final scenes and move into the end credits the actor of Mohammed is changed to the actual real-life singer.

The film is directed by Hany Abu-Assad who also wrote the screenplay together with Sameh Zoabi. Abu-Assad is a Palestinian director with an impressive output. His earlier films include Omar (2013), Paradise Now (2005) and Rana’s Wedding (2002). His films tend to dramatise the lives of ordinary Palestinians and this is true of The Idol. Whilst the focus is Mohammed, now a celebrity, much of the film presents the situation and settings of Palestinians in Gaza. Whilst the Israeli blockade and regular assaults are hardly mentioned in the dialogue, there are frequent references in the mise en scène. These include the security installations and fences that surround Gaza: the landscape full of destroyed buildings: and Palestinian victims like one man who has lost his legs.

Abu-Assad and his crew are also technically accomplished. The cinematography by Ehab Assal is well judged and impressively mobile. There are frequent tracks using a Steadicam. The film opens with a fast-paced race by Nour, Mohammed and their two friends across houses, constructions sites, balconies and walk-ways. [The sequence does look a little like the opening sequence of Skyfall (2012) where James Bond (Daniel Craig) chases down a character]. There are a number of repeat sequences of this type, including a delightful track along an underground  tunnel as a boy delivers food from Egypt’s WacDonalds. And when Mohammed arrives for the auditions in Cairo there is a similar sequence as he manages to ‘break in’ to the Opera House.

So this is a well-judged and very stylish portrait. The latter stages of the film are more conventional as the writing aims for the final ‘feel-good’ factor. We have the conventional plot point where a friend, now a member of Hams, waives his duty to help Mohammed. And this reduces the impact of the political side of the film. I felt that Abu-Assad was definitely criticising Hamas, and given this is Gaza there is no equivalent address of the problematic around Fatah. In the early part of the film the mise en scène frequently contrasts male dominated actions with watching women. We see this in the wedding sequences where it is the men who dance to the music and the women sit and watch. meanwhile Nour is hidden from the view of the audience as she plays in the band. And we see it again at Nour’s funeral where the coffin in followed by a male cortege. There is a contrast late in the film during ‘Arab Idol’ where the westernised audience and staff of both sexes mingle easily.

The oblique style of the references to the Israeli occupation are effective. But the final success of Mohammed and the response among Palestinians suggest a cultural avenue which seems unlikely to succeed. Mohamed does state at the finale of ‘Arab Idol’ that that he entered the contest because he wanted the Palestine’s voice to be heard. This stance is somewhat belied by the his expressed motivation in the days before when he was planning his ‘escape’ from Gaza. And the competition, a copy of that in neo-colonial Britain, emphasises individualism rather than community. Something which the frequent cutaways to celebrating Palestinians fails to counter. And the idea of UN ‘goodwill ambassador’ hardly seems to address the ferocity of the regular assaults on Gaza.

Audience, Idol

Abu-Assad’ s films tend to treat the armed struggle as problematic, witness Paradise Now and Omar. His work can be seen as part of a movement to build a Palestinian Cinema, in other words a ‘second cinema’ for the Palestinians with a touch of the auteur. So the film lack the direct and powerful opposition of films that focus primarily on the struggle, say Five Broken Cameras (2011). But they do, as with this film, offer powerful representations of Palestinians and they now offer the level of production values common across the world of ‘Festival’ cinema.

 

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One Response to “The Idol / Ya Tayr El Tayer Palestine 2015”

  1. […] The Idol (Ya tayr el tayer, Netherlands , UK , Qatar , Argentina , Egypt , Palestine , United Arab Emirates 2015). In colour. In Arabic with English subtitles. Length 100 minutes.   20.00 on Friday 25 November at HEART. […]

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