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Singing hero biopic a homage to Gaza – Assaf a symbol of Palestinian resilience

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This file photo taken on July 26, 2015 shows Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf as he performs on stage during the 51st session of the Carthage International Festival at the Roman Theatre in Carthage. (AFP)
This file photo taken on July 26, 2015 shows Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf as he performs on stage during the 51st session of the Carthage International Festival at the Roman Theatre in Carthage. (AFP)

NEW YORK, May 28, (Agencies): Raised in a refugee camp in the ramshackle Gaza Strip, singer Mohammed Assaf emerged as a symbol of Palestinian resilience as he persevered to win the “Arab Idol” television contest. In a biopic about Assaf’s against-all-odds rise to stardom, filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad has strived to create a similar sense of pride, this time for cinema goers.

Entitled “The Idol” the movie is the first feature-length motion picture to be shot at least partially in the impoverished and isolated territory in two decades.

“The movie is an homage to Gaza,” Abu-Assad, a Palestinian and two-time Oscar nominee, told AFP ahead of Friday’s opening of “The Idol” in US cinemas.

“Second, I really want Palestinians to be proud of themselves. It’s not like the movie is going to change their situation, but the movie can help them to change themselves and believe in themselves,” he said.

Assaf, now 26, transfixed television viewers around the Arab world in 2013 as he triumphed in “Arab Idol,” a contest on the model of Britain’s “Pop Idol” and its numerous spinoffs such as “American Idol.”


In a journey portrayed with action film-like suspense in “The Idol,” Assaf overcame nearly insurmountable obstacles just to be a contestant — starting with getting out of the Gaza Strip, which is under a blockade by Israel and Egypt. Assaf had to coax an Egyptian border guard to let him through — in the film version, Assaf sings a religious tune for him.

When got to Cairo, he discovered that he had arrived too late, but his singing impressed a fellow Palestinian, who agreed to give Assaf his place in line.


Abu-Assad spoke to Assaf about potentially starring in the film version of his life, but instead chose the Israeli Arab actor Tawfeek Barhom, who portrays the young star as serious and determined in contrast to the giddy world of aspiring pop singers.

“Being a singer is different from being an actor,” the director said, adding that choosing Barhom allowed him the license to dramatize scenes for effect and not adhere strictly to actual events.

The director said he allowed Assaf to screen “The Idol” — “When he saw it, he cried,” Abu-Assad said — and agreed to cut out scenes. Abu-Assaf described the changes as minor, saying they were because of sensitivities of Assaf and his family.

Like Assaf in real life, “The Idol” is political but in a subtle way. The film shows Assaf flustered in Beirut, where the contest takes place, as reporters suddenly treat him as a spokesman for the Palestinian cause.

Yet Assaf, while not speaking openly about politics, has emerged as a unifying figure for supporters of the bitter rivals in Palestinian politics, president Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah and the Islamic militant movement Hamas which controls the Gaza Strip.

In “The Idol,” Israel appears only indirectly as the viewer experiences the bombed-out landscape of Gaza, which has been repeatedly devastated by Israeli air strikes in response to rocket attacks into the Jewish state.

The film, which premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, enjoyed an enthusiastic response as it was screened recently at a rare film festival inside Gaza, where around three-quarters of the 1.7 million people are refugees.

Abu-Assad said “The Idol” was the first movie shot in Gaza since leading Palestinian director Michel Khleifi went some 20 years earlier.

Just entering Gaza was a logistical headache due to blockade imposed nearly a decade ago after Hamas won elections in the self-governing territory.

The director said he was welcomed by Gazans, who are unaccustomed to film crews other than news media.

But after receiving permission from Israel to shoot for only two days, Abu-Assad focused on the atmospherics and filmed most indoor scenes in Jenin in the more accessible West Bank.

Entering Gaza, “everything is designed to make you feel that you are going to hell,” he said.

“But when you enter Gaza, you free yourself and you become a free-spirit,” he said.

“It’s crazy. With all the destruction that they have, they still can make a joke, they can sing and they can enjoy life. They have hopes and they are even more courageous.”


LOS ANGELES: In Hollywood to promote the second annual Indywood Film Carnival, filmmaker Sohan Roy S.K., CEO of Dubai-based Aries Group, brought a wide-ranging delegation.

Promoted as “the largest celebration of film ever produced in India,” the event will include the All Lights India Intl Film Festival, the Indywood Film Market, conferences, panel discussions and workshops. The carnival, supported by the state government of Telangana and patronized by the chief minister of the state K. Chandrashekar Rao, will be held Sept 24-27 at Ramoji Film City.

In a press conference held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel that featured Satish Chandran, executive VP of Aries Group; John Dohm, senior VP, operations, finance and IT, RealD; and Greg Agostinelli, vice-president, Epica, Los Angeles, Roy also introduced the Indywood Project.

The Indywood Project consists of 100 targeted goals including: revamping existing theaters and studios, anti-piracy drives and a tax reduction at 10 select shooting locations. The $10 billion project is driven by 2,000 corporate firms and Indian billionaires, and aims to integrate and revamp the Indian film industry over next five years. The revitalization of the film industry includes the launch of 10,000 4K multiplex screens, development of film studios, the creation of state-of- the-art animation and visual effects facilities, and film schools.

Launched last year All Lights India Intl Film Festival featured world premieres of films representing more than 100 countries, and the Indywood Film Market, for international films seeking access to the Indian market and Indian films seeking global distribution.

“Young people are the gateway,” Roy said. “Focusing on the next generation will change the mindset of the filmmaking community.”

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