Ever since the first series of “Pop Idol” screened on British TV in 2001, the televised music competition has become practically inescapable, with franchises springing up everywhere from Macedonia to the Maldives. Given how cannily stage-managed these “reality” shows really are, though, it almost comes as a surprise when a genuinely inspirational story emerges from one of them.
That’s what happened in 2013 when a Palestinian singer from a refugee camp in Gaza, Mohammed Assaf, won the pan-national “Arab Idol,” bringing hope to a region that generally doesn’t have much to smile about.
Assaf’s story is now the subject of a breezy biopic, “The Idol.” This uplifting drama marks a change of pace for Hany Abu-Assad, the Palestinian director previously best known for his Oscar-nominated films “Omar” (2013) and “Paradise Now” (2005) — tense thrillers that took a far bleaker view of the region’s problems.
“What you get from ‘The Idol’ is the power of art, where art is changing ugliness to beauty,” he says. “The power of voice, like Mohammed Assaf, is connecting people instead of tearing them apart.”
The film’s first half follows the exploits of a young Assaf in 2005, as he starts a wedding band with a couple of friends and his tomboyish sister, Nour. Midway through, it jumps forward seven years to find the singer now fully grown (played by Tawfeek Barhom), working as a taxi driver while trying to wangle a spot at the “Arab Idol” auditions in Egypt.
In real life, Assaf’s progress on the show would become a major international news story. In the final stretch of the film, Abu-Assad incorporates video footage from 2013, showing the streets of Palestine packed with crowds gathered to watch the “Idol” finale. The result may not come as a surprise now, but their joy is palpable all the same.
According to Abu-Assad, the good vibes extended behind the camera too.
“I think, with ‘The Idol’, it’s the first time I enjoyed filming,” he says. “In the past, I enjoyed the writing (process) and the editing very much. During the shoot, ‘Paradise Now’ was hell, ‘Omar’ was horrible. … If it’s a true film, what’s happening in the story (is reflected in) what’s going on behind the scenes.”
In the case of “Paradise Now,” which was shot in the West Bank, the off-screen action was no less dramatic than the movie’s story of two young men who get recruited as suicide bombers. The film’s location manager was kidnapped, and multiple crew members quit after an Israeli missile strike took place near the set.
Nothing so alarming happened during “The Idol,” which became the first movie in two decades to be filmed in Gaza. That said, the Israeli authorities only granted Abu-Assad a couple of days in which to shoot there; the remainder of the filming took place in the West Bank, as well as Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt.
“I think I learned as a director, now, how to use obstacles to my advantage,” he says. “It’s like the captain of a sailboat — he just uses the wind. If it’s against you, he knows how to use it in order to go forward.”
Such obstacles are a routine part of life for Palestinians. At the end of the film, onscreen text explains that Assaf is now a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), yet he still requires special permission to travel in and out of Gaza. (Abu-Assad has compared visiting Gaza to “entering or escaping the biggest jail on Earth.”)
One of the biggest laughs in “The Idol” comes when Assaf tries to audition for a Palestinian music show, but is forced to do it over Skype, putting him at the mercy of a dodgy internet connection and a violently malfunctioning power generator. The scene recalls one in “Paradise Now,” where a suicide bomber delivers an impassioned speech for his martyrdom video, only to be told that the camera wasn’t recording.
Abu-Assad says the parallel wasn’t deliberate, but he spots a pattern in his work: “I’m always trying to make comedy from a tragic situation, or tragedy from a comic situation.”
“Life is very, very complex, so it’s not tragedy, it’s not comedy — it’s both,” he continues. “I’m reflecting our life, as it is.”
Though it’s lighter in tone than Abu-Assad’s previous films, “The Idol” doesn’t attempt to downplay the hardships of life in Gaza. At various points, the camera drifts away from the action to gaze over a landscape of bombed-out buildings, offering an acute reminder of how thoroughly broken the region has become.
It was all too much for the family of Hiba Attalah, the gifted young actress who plays Nour in the film: They are currently in Germany, awaiting a decision on their application for refugee status.
Abu-Assad, meanwhile, is returning to Hollywood, where he’s lined up to helm a survival drama starring Idris Elba and Kate Winslet. Perhaps it will give him a chance to make amends for his lackluster English debut, “The Courier,” which went straight to DVD in 2012. Is he feeling more confident now?
“I have no idea if I’m more confident,” he says, giving a rueful laugh. “But I know I’m enjoying filming more than in the past.”
“The Idol” (Japan title: “Utagoe ni Notta Shonen”) opens nationwide on Sept. 24 and will be screened in Arabic with Japanese subtitles.