Toronto 2015: ‘The Idol’ review


“People are dying, you’re singing,” come the words of recrimination as four kids with homemade instruments are drenched in water from a window. Of course, they’re words laced with dramatic irony when deployed at the beginning of a well known a true story as is presented in Hany Abu-Assad’s The Idol (2015). It follows the endeavours of eventual Arab Idol winner Muhammad Assaf as he goes from a gutsy Gaza boy to a symbol of hope for Palestinians at home and abroad. Grafted into a similar cinematic milieu as Abu-Assad’s Oscar-nominated previous film, Omar, this is crowdpleasing cinema akin to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2009).

The major link between the two is the fact that both films feature a young protagonist overcoming the odds to find success on reality television. They also both propagate their infectious feel-good message into films that refuse to baulk at the reality of life in their respective settings. It would not be a surprise to see the characters from Omar or Paradise Now, wandering around in the background of The Idol. The narrative charts the early years of Muhammad’s life and his touching relationship with his older tom-boyish sister, Nour (Hiba Atallah). Despite being diagnosed with kidney failure, she’s the life of the early sequences, her combative attitude driving the actions of her brother (Qais Atallah).

It’s she that advocates his angelic voice as a child, and her fire is the catalyst for sparking his own determination – most notably when he chases down a man on a bike who took a fish from their makeshift stand without paying. She’s the one who constantly assures him that his voice is good enough to take him far beyond his motherland and when, as a young man in his teens (now played by (Tawfeek Barhom) he says he has to “get outta here,” it’s impossible not to hear her insistent voice. The positivity of their youth is also evoked in Ehab Assal’s visuals which allow for vivacity and colour in a pastel brown locale filled with rubble and dust. They seem to perfectly sum up the reason for the transformative success of Muhammad – this colour is blossoming in a world often devoid of it. When he’s attempting to sneak across the border, because being allowed to travel to Egypt to compete in a pop competition is a major religious no-no, the tears in the eyes of the customs official at his voice sing volumes. As this is only inspired by the real events, there are perhaps one too many threads neatly tied into a bow, but all of them work in concert with the main event. Abu-Assad’s decision to use actual footage of the Palestinian crowds supporting his run on the show only serves to further emphasise the impact he made, and the heart-swell The Idol film engenders.

The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson