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Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad is fan of Wim T. Schippers and wants to fight with beauty

That the briskly moving Arab film is about more than Egyptian melodrama can be seen at the festival Cinéma Arabe which kicks off on 19 April in Amsterdam. One of the eye-catchers at this event is The Idol, based on the true story of the young Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf who won Arab Idols in 2013 and became a folk hero against his will.

With The Idol, director Hany Abu-Assad gives his hitherto firmly politically committed work (Oscar nominations for Paradise Now and Omar) a light-hearted turn. With plenty of zest for life, sincere emotion and a tragic note, this musical biopic managed to win over audiences at the Rotterdam Film Festival earlier this year.

Hany Abu-Assad was there himself. The Nazareth-born filmmaker came to the Netherlands when he was 20 and initially studied aeronautical engineering here before making his first feature film, Het veertiende kippetje, with Arnon Grunberg in 1998. About six years ago, he moved to America in search of new adventure. So I begin the interview with the question:

What shall I write, Palestinian-Dutch filmmaker, or is it now Palestinian-American?

"No, I will not become an American, I still feel like a Palestinian Dutchman, even though I now live back in Nazareth. I am a Dutch Arab. My cultural identity was largely formed in the Netherlands. Wim T. Schippers, the VPRO, all that has been of great influence. Just like filmmakers like Jos de Putter, Johan van der Keuken, even Fons Rademakers and Paul Verhoeven, and also writers like Gerard Reve, Hermans, Adriaan van Dis, Arnon Grunberg and yes, even Remco Campert. So that Dutch education has been very important. Besides, of course, artists from Egypt and Syria who influenced me as an Arab."

Palestinian-Dutch filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad
Palestinian-Dutch filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad

So do we see any more of Wim T. Schippers in The Idol?

"Yes, for instance that in tragic situations you find something comical. Like when Mohammed Assaf's little sister gets seriously ill, gets into hospital and then jokes anyway."

And maybe those parkour artists who unexpectedly emerge from the ruins of Gaza?

Laughing: "Yes, that too."

It surprised me that there is so little politics in The Idol. It touched me especially emotionally, it is a very happy and at the same time tragic film. Sometimes it seems like Palestinian filmmakers have only one subject, but this is different. Was it a relief?

"It has been a growth. In the beginning, the main theme of my films was the occupation, but the occupation eventually dies, believe me, and I also want to make films that still mean something when the occupation is over."

"The human story is something that remains. Ultimately, I want to make films that rise above politics. Making art that is in the life, at least that's what I want to try. With politics as a backdrop in the background, but not in the leading role."

Was the film actually shot in Gaza?

"We got permission from the Israeli authorities with great difficulty to run there for two days. For the rest, we had to divert to the West Bank. Those parkour performers are really Gaza, as are many street scenes and the man with no legs."

I noticed that in the first half, which is about Mohammed's childhood, Gaza has a very warm and vibrant feel. In the second half, we see a lot of ruins and destroyed houses. What do you see now, when you come to Gaza?

"Especially the latter. Since 2005, there have been two devastating wars. In 2005, the city was not under siege, there was life, you could just go in and out. The difference between the city then and now helped me portray Mohammed's journey from innocent boy to guilty adult."

Above all, what do you want to show?

"That a voice like Mohammed's can prevail over occupation, rise above obstacles, that art can unite people, inspire and comfort them. That is touching, that music can offer comfort, because in general, life is full of disappointments."

"I was there in a square in Nazareth where thousands of people watched that last Idols episode with Mohammed. Young and old, rich and poor, Christian and Muslim, religious and non-religious, everyone stood side by side cheering and enjoying his voice."

As Mohammed gets older, does he also increasingly portray Palestinian feeling?

"Yes, absolutely. He becomes the Palestinian voice, even though he doesn't actually want it and opposes it. But he is forced to make a choice, and then he becomes the voice of the people anyway. Actually it is sad, the boy just sang at weddings and is not a hero at all. Singing is the only pleasure in his life, being a hero is an afterthought."

Mohammed lets a Palestinian voice be heard. Would you like to achieve the same with your films?

"I don't feel it's a choice, but more like an obligation. I have a Dutch passport, I could run away from it and not get involved in anything. But then you are a coward. Then I would rather choose to make my voice heard as a Palestinian, to fight with beauty, with art. So yes, I do see similarities. Except that Mohammed Assaf is popular, and my films are still elitist art. Think of it as the difference between André Hazes and Fons Rademakers. Hazes' funeral drew huge crowds. Those were not there at Rademakers', even though he had an Oscar."

Was Mohammed Assaf involved in the film - could he have played himself?

"I asked, but he didn't dare. 'I'm just a singer, what do you want from me?' He did see the film and at his request I changed a few scenes. Out of respect."

At least half the story is about youth of Mohammed Assaf. The kids playing that are amazing!

"These children surprised me immensely. They are from Gaza, they have lived through two wars and lived under fear and because of that they have lost their fear. Now they live without fear, they are no longer afraid to be vulnerable, not afraid to try anything, not afraid of the camera. Those 11-year-old girls and boys have grown up incredibly. They have been traumatised in a positive way. Of course, it is not quite right that they have lost their fear, but on the other hand, they have an enormous joy in life, they are so playful. Subconsciously, they may be thinking, we could be dead in no time, let's enjoy ourselves quickly."

The Idol is a Palestinian-Dutch production. Is there such a thing as a Palestinian film industry?

"The film a Palestinian-English-Dutch-Qatari production. There are an average of three Palestinian productions a year, which is a lot for a people without land. Palestinians have long since lost control of their land. A Palestinian is someone without a home, or a stranger in their own land, or living under occupation. We have lost control, but we are still a people, and the film industry is part of the people."

"You couldn't set up a car industry under these conditions, you need a state for that. But film is about people with experience, it's knowledge that doesn't need a permanent place."

I read somewhere that you wanted to make a film about William of Orange. Is that really going to happen?

With a laugh: "Indeed. That is my parting gift. Holland has been good to me and I would like to give something back. There are serious plans. Hazazah Pictures is the producer. We are doling out a treatment now, then we will start working on the screenplay."

Cinéma Arabe

Cinéma Arabe opens on 19 April at Rialto in Amsterdam with the Dutch premiere of Fatima by Philippe Faucon, about the life and poetry of Fatima Elayoubi, a Moroccan woman who emigrated to France when she was thirty-two.

The festival will take place from 19 to 24 April at various locations in Amsterdam. From 28 April in Rotterdam, Leeuwarden, Den Bosch and The Hague.

The programme features recent productions from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon and Syria. Films in very different styles that often respond with humour and satire to the social problems that still define daily life five years after the mass protests in the Arab region.

The Idol will be released in cinemas on 2 June.

Leo Bankersen

Leo Bankersen has been writing about film since Chinatown and Night of the Living Dead. Reviewed as a freelance film journalist for the GPD for a long time. Is now, among other things, one of the regular contributors to De Filmkrant. Likes to break a lance for children's films, documentaries and films from non-Western countries. Other specialities: digital issues and film education.View Author posts

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