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Pop and politics: Hany Abu-Assad's the idol and the pitfalls of the biopic.



Hany Abu-Assad's The Idol (2015) opens with a scene of pure childhood joy and mischief: a handheld camera follows a group of young boys, pursued by an older boy, running frenetically through streets and on the roofs of buses. This wild, carefree spirit runs throughout the film; for a story set within such a politically charged milieu its primary setting is the contentious Gaza Strip--it is not really a cinematic text with an overt agenda. In its fictionalisation of the life of singer Mohammed Assaf (played as a child by Qais Attallah and an adult by Tawfeek Barhom), leading up to his triumph at the 2013 Arab Idol competition, The Idol keeps us firmly focused on one person's particular story.

Biopics can be slippery fish. While audiences clearly view a written memoir or biography as a nonfiction text, do we apply the same set of expectations to the biographical feature film? The answer is not a clear one: On the 'no' side, the presence of actors and a constructed filmic narrative arguably leads us to approach biopics with the same suspension of disbelief as any other movie-going experience. On the 'yes' side, the qualification 'based on a true story' (or the more tenuous 'inspired by a true story') carries an expectation that we are about to see a depiction of truth or reality, although not on the same level as when we are watching a documentary. In fact, critic Matt Glasby argues that biopics are essentially 'formulaic--there's always an inciting incident, a wraparound story, eventual redemption--when real life is anything but'. (1) Nonetheless, biopics remain a very popular genre, perhaps because of, rather than in spite of, the fact that they walk this uncertain line between fiction and nonfiction. The subjects of biopics fascinate us, whether they are well-known figures, such as Johnny Cash (Walk the Line, James Mangold, 2005) or Margaret Thatcher (The Iron Lady, Phyllida Lloyd, 2011), or less-recognised figures whose interesting lives are brought to wider attention through film, such as Lili Elbe (The Danish Girl, Tom Hooper, 2015). The Idol holds the unique position of having a foot in both camps, with Assaf being a familiar figure to Middle Eastern viewers of the film but generally unheard of to most in the West.


Biopic audiences want to see not only depictions or re-creations of famous events in the person's life, but also private moments from their history and personal life. The balance between what is known and unknown, seen and unseen, provides biopic creators with a framework for how to portray their subjects. The audience accepts that the private scenes are as real or 'true' as the dramatisations of public events. Yet we are also savvy enough to know that dramatic licence is inevitably woven into any biopic, with the 'spirit' or 'essence' of the person often being hailed as more important than pure fact, and historical timelines compressed or skewed to serve the narrative. The firsthand involvement of the subject in bringing their life story to the screen often contributes both to the perceived 'truth' of the story and to the pathos of the fictionalised events, as, ultimately, the nature of memory is such that truth is subjective--we are all vulnerable to romanticising events in our lives (particularly from our childhoods). Interestingly for a biopic, Abu-Assad's film only has two time periods: Assaf's childhood, around the age of ten, and the Arab Idol auditions and competition, which he won at age twenty-four. Moreover, The Idol is quite unique for not apportioning equal screen time to these periods in Assaf's life--the childhood section is much longer. This makes the film more about the child's journey than the man's triumph, embodying something other than the standard 'wraparound story'.

After the energetic opening sequence, it is revealed that one of the 'boys' is Mohammed's tomboy sister, Nour (Hiba Attahllah). She is depicted as the key influence in his life, possessing a wisdom and practicality beyond her years; at times, her portion of the tale could have hijacked the entire film into one of budding feminism in the Middle East. Her quips and advice are often unintentionally hilarious, and her devotion to her brother's talent is absolute. Every moment she has on screen is a delight, gleefully stealing the viewers' attention from the film's main protagonist. This brings the audience's emotional investment to breaking point when Nour dies from kidney failure (which we could label the 'inciting incident', using Glasby's terms), a plot point that also dips a toe in political commentary by highlighting the lack of adequate medical care for the people of Gaza.

When the film time-jumps to 2012, we meet the adult Mohammed driving a taxi in the devastated Gaza. His dream of becoming a singer remains alive but is more difficult than ever, until a childhood friend assists him to escape Gaza to attend the Arab Idol auditions in Cairo. Real footage of the television show is then woven into these sections of the film, although the change from the actor to the real Assaf is slightly jarring, as they do not look at all alike. Perhaps this is due to our Hollywood-based biopic expectations, with make-up and prosthetics 'transforming' the actor into the subject--Meryl Streep's performance in The Iron Lady is a case in point, and this is further illustrated by the fact that biopic roles are often seen as Oscar-bait for actors. (2) In her review of The Idol, British-Palestinian journalist Selma Dabbagh agrees that these particular moments are disconcerting, but also admits that the lack of physical resemblance does not really matter, as the actor's and subject's eyes 'capture similar looks amid a kaleidoscope of alternating expressions embodied by Palestinian youth: haunting feelings of longing, delight, hope and resignation'. (3)

There exists a natural curiosity for audiences to investigate the 'real' story of a biopic's subject, particularly one not well known to them--as may be the case with Assaf --and this 'truth' is sometimes found to be quite different from that presented in the film. This is not necessarily a deliberate attempt by filmmakers to change the story or deceive the audience; it is a result of working within time limits and the need to set the right tone for the film. Our drive to find the 'real story' does not impede our enjoyment of the film, either; an exploration of the subject's life can yield fascinating details that can add to our experience of and reflections on the biopic. Unfortunately, less-than-heroic aspects of the subject can sometimes come to light as well. While The Idol downplays its sociocultural backdrop, and despite Mohammed's portrayed discomfort at being heralded as a political figure, some media coverage of Assaf following the film's release dragged real-world issues to the foreground: his music was subsequently accused of inciting violence among Palestinian youth. (4)

Another example of dramatic licence centres on The Idol's romantic subplot, which involves Mohammed reconnecting with childhood friend Amal (Teya Hussein / Dima Awawdeh). This is obviously designed to touch the hearts of audiences, but it also holds little connection to events in the real world. In truth, Assaf had become engaged to a popular Palestinian-Russian journalist in 2015 after finding fame. (5) The 'lost childhood love' angle, given the time spent on the childhood portion of the film, was evidently seen by the filmmakers as a much more romantic addition to the narrative.

Indeed, The Idol--which, according to Variety's Justin Chang, 'often seems to be playing fast and loose with the truth in traditional biopic fashion'--is Abu-Assad's most commercial title to date. (6) Without a doubt, the film ticks the 'rags to riches', 'feel-good film' and 'triumph of the underdog' boxes that viewers use to appraise mainstream biopics. Yet The Idol also made the rounds at film festivals in 2015, including those at Toronto, where it made its world premiere; Warsaw, where it received the Ecumenical Jury Award; and Dubai, where it won People's Choice. Abu-Assad was even bestowed the Asia Pacific Screen Awards' UNESCO Award, which honours a filmmaker's 'outstanding contribution to the promotion and preservation of cultural diversity through film'. (7) Consequently, The Idol has the potential to appeal to both film-festival, indie and world-cinema audiences, who exhibit arthouse sensibilities, as well as mainstream cinema-goers, who may appreciate the familiar generic conventions of the 'triumph over adversity' storyline and the cultural phenomenon of Idol-style singing competitions in a new setting.

Despite the genre's flaws, audiences flock to biopics for myriad reasons. It can be to find out unknown aspects of a person's life, such as their childhood and the key events that shaped them. It may be to gain behind-the-scenes insights into or enjoy re-creations of famous events. It can merely spring from curiosity to witness how an actor slips into the skin of a real person, living or dead, delivering a version of that figure to be either hailed as a triumph or derided as a poor imitation. Or it could be out of a desire to ascertain whether a biographer--in light of biopics' tendency to wear their hearts on their sleeves--will celebrate or demonise their subject. (8) This combination of reasons allows us to simultaneously enjoy and question the power of the biopic.

The Idol inspires in audiences a little of each of these. And its success or failure as an accurate portrait of Assaf's life is very much dependent on the perspective of the individual audience member, and what information and expectations they bring to their viewing of the film. Sociopolitical influences play a part as well--The Idol undeniably offers a means by which to explore issues relating to Palestinian freedom and sovereignty, and the realities of life growing up in the Gaza Strip. Explaining his approach to fictionalising Assaf's life, Abu-Assad captures the driving force behind, not just his film, but also the biopic genre more broadly: 'All of it is fiction, all of it is true. If it emotionally works, it's true.' (9)

Rebekah Brammer teaches English as a Second Language in Brisbane, and has studied drama, film and television and applied linguistics. She has been contributing to Metro and Screen Education since 2008.


(1) Matt Glasby, 'Is It Just Me? ... Or Are Biopics a Waste of Time?', GamesRadar, 28 August 2015, < it-just-me-or-are-biopics-waste-time/>, accessed 9 August 2016.

(2) ibid.

(3) Selma Dabbagh, 'The Triumph of an Arab Idol', The Electronic Intifada, 12 November 2015, < content/triumph-arab-idol/14996>, accessed 9 August 2016.

(4) See, for example, Paul Alster, '"Stab the Zionist": Palestinian Songs Celebrate Killing Jews', Fox News, 12 November 2015, < -hit-parade-palestinian-songs-celebrate-stabblng-jews.html>, accessed 9 August 2016.

(5) Nabila Ramdani, 'TV Presenter Lina Qishawi on Preparing to Marry Arab Idol's Mohammed Assaf, The National, 25 October 2015, < film/tv-presenter-lina-qishawi-on-preparing-to-marry-arab -idols-mohammed-assaf>, accessed 9 August 2016.

(6) Justin Chang, 'Toronto Film Review: The Idol', Variety, 12 September 2015, < festivals/the-idol-review-hany-abu-assad-toronto-film -festival-1201591860/>, accessed 9 August 2016.

(7) 'Winners Announced in 9th Asia Pacific Screen Awards', media release, Asia Pacific Screen Awards, 26 November 2015, < 11/winners-announced-in-9th-asia-pacific-screen-awards/>, accessed 9 August 2016.

(8) Jacqueline Rose, 'This is not a Biography', in On Not Being Able to Sleep: Psychoanalysis and the Modern World, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2003, p. 51. In the essay, Rose is specifically discussing written biographies, but her points regarding their subjectivity are equally applicable to biopic films.

(9) Hany Abu-Assad, quoted in Dabbagh, op. cit.
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Author:Brammer, Rebekah
Publication:Metro Magazine
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Dec 22, 2016
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