The Idol/Hany Abu-Assad

Director Hany Abu-Assad.

Director Hany Abu-Assad with DP Ehab Assal.

Twenty-three-year-old Mohammed Assaf had a beautiful voice, and everyone told him he should compete on Arab Idol, the Middle East’s equivalent of American Idol. But Mohammed lived in the blighted refugee camp of Gaza, and auditions were held in Cairo, 250 miles away. In 2013, Mohammad snuck out of the refugee camp, made the treacherous journey, and evaded security to get into the hotel–where competitor Ramadan Abu Nahli heard his voice and handed him his treasured ticket to compete, saying that Mohammed must sing in his place. Mohammed’s run on Arab Idol galvanized the Arab world when he said, “A revolutionary is not just the one carrying the rifle. A revolution is the paintbrush of an artist, the scalpel of a surgeon, the axe of the farmer. Today I represent Palestine, and today I am fighting for a cause through the art that I am performing and the message that I am sending out. The Palestinian people can speak in a million languages full of beauty, love, and peace. The Palestinian people don’t love wars and killing and destruction.” Two-time Academy Award nominee Hany Abu-Assad tells Mohammed’s incredible story in The Idol. Click here for a trailer. Availability: Opens New York City May 27.  Thanks to Denise Sinelov, Required Viewing, for arranging this interview.


DT:  Sometimes you watch a scene and you’re struck by its beauty, and it keeps going deeper and deeper until your whole body is filled with its beauty. For me, that was the scene on the beach. I saw it as the mirror image of the scene in the taxi, where he’s singing as they look out on all of the destruction in Gaza.

Tawfeek Barhom as Mohammad Assaf.

Tawfeek Barhom as Mohammad Assaf.

HAA: As a filmmaker, you’re trying to visualize the character and his journey. You can always talk about it—you can say “I’m sad, I’m complex, I’m destructive—but how do you visualize that? You do it by images, by colors, by camera movement, by editing, by combining camera movement with edits. When Mohammad is in the taxi, he’s regaining his confidence. This is what you want to tell; this is what the scene is about. You could use dialogue and say “I’m regaining my confidence,” or you can do it with visuals: You shoot him singing close up, then his love interest enjoying his voice while she’s watching outside, which contrasts so greatly with the inside. This is what you want to tell: Inside is hopeful; outside is destruction.

This is how you do visualization. At the end of the film, on the beach, is when you realize that even though you don’t want to be the voice of voiceless people but that’s what you become, your voice becomes bigger than life. And then the images should be bigger than life. You have to create images that show life from a huge, big point of view. This is how you do the scenes. This is why I think the beach scene worked for you. It’s like his voice—his power from inside—becomes bigger than life. And the beach images combined with street images mean that nobody can break his spirit anymore. This is what I wanted to say. When the spirit becomes so strong, nobody can break them. They become beauty in itself, such that you can cry from it.


DT:  In the film, the character Mohammad Assaf resisted the role of becoming the voice of the voiceless. Is that what happened in real life?

The real Mohammad Assaf

The real Mohammad Assaf.

HAA: Yes. The film is very accurate. Mohammad collapsed, he was in the hospital—it’s all true. A lot of hope was put on him, but hope has a dual effect. You can give people hope that you can help them, or you can give people hope to believe in themselves, to help themselves. The first one is a false hope: nobody can help others in the real sense. You force change when you believe in yourself, and then you can change your situation. Mohammad realized that a lot of people wanted him to help them directly, and this is why he said, “I’m just a singer.” Then he realized he should not help them directly but try to let them believe in themselves. This is why he goes to the beach and gives the people belief in themselves, rather than their waiting for others to come and help them.


DT:  How closely did you work with the real Mohammad Assaf?

HAA: I even tried to get him to play the role, but he’s not an actor. I gave him training, but he was scared, for the same reason he was scared on Arab Idol. He felt, I’m a singer, now I’m an actor too? It was too much.

DT: Did he advise on the script?

HAA: I talked to him, his family, his friends, I went to Gaza to see where he lived. When the script was finished, the family read it and gave me notes. We incorporated them into the final script, which we showed them before shooting. They’d had objections to certain scenes that for me weren’t crucial scenes, but it’s a sensitivity I understand. Sometimes there’s a scene or a story where you think, Oh, that’s cute, but they’re ashamed of it. It’s funny how people can look at things; they’re too close to what happens, but I’m looking from afar. This is why we took out all of the scenes they weren’t happy with.


DT: Did you and Mohammad discuss his musical training?

HAA:  It’s what’s in the movie. The first thing his trainer did was give him a voice. In the beginning, Mohammad was just singing famous cover songs. Then his music teacher wrote him special songs like “Shedi Helek Ya Balad.” This is the first song that was written for him. Before that it was all songs of famous artists like Amr Diab. In the wedding, he sang an Egyptian song, “Ya Bint Al Sultan.” Ragheb Alama sang that, and then Mohammad did his own interpretation. His teacher helped him enormously to develop his own material and voice—in the film, the scene in the studio with the Skype call, was also a song he did with his music teacher.


DT:  Can you talk about the logistics of shooting in Gaza and Jenin?

HAA:  The only obstacle was checkpoints. Israel forbid almost everybody to go to Gaza. It’s very difficult to go in or out of Gaza, so getting permission took us months of begging and calling the Israeli army spokesman. At the end they gave us two days of research and two days of shooting, and they agreed to take the children outside of Gaza—without their parents. So we shot in Jenin. Jenin is more free. You can go in and out without permission, but there is a checkpoint. It starts at ten o’clock in the morning and closes at seven o’clock, so we had to sleep in Jenin. Other than that there were no obstacles. The people in Jenin were enormously helpful, the people in Gaza were amazing. We had zero obstacles except the Israeli permission to go in and out of Gaza and the checkpoint that closed in Jenin. They open it when they want. Ten o’clock. Who opens a checkpoint at ten o’clock?


DT:  You’ve worked with the same crew consistently. Talk about your history with them and how the working relationship has grown.

HAA: We started together on Paradise Now and grew up with Omar. Ehab Assal, the cameraman on this film, was an assistant. Eyas Salman, the editor, was an assistant. Nael Kanj, the production designer, was an assistant. Baher Agbariya, the coproducer, was an assistant. Wajdi Ode, the location manager on this film, was an electrician on Paradise Now. It’s fun to see them coming together. When I knew I was going to do The Idol, we had a meeting, and I called together my golden team. The seven of us met in Nazareth, and we called ourselves the golden seven. It’s amazing to see them coming together with the force to do a whole feature film with no money—two million dollars, it’s nothing to make such a quality movie. It was amazing to see that.


DT:  You didn’t go to someone and say “I want to make this film.” The producers came to you.

HAA: Ali Jaafar, the main producer, bought the rights from the Arabic NBC, the network that runs Arab Idol. He called me and told me he wanted me to do the movie. They wrote a script; I read it but felt it needed a huge rewrite. I did the rewrite myself, and this is how I became involved.


DT:  This film features big stars—Tawfeek Barhom, Ali Suliman, Ashraf Barhoum—but also first-time child actors. What was the dynamic of working with such varied levels of experience?

Qais Atallah as the young Mohammad Assaf.

Qais Atallah as the young Mohammad Assaf.

HAA:  I loved it, because you invent yourself every time. You learn from it. Every actor has his own way of dealing with his craft. There is no formula, and every time you have a new experience with new actors, you enrich your knowledge about how to deal with all actors. What is it to deal with actors? To give them the confidence to do their best and dare to be emotionally naked in front of the camera. If you are honest with your feelings, you feel naked in front of the camera. Every actor is different in how he can be honest.

Working with children but also with Tawfeek Barhom and Assaf Barhoum and Ali Suliman was a joy. It’s like being a race car driver, because you have to change gears all the time; I’m with the children, so now I go back to second, now I’m with the experienced actors, and I have to go to full gear. You feel the challenge all the time because all the time you’re manually shifting gears. It’s what gives you the excitement of doing movies. As you’re changing gears, you’re becoming a good driver. If you put it on automatic, there’s no fun in driving, but manually shifting gears, you realize what a good driver you’ve become.


DT: Has the film played in Israel?

HAA:  It’s going to play in a small festival, and I just heard that Israeli television wants an interview with me. I really want the Israeli public to see it. Most of them don’t want to see Palestinians as human because that makes their oppression of us easier: It’s easier to oppress someone you think of as less a person. These kinds of movies disturb them, yet I think it’s very important to them, because this movie is about hope and they need more hope than anybody else. They put themselves in a dark tunnel and they need to get out. This movie can help them in realizing who they are, and then they can help themselves. Because don’t think the world is going to help the Israelis come out of the tunnel they’ve put themselves into. They are in self-destruction, and they need hope. Believe me, you always wish for yourself a hopeful enemy rather than a dumb enemy. Besides, most Israelis come from Arabic countries. They are Arabs, actually, and they will enjoy the music more than me and you.


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Omar/Hany Abu-Assad

In Hany Abu-Assad‘s Omar, a young Palestinian informant is trapped between his Israeli handler and his love for a woman who lives on the other side of the separation wall.  Palestine’s entry to the 2014 Academy Awards,Omar is poised to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck PR, for arranging this interview.


DT:  One of the things that surprised me most in Omar was the fact that people scale the wall to visit family and friends on the other side.  What other kinds of adjustments do people make to live under occupation?


HAA:  I don’t think the film is about that.  It’s about love, friendship, trust, betrayal, and paranoia, how connected they are to each other, and how important trust is to society and love and friendship.  In this instance, it’s a love story between Omar and Nadia.

In every love story you have obstacles—the outside obstacles and the inside obstacles.  The outside obstacle inRomeo and Juliet is the families that are fighting.  In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, it’s race. In West Side Storyit’s the social differences.  In Omar, it’s the occupation.  Usually the wall is a depressing thing for me, but when I realized how powerful a visualization of the obstacle it was, I was happy with the wall for a second, because I felt, My God, how can I get a better image for visualizing the obstacle than this wall?  Who on earth in the history of cinema could visualize the outside obstacle?  In Romeo and Juliet you need so many shots and so much introduction and dialogue to visualize the obstacle.  Here—just the wall.  An image, and a boy trying to climb.  Oh my God.  It’s the best visualization of an obstacle ever.


DT:  But people really do scale the wall.


HAA:   Sure.  The wall doesn’t come between Israel and the West Bank.  The wall comes between Palestinian and Palestinian to divide them from themselves.  It’s inside the West Bank.  It’s not on the border.  This is why it’s divided a lot of families, and a lot of life, and even a lot of animals from each other.   Wild animals used to go down in the winter and up in the summer, and now they can’t move because of the wall. But again, the main goal of the film is not showing how people live under occupation.  It’s showing how human beings have to deal with important issues like love and friendship under extreme circumstances, which is occupation.


DT:  You’ve described the setting for Omar as a “virtual Palestinian city.”  What do you mean by that?


HAA:  Because the wall does not divide Israel from Palestine but Palestinian from Palestinians, my idea was not to portray an actual city but a virtual city where a wall cut it in the middle.  It’s not an actual city.


DT:  It’s not Nablus or Ramallah, for example.


HAA:  It can be four or five places.  It can’t be Jenin, because there is no wall in Jenin.  There is no wall in Nazareth.  There is no wall in Jericho.  But I think it can be in Beit Jala, Bethlehem, for example, between al-Ram or Qalandia, between Tulkarm, between Qalqilya and itself.  I didn’t want people to say, Oh, it’s Bethlehem, or Beit Jala, for example.


DT:  Two things struck me at the Q&A after the New York Film Festival press screening.


HAA:  My answers.


DT:  First of all, you said the film is universal.  Then people got offended when you called Omar a hero.  Do you think the Palestinian narrative—and although you keep saying the film is not about the Palestinian narrative, the context is the Palestinian narrative—is universal, and why do you think Omar is a hero?


HAA:  Why did it strike you?  Is it illogical that it’s a universal issue?


DT:  I think that films about a terrorist are not comprehensible in the West the way they are in the Middle East.


HAA:  But why is Omar a terrorist?


DT:  Because he participated in a terrorist attack. Even though I’m against the occupation, I still saw his killing the soldier as a terrorist attack.


HAA:  This is your definition.  Even the most extreme right-wing definition of a terrorist attack is when you kill civilians or attack society for political reasons.  I think that for everybody on this earth, except you maybe, killing a soldier wouldn’t be called a terrorist attack.  But then everything is a terrorist attack.  What do you call war?  A terrorist attack?


DT:  Yes.


HAA:  I understand.  Any act of violence is already terror for you.


DT:  If it’s a political act of violence, yes.


HAA:  That’s interesting.  Could the Americans have freed themselves from the English without an armed struggle? Could Europe have freed itself from the Nazis?  If they were pacifists, as you want, the Nazis would rule the world.


DT:  Is this your answer to my question, or are we debating pacifism?


HAA:  How can I answer your question about Omar? I think it’s very universal.  Maybe not to you, but it’s universal to anyone I know in Europe and the United States.  They will fight against occupation.  The universal dividing line is this:  If it’s against soldiers, it’s not a terrorist attack.  If it’s against civilians, it’s a terrorist attack. This is why I think it’s universal.  But also the main themes are universal…falling in love, people under extreme circumstances having to make choices.  This is all universal.  Now the second thing that struck you:  Omar being a hero.



HAA:  He’s a tragic hero, but he’s still a hero. Let’s define a tragic hero.  A tragic hero means well but ends up destroying the one he’s trying to protect.  In The Godfather, Michael Corleone intends to protect his family and ends up killing them.  An anithero acts as a hero but doesn’t want to:  He does something he doesn’t want to do and ends up saving someone.  A hero is somebody who consciously knows that his act will result in heroism.  In our case, Omar is a tragic hero because he did everything to get his love but ended up destroying his love.  And this is why his redemption is to kill Rami, his Israeli handler, in order to protect Nadia, because Rami is still a threat and Omar will sacrifice himself for Nadia.  This is why, according to the definitions, he’s a tragic hero.



DT:  Can you talk about shooting in the territories, especially getting permission to shoot on the wall, using an all-Palestinian cast and crew, and the differences between when you shot Paradise Now and when you shot Omar?


HAA:  Wow, what a big difference, believe me.  2005 [shooting Paradise Now] was a traumatic experience.  I couldn’t go back to the West Bank for more than three years, it was so traumatic. I had so many troubles.


DT:  From the Israelis or Palestinians?


HAA:  From Israelis and some Palestinians, but from both.  It was too much.  It was the invasion at that time, it was curfews, no permission.  This time we had cooperation from everybody.


DT:  Why?


HAA:  Anybody knows that if they give me a problem, you, as a journalist, will ask me, “Did they give you any problems?”  And then I have to answer, “They did this to me.  They did that to me.” Now I don’t need to tell these stories.  They are happy that I’m not telling these stories, and I am more than happy that I’m doing my movies.  It’s good.  We even had permission to shoot on the wall up to a certain height.


DT:  Permission from the Israelis?


HAA:  Yes—til the last two meters from the top.  The last two meters we built somewhere else for all the closeup shots on top of the wall.  We used an all-Palestinian cast and crew in order to contribute to our community.  If your community is under occupation and seeking independence, you have to try to be less dependent on others by using your own resources.  It’s an act of good for the community.


DT:  Omar is your second film to compete for an Academy Award.  What’s the nominating procedure in Palestine?


HAA:  It’s a funny story.  The Ministry of Culture will form a commission from different disciplines.


DT:  Through the Palestinian Authority?


HAA:  Yes.  They have a Ministry of Culture, which has a cinema department. They appoint a commission of professionals from the field—producers, directors—and show them the films that are competing. Then the commission chooses one.  Now, in my case, there was no other film.  Mine was the only one being submitted, maybe because other directors thought they had no chance.  The head of the commission said, “What are we going to do?  We’re going to pretend?”  Everyone knew there was no other film, but when he called everybody, he said, “We choose Omar.  Do you agree?”  It was funny.   It was kind of like a joke.


DT:  You got into directing through producing.  How did being a producer affect your directing?


HAA:  As a director I always took the budget into consideration.  Even now I can’t get rid of that habit.  It’s not good sometimes.


DT:  What would you have done with Omar that you didn’t do?


HAA:  I would have spent more money on editing, and I think I needed more time on the fake wall.


DT:  Between Paradise Now and Omar, people think of you only as a director of Palestinian narratives, yet the first feature you directed was a comedy written by a Dutch Jew whose mother survived Auschwitz.  How do you want to be thought of as a director?


HAA:  As a Palestinian film director, because I have the most pain from that side.  Being a Palestinian is not easy;  simply being a Palestinian is already an accusation.  They say Omar is a controversial movie, for example.  I ask myself, if it were a Chinese movie, would it be controversial? Just being a Palestinian is already controversial.  It makes you angry.  Mad.  Because why is it that way?  It’s a painful situation to see that your family can’t visit each other, to see that if I want to go to the West Bank I have to go through checkpoints, through soldiers who have to control me.

You see we are living in ghettos.  The occupation is taking the land little by little.  It’s painful, and that’s why I give this identity as the biggest, because I want to get rid of this the most.  I want the Palestinians to be equal with Israelis.  Very simple.  To live equal.  Then I will feel better.  I am a selfish man.  I want to feel better because I want to be equal.  Anyhow, I’m partly European.  I’m Dutch, actually.


DT:  You have a Dutch passport?


HAA:  Not just a passport.  I’m Dutch.  I know the Dutch language very well.  Holland formed me culturally.  It’s an easy country.  I just got an invitation from the queen.


DT:  Mazel tov.


HAA:  Every year she invites several artists for lunch, and this year I’m one of them.  My Dutch identity is a lost identity because I have no problems from it.  I got a lot of pleasure working with Arnon Grunberg, the Jewish writer you referred to earlier.  He was very influential on me…I learned a lot of things about language from him.  He’s a great guy.


DT:  Is there anything you want to add?


HAA:  Judge the movie as a movie.  In terms of my politics, I am condemning the occupation.  Period.  I’m not apologetic about it, and I’m not going to do a movie in order to discuss whether there is an occupation or not.  From our point of view there is an occupation. Period. And I’m also not going to discuss whether there’s a good side to the occupation.  You want me to make a movie to show there is a good side to the occupation or that there are good people in Israel?  Why should I make a movie to tell you there are good people in Israel?  In all my films I condemn the occupation, and this time I didn’t even put Israel in it.  The word Israel doesn’t exist and the wordPalestinian doesn’t exist.  It’s just people under occupation.  But I really want people to judge me as a filmmaker.  If you don’t like what I have to say about politics, so what?  There are so many people saying what I’m saying about politics, but you don’t need to agree with me on politics.  Just go and watch Omar and judge it as a movie.  Don’t condemn it in advance because it’s Palestinian or taking the Palestinian side.  And yes, it’s taking the Palestinian side.  So what?  I’m Palestinian. Why shouldn’t I?  I should take the American side?


DT:  Let me ask you one more question:  What do you think of the nonviolent resistance movement in Bil’in?


HAA:  I am like you:  a pacifist in the sense that I’ve never harmed a person in my entire life.  Not only physicalIy; I don’t like to harm anybody.  Even my enemies.  I always try to forgive, because if you carry hate, it’s you who’s going to be paying.  I don’t carry hate.  I believe that violence—whether it’s an Arab struggle, which is legal, or any kind of violence that has its freedom fighters—will have its toll on society.  Violence will always take its toll. But I also understand from life that not everybody has the luxury to be nonviolent like me or the people who protest at Bil’in.


DT:  You think nonviolence is a luxury?


HAA:  You need to be morally superior to say to someone who’s hitting you, “You are wrong.”  Not everybody has this superior morality; most people don’t.  I can’t require them to act like me,  even if I’m a pacifist.  As a pacifist, you feel that even though a soldier will humiliate you, you are superior to him.  I feel superior to them.


DT:  In what way?


HAA:  I have more knowledge, I have more luck in life, I’m a talented guy…all these things make me feel that in general I take more from life than the soldiers do.  They have to stand at the checkpoints to kill people, so even if they have weapons, I’m luckier than them.  A soldier  once tried to shoot me, but I just stood there and said, “You can kill me, but you’re wrong.”  You need to be morally superior to lose your hate.  Not everybody can easily lose their hate like me, because I know that hate will destroy me.  This is why I don’t hate.  It will destroy me before it destroys my enemy.  This is why I feel, Let him live his life.  I will be more than happy to be far from my enemies.  But not everybody can, and I can’t demand that they be like me.  This is the only difference I have from other pacifists: I can’t demand that everybody be like me.  I can teach them and lecture them.  But I also understand that no one on earth wants to live in an inferior position—no one—and they will find their way to fight.  Some people will be very destructive in the fight, and I think that violence is sometimes destructive in the fight for freedom, but I understand them.

I hope you are satisfied.


Copyright © Director Talk 2014