Making a film is never easy, but director Hany Abu-Assad faced challenges and risks that went well beyond the norm when he shot "The Idol" in Gaza.
"I had to deal with the Israeli military, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas," Abu-Assad said of his new film about the unlikely winner of the singing contest "Arab Idol." "Months and months of arguing, and then of course, hours more once you're there on the ground."
"The Idol," which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, is the first feature film to be shot in Gaza in 20 years, decades marked by devastating military campaigns and the election of a militant group Hamas as the region's governing body.
"Getting in and out of Gaza was horrible, as if you are entering or escaping the biggest jail on Earth," the Palestinian director said during a recent stop in Los Angeles. "The Israeli authorities gave us only two days in Gaza to shoot everything we needed. We shot the rest in Janin, in the West Bank, [where the Palestinian Authority has] its own set of crazy rules."
The challenges Abu-Assad faced, however, were nothing compared with those of his film's subject, "Arab Idol" winner Mohammed Assaf. The singer was 23 in 2013 when he fled the Gaza Strip, was crowned "Arab Idol" and became a symbol of hope for the region.
"His story, it's a warming heart… or how do you say it? Heartwarming?" said Abu-Assad, whose other films include the decidedly heavier and more overtly political "Paradise Now" and "Omar," both heralded dramas that grapple with themes of occupation, oppression and, ultimately, terrorism. "The Idol" touches on all these realities, but with a much brighter outcome.
"In Gaza, with all the destruction, with all the wars, the ghetto, it's hard to see anything else," said Abu-Assad, 54, who left Nazareth in 1980 and has lived in Holland since. "The best goal of art is to find humanity in inhumane situations, and Assaf's story does that."
"The Idol" has already played in Europe and throughout the Middle East, including Gaza, the West Bank and at a small festival in Israel. Abu-Assad describes "similar positive reactions wherever we were. People all laughed and became emotional in the same places. It's my first film to connect in such a universal way."
The film follows the singer's unlikely rise out of the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, a war-ravaged Palestinian territory that is sealed off from the rest of Israel and the West Bank by noncontiguous borders (a swath of Israeli land runs between Gaza and the Occupied Territories), military checkpoints and a wall.
Ten-year-old Assaf (Qais Atallah) creates a band with his school friends at the urging of his sister Nour (Hiba Atallah), who at 12 recognizes her brother's talent and is determined to make him a star. The ragged crew plays local weddings in hopes of raising enough money to trade the flatbed truck they perform atop for fame on a worldwide stage.
When tragedy strikes, Assaf's only hope to achieve his sister's dream is to win the popular TV competition "Arab Idol." But the tryouts are in Cairo, so before embarking on the terrifying feat of singing in front of the show's judges, he must find a way out of Gaza.
Assaf, who is played as an adult by the little-known Palestinian actor Tawfeek Barhom, becomes an unwitting hero by literally singing his way out of life in a refugee camp.
The real-life Assaf, who is still a celebrity across the Muslim world and who is the youth ambassador for peace for the U.N.'s Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, considered playing himself in the movie but, instead, helped refine and shape the film's story with Abu-Assad.
The director is one of a handful of modern Palestinian filmmakers — Rashid Masharawi and Elia Suleiman among them — who've gained attention in international circles and film fests (Cannes, Toronto) with features shot in areas usually associated with tragic news footage or war documentaries.
A comedy out of the Mideast conflict would have seemed unlikely decades ago, but Masharawi's "Laila's Birthday" (2008) was just that: a father's frustrating journey to find a birthday cake for his 7-year-old daughter while navigating checkpoints, militants, a busted economy and corrupt authorities. Sulieman's 2002 "Divine Intervention" was a satirical look at the occupation.
Abu-Assad's dramas, 2005's "Paradise Now" and 2013's "Omar," were both nominated for foreign language film Oscars. Though they didn't win, "Paradise Now" became the first movie to be recognized as coming from the Palestinian Territories rather than Israel, a decision that ignited debates. And "Omar" became the first nominee from Palestine after the U.N.'s decision to recognize the area as a nonmember observer state.
The tone of "The Idol" is much lighter than that of "Paradise Now" or "Omar," but the underlying reality is no less grim. Scenery in "The Idol" reflects what years of bombing campaigns and weak government have wrought: huge mangled mountains of concrete and rebar where buildings once were, potholed roads, children playing between flats pasted together with refuse.
"When you see it with your own eyes, the endless destruction, it's really emotional," said Abu-Assad, who worked with an Arab film crew from the West Bank. "[The crew and I] were walking through these areas, and nobody wanted to talk. I was crying, but in silence. Then I looked around and we were all crying.
"The first hours we couldn't work. We shut down. You know a lot of people just died recently, and you're making a film there. It was absurd. I felt so uncomfortable. I was almost ashamed of myself."
However, Abu-Assad said he received support from residents in the area who encouraged him to tell Assaf's story.
The first half of the picture stars child actors from Gaza that the filmmaker found during casting calls over Skype.
"The first time I met them in person was a day before the shoot," he said. "I wasn't 100% that they were going to do well, but surprisingly, they were amazing natural talents."
Where their acting abilities pleasantly surprised Abu-Assad, getting them in and out of Gaza to shoot on the West Bank was anything but enjoyable.
"We had to get approval from Hamas to bring the actors out of Gaza, because they were under 16, and permission from Israel to have them enter Israel, but before that we had to get the OK from the Palestinian Authority for them to enter the West Bank."
As for Abu-Assad's next film? "I'm shooting it in Canada."