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Acclaimed Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad returns to cinemas with The Idol, a biopic about Mohammed Assaf’s remarkable journey to music superstardom.

The film, co-written by Sameh Zoabi, traces the 2013 Arab Idol winner’s roots by introducing audiences to his 10-year-old self (played by Qais Atallah), a Gazan boy who, in spite of the oppression of his homeland, dreams of performing at the Cairo Opera House in Egypt. With the support of his older sister, Nour (Hiba Atallah), he pursues music lessons, starts his own band and lands gigs at local weddings.

Fast forward to over a decade later, however, and Mohammed (now played by Tawfeek Barhom) is 22 years old, working a dead-end job as a taxi driver, and losing the joyful spirit that once flourished in his childhood. But hope soon arrives in a form that would’ve never been possible when he was younger: a singing competition show known as Arab Idol. Auditions are taking place in Cairo, and Mohammed refuses to let any borders stop him.

With The Idol, Abu-Assad, best known for his Oscar-nominated films Paradise Now and Omar, has crafted a powerful film about overcoming adversity, giving a voice to the Palestinian people and instilling hope to audiences everywhere.

The Palestine/UK/Qatar/Netherlands production premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and is slated for a U.S. theatrical release on May 6. Ahead of its stateside debut, I had the privilege of talking to Abu-Assad about the creative process behind the film. You can check out the interview below.

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ScreenPicks: For films inspired by real events and real people, filmmakers are granted creative liberties to tell the story. But, of course, there will always be those people who question how accurate a film is. Would you say that emotional truth is more important than factual truth?

Abu-Assad: “In ours? Yes. In science? No. If you are doing science, you need to be very accurate to the physics and mathematics, but in art it’s the opposite. In order to understand reality, you need to fictionalize, dramatize it, to heighten it, because it’s a lot [of] emotions. Art can evoke your emotions in order to think rightly. In science it’s opposite: You have to disclose your emotions in order to think rightly. The biggest problem in making movies based on real people is how you want to put it in a dramatic structure without raping reality. You will do things, and the best reaction was from Mohammed Assaf himself. When he saw the movie, he said, ‘80% accurate, 20% is invented.’ But the 20%, the fiction, made him better realize what’s going on in reality.”

ScreenPicks: You shot in the actual places where the story took place and cast Palestinians to play the main characters. What other things did you do to make the film as authentic as possible?

Abu-Assad: “Yes, it started first by location, to choose the locations that are very close to what’s going on with the character himself and his real environment, to use his real environment to tell the story. Second: actors. When you are taking actors close to that reality, they will give more authentic feelings. And [the] third is the whole approach with the camera, the camera and production design, because now you have actors and you have location. How you want to register that and image it — that can play a role…

“I can give you an example. The production design isn’t going to be 100% as close; you stylize, let’s say, the image, even if it’s a real location. You stylize it by changing some colours, by the framing of your camera. The moment where you put your camera, you already chose your style. Stylizations have to feel real, but meanwhile, give it some magical touch. This is exactly our job as artists. How can you stylize your picture without shouting, ‘Look to me — I am stylized!’ The stylized has to be in the background in order to help tell the story as accurate as possible.”

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ScreenPicks: I thought that the child actors in this film — particularly the ones who played the siblings — they were really natural on screen. How did you approach directing these first-time actors?

Abu-Assad: “First, by casting them rightly; the casting is very important in acting. The casting process is a long process of looking through tapes, to different actors, to different combinations — a long, long process. After that, when you choose your actors, you have to work with them and rehearse with them. I don’t rehearse scenes. I rehearse situations with them. As beginner actors I gave them all kinds of training in order to understand what it is. To dare to be emotionally naked, I gave them workshops. During the shoot I don’t interfere a lot. You do your job right before that — the right character, the right work process — but during the shoot, believe me, you don’t have to do a lot. If this is not what you want, you make another take and give them direction that helps them get what you want.”

ScreenPicks: One of the notable scenes in the film is when Mohammed and his friends are performing for an audience of children and a woman interrupts them, yelling, “People are dying, you’re singing.” How would you describe the general view of Palestinians towards the arts? Is it something that’s encouraged, or, as we see in this film, seen as a distraction?

Abu-Assad: “A lot of Palestinians become very skeptical towards life. You know, 70 years of occupation. They become very skeptical and very bitter. And when you are bitter, it doesn’t matter if you are from Palestine or from Alaska, you don’t really enjoy anything. Any happiness reminds you of your bitterness. You know what? It’s sometimes funny — I will go back to what makes you cry in films, in movies. By the way, sure, when there’s a sad situation, there’s a chance to cry. But the chance that you will cry is better when there is goodness, when there is such a beauty in the scene. You cry more because it reminds you how life is unfair, how life is not complete, to get comfort from art. Art can be perfect, but life can’t. And the goodness in the movie reminds you of the shortcomings of life and this is why it hits you so deep when you see there is still goodness somewhere. Back to the Palestinians — yes, you know, happiness and hope and art can provide them of their misery, their miserable lives, and this is why they become upset.”

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ScreenPicks: As Mohammed Assaf does through his music, your film gives a voice to the Palestinian people. And for most audiences who will watch your film, this might just be their introduction to the Palestinians outside of what they see in the news. What advantages do you think film has over the news media when it comes to telling these stories about people who don’t have that privilege or that voice to speak for themselves?

Abu-Assad: “This is why I want to do a movie. I realize his voice, the voice of Mohammed Assaf, becomes a voice of voiceless people, but in a very beautiful way, in an artistic way. The film is exactly the opposite image of what the news is selling you about anything, not just about Palestine. Most of the news is selling you a very fictionalized concept, using what they call ‘real images.’ They call it ‘not manipulated images,’ which is not 100% true, but they pretend that it’s real images. All that they sell you are very fictional, unrealistic views. All the news do that because they want you to think, whether consciously or unconsciously, they want you to think a certain way about any question…

“Movies, not just Palestinian movies, fiction movies let you realize a wider angle of life, not the narrow-minded angle as the news. It’s a wider angle because you are looking to it from different points of view and with this complexity. Life is very complex, life is very difficult, life is changing, life is animated, life is almost, you know, not understandable — you almost can’t understand life. And yes, fiction helps you to realize this complexity in a good way, not in an easy way, in a comfortable way, because you are watching. And this is why I do movies, not news, because I don’t want myself or others [to] believe that life is very simple and there is good and bad. You know, life is complex. A movie gives you this complexity, and this is so good about movies, good movies.”

ScreenPicks: “I won’t spoil when he shows up, but Mohammed Assaf does have a cameo in your film. If you watch footage of him on YouTube, he has all these qualities that you associate with a star: He’s charismatic and he’s handsome. Would you ever cast him to lead one of your films in the future?

Abu-Assad: “Yeah. Listen, I tried to cast him for this movie. I want him to play himself, but it was very difficult for him. He cried. He couldn’t because he felt like I am — you know, he wasn’t ready to be an actor, especially when it’s so close to him. We had two weeks of training and rehearsals, but it didn’t went well. This is why we said, ‘Okay, let’s try maybe in the future stories that’s not really close to him.’ Yes, I would like to lead him as an actor one day.”

(All photos are courtesy of Adopt Films.)