It starts out as a fairly hackneyed tale, little kids getting together to form a band. There’s larky dashing through streets and across the beach, feisty self-promotion and bold-faced acquisition of instruments, the euphoria of youth, the tomboy Nour (Heba Attaallah) defying her gender at the heart of it all. They have some success, but tragedy strikes and they break up and go their separate ways.
But this is different. The streets they dance along are bombed out, their practice sessions are dogged by power outages, and they deal with hardcore criminal smugglers. The freerunning, so full of the joy of life, is over a ruined townscape. We’re in Gaza. This is the true story of Mohammed Assaf, who against all odds became the first Palestinian winner of Arab Idol, the pan-Arab equivalent of our Western versions. If the sweetness of the first half of the film becomes a little cloying, hold on, for this is Hany Abu-Assad, director of Paradise Now and Omar, who of all film makers has shown western audiences the true sombre reality of life in Palestine. And in the end he doesn’t disappoint.
Now grown up, Mohammed (Dima Awawdeh) takes up his singing again, and remembering Nour he determines to try for the contest. When his audition over Skype fails because their emergency generator bursts into flames, it seems as if the forces against him have won in every way, but Mohammed confronts the dangerous conundrum faced by any normal citizen needing to leave the country for a legitimate reason, and arrives against the odds in the other world of luxury hotels and lives where pure survival isn’t always the constant preoccupation. And somehow this basically silly contest becomes meaningful and, even knowing the result, we care so much for his success that the ending feels personal. Abu-Assad’s masterstroke is to cut to the real footage of the singer, the final minutes of the programme, and newsreel of the thousands of Palestinians watching from home in ruined public places and threadbare living rooms to see a small vindication of their existence in the world.
Seen at Tyneside Cinema, September