In the course of this year’s Ajyal Youth Film Festival in Doha, Qatar, I was in the joyous company of two dear friends and towering Palestinian filmmakers, Elia Suleiman and Hany Abu-Assad.
The occasion of this gathering was the premiere of Abu-Assad’s new film, The Idol, where the director had come to share his recent feature with an almost entirely Arab audience, in the context of a festival primarily targeting young viewers.
I have known Abu-Assad for most of his cinematic career since it began in the early 1990s with such widely celebrated landmarks as Rana’s Wedding, Paradise Now, and Omar.
I visited Hany in Nablus, in Palestine, when he was scouting for locations for his Paradise Now and wrote an account of my journey from Jerusalem to Nablus, and have remained interested and involved with his cinema, and have written on his continuing cinematic adventures.
In his most recent film, The Idol, Abu-Assad turns his attention to the now globally celebrated Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf, who became widely loved in the course of his Arab Idol adventure.
Assaf, born in 1989, is a Palestinian pop singer who was catapulted to fame when in 2013, he won the second season of Arab Idol, emerging as a much admired young Palestinian artist.
In the capable hands of Abu-Assad, Mohammed Assaf’s story turns from the simple life of a talented young man from humble origins catapulted to global fame into an allegory of the Palestinian nation rising with grace and in defiance from the ruins of its colonial occupation, theft, and destruction by Israel.
Palestinian cinema is blessed by some of the most gifted filmmakers anywhere in the world. While deeply rooted in the visual and performing arts of their stolen homeland, these artists now rank among the most celebrated filmmakers.
In Palestinian cinema, the Zionist project has found a mirror it cannot break, it cannot hide, it cannot send its Hasbara in Israel and the US to smear, discredit and dismantle.
Elia Suleiman, Kamal Aljafari, Michel Khleifi, Mai Masri, Annemarie Jacir, Sameh Zoabi, Amer Shomali, Mohammad Bakri, Najwa Najjar, Emad Burnat, Suha Arraf, and countless other filmmakers have been hard at work to give a renewed significance to the very idea of a national cinema predicated on the trauma of Nakba/Catastrophe at the heart of the Palestinian historical experiences.
In their company, Abu-Assad has a particular ability to tell Palestinian stories with a penchant for narrative drama, cinematic intrigues, and soft-handed treatment of troubling political calamities.
In The Idol, Abu-Assad achieves this feat through his cinematic mastery and uncanny ability in storytelling, critical intimacy with the colonial history of his homeland under occupation, and – most significantly perhaps – his penchant for tapping into the most potent tropes of world cinema.
As a student of both Palestinian and Iranian cinema, I sat watching Abu-Assad’s The Idol in joyous celebration of his conscious, cheerful, almost frame-by-frame citation of Amir Naderi’s masterpiece The Runner, during the first part of his film when he tells the story of Mohammed Assaf’s childhood.
Abu-Assad has for long been an admirer of Naderi whom he met in person for the first time over dinner at my apartment in New York more than a decade ago. He has always been deeply in love with Naderi’s masterpiece The Runner, and here in his own Idol, he has finally found a remarkable occasion to put what he had learned from Naderi almost verbatim to work as a cinematic homage.
The result is an exquisite transmutation of the best of Iranian and Palestinian cinema in one beautiful filmic experience. By so consciously paying homage to Naderi’s masterpiece, Abu-Assad gives his rendition of Mohammed Assaf’s life the air and flair of a cinematic allegory of Palestine, linking it organically to world cinema.
There is no aerial shot of Gaza you have seen more devastating, more powerful, more unnerving than the shots of the adolescent Assaf walking with his sister and friends casually through the shattering consequences of Israeli war crimes laid out with casual irrelevance to the background.
Just like Naderi, Abu-Assad pushes the political deeply into the background, allowing people’s ordinary lives to decode and underscore the over-politicised environment at one and the same time. The result is an aesthetic formalism that subulates the political deep into the background just to make it more palpable.
In Palestinian cinema, the Zionist project has found a mirror it cannot break, it cannot hide, it cannot send its Hasbara in Israel and the US to smear, discredit and dismantle. In Palestinian cinema, the figure of the defiant Palestinian – as both true and beautiful – has become allegorical for the world at large.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.