Ashes to Diamonds in Gaza: How The Idol was Shot in One of the Planet’s Most War-Torn Regions

The Idol, my Palestinian fictional feature, tells the real story of the Gazan wedding singer Mohammad Assaf, who faced a myriad of obstacles to escape the horrible siege in Gaza and win the pretigious Arab Idol in 2013.

That year, I won the Un Certain Regard prize at the Cannes Film Festival for my film Omar, but I was happier for Mohammad’s win than for my own.

My win was for my crew and myself. Mohammad’s win meant something bigger. His powerful voice had the effect of uniting the Arab nations in their darkest time. It brought young and old, rich and poor, Muslims and Christians together to city squares, where they all could enjoy his magical singing. That is why I decided to make a film about the story of his journey—a story about determination, resilience and art that was able to transform ugliness and desperation into beauty and hope.

The first challenge of any movie based on real life is how to tell the story dramatically without disparaging reality. Real life is always episodic, so I took a major dramatic happening in Mohammad’s youth and built fictional events around it, rooted in actual details.

In the beginning, this made Mohammad and his family very nervous. We put words in their mouths that they’d never said in their lives, and they were confused. We had to work very hard to convince them to agree to the script. After a lot of back and forth, Mohammad’s media advisor finally convinced the family that what we were making was legitimate, as long we were not lying. They asked us to cut some scenes and it was funny—those scenes were closer to reality than the fictional ones. I think they probably reminded the family of painful experiences that they just wanted to discard.

This wasn’t easy for me. I knew that I was putting them in situations where they felt naked. It was necessary to achieve my goals, yet I understood the pain of their perspective. Truth be told, my guilt caused me more than a few sleepless nights. Maybe you need guilt, though, to make a good movie.

Hany Abu-Assad (left) with production designer Nael Kanj, making The Idol

Hany Abu-Assad (left) with production designer Nael Kanj, making The Idol

Finally we had a script. Now we needed crew, locations and actors. The crew was the easiest part—I used the same team from Omar. We have become a well-oiled machine. The trouble was the locations and actors. For audiences to believe the fictional story, I felt, we had to make it as realistic as possible. That meant we had to shoot in Gaza.

Gaza has been under siege for over 10 years. Nothing can go in or out without the permission of the Israeli or Egyptian authorities. During the time we’d scheduled to shoot, Egypt hermetically sealed its border. So we were left with the Israeli Army.

Our production manager, Laura Hawa, has a pitbull mentality with a big, polite smile on her face. So for over two months she conversed with the Israeli Army spokesman on a daily basis to convince him to give us permission to shoot in Gaza. In the beginning he thought we were crazy, and he hung up on her several times. Laura persisted, and made him give us three days to shoot in Gaza.

It wasn’t much. Our schedule was for 40 shooting days in all, so we decided to shoot major, wide shots in Gaza and the rest in the city of Jenin in the West Bank. It was still difficult accessing Jenin—the checkpoints there were open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. But this was a huge luxury compared to Gaza, so we decided to start in Jenin.

As for the actors, since we’d had to compromise on locations, we could not compromise on them. They had to come from Gaza. I learned from Laura that there was no way for actors older than 18 to get permission to get out. So we started a search for young actors using Skype to screen kids between the ages 10-11. God bless Skype—and Bisan Salam, a local producer in Gaza who helped us find the actors and organized the auditions.

The four lead child actors in another scene shot in the West Bank for Gaza

The four lead child actors in a scene shot in the West Bank for Gaza

So now we had actors. But how were we going to get them to Jenin? I’m going to spare you the details about the necessary paperwork—it weighed more than a ton. We had to apply for permission from the Israelies, Hamas, the Palestinian authorities and the families. Finally, we were three days away from shooting but the kids still weren’t available. Producers Amira Diab and Ali Jaafar begged me to choose local actors from Jenin, but I insisted that I’d rather postpone the shoot than compromise on this.

For weeks we waited, in great tension. Then, a day before principal photography began, everything worked out miraculously, and we succeeded in bringing four kids from Gaza to Jenin. That distance is a mere 50 miles, but it took us three months of paperwork and 24 hours of travel to bring the kids from their homes to the hotel in Jenin.

With no rehearsals we started with four kids from Gaza who had never been in a movie before, had no acting experience, and, most of all, had never been outside of Gaza. When they saw the mountains in Jenin, they couldn’t believe their eyes. It was the first time in their lives that they had seen mountains. When we started shooting unchronologically, they had no idea what we were doing.  They constantly came up to me to say, “This doesn’t make sense. This scene we’re shooting now is in the middle of the movie, so why are we starting with it?” The girl Hiba Atallah was the only one who picked up on the logic of the shoot very quickly and became a very professional actress with a deep understanding of close-ups and wide shots. Nobody could believe how quickly all the kids learned the process and how good they became without having any rehearsals or lessons in acting. My explanation was that these kids had two wars behind them, where they went from being afraid to becoming fearless. When you lose your fears, you live a full life.

As for me, this film was the first time in my life that I found real pleasure shooting. Usually, obstacles make me nervous because they make me need to compromise. Yet I learned from the kids how to turn the obstacles into my advantages. I was calm, and I treated them as a part of storytelling. For example, an actor didn’t show up, so I performed his role. A location was destroyed in the middle of the shoot, so we used the destruction as a part of the storytelling. It was a “joy in falling.”

The West Bank city of Jenin doubles for Gaza in the film, such as during this wedding scene

The West Bank city of Jenin doubles again for Gaza in The Idol during this wedding scene

After the shoot in the West Bank, we wanted to shoot in Egypt. First, I went with my cameraman Ehab Assal to scout locations. The Egyptian authorities refused to allow Ehab into Egypt under the accusation that he was a Muslim extremist. When I told them that he was a “Christian by accident,” they told me, “It doesn’t matter. He’s still a Muslim extremist to us,” and they deported him back to Jordan.

We had to move to Jordan to double Amman for Cairo. With a local crew from Egypt, we shot the wide shot exteriors in Cairo, but all the interiors were shot in Jordan. Somehow, miraculously, the shoot in Beirut went well, with no problems. Now, we were left with the final stage: shooting in Gaza.

We weren’t allowed to take a lot with us, so we had to rebuild and restock all of our props—cars, bicycles, clothes, everything—when we got on the other side. With a small crew and as little equipment as possible, we reached the Erez checkpoint that separates Gaza from Israel on a Sunday morning. The building for paper control there was so huge it made you feel like a mouse, trapped in the hands of employees who sat in a large box above your little cage. Everything was designed to make you feel inferior, especially the part where you squeezed yourself into Gaza through a tiny door in a huge wall. That feeling, however, was nothing compared to entering Gaza and seeing the destruction from the war.

When we first arrived, everybody in the cast and crew who were from the outside were so ashamed that we couldn’t look each other in the eyes, hiding our tears from each other. For the first few hours we were paralyzed and couldn’t work.

We thought that, because of what the people of Gaza had gone through, they must have lost their humanity. In contrast, the people in Gaza were so human that they were the ones who comforted us. They said, “We are fine. Don’t worry about us,” and asked us how we were doing. They shared what little food and water they had with us and encouraged us to continue working.

How could we work when we knew that thousands of people had died on the ground we were using as a set? The experience was surreal. I felt like I wasn’t there—that I was on a different planet. What makes it more surreal is that we were breathing debris and chemicals from bombs that had settled into the air, 24/7. The constant headaches that we experienced in Gaza stayed with us for a week after we left.

Maybe it sounds strange but I wouldn’t exchange my experiences from this movie for anything. Making The Idol, I learned how to create beauty from ugliness, and how to keep my humanity under extreme circumstances.

Tech Box

Camera: ARRI Alexa Plus

Lenses: ARRI/Zeiss Ultra Prime Lenses

Lighting: Available Light

Color Grading: Baselight

Crew Size: 27

Shooting Days: 42 MM

The Idol opens in theaters May 27, 2016, courtesy of Adopt Films.

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