Slumdog, The Idol, not that different, not that great
A reviewer posited Hany Abu-Assad’s new film “The Idol” is something like “Slumdog Millionaire,” suggesting that it was a good thing. It is very much like “Slumdog”—but that’s not a good thing.
Distance has given us the time to reflect on Danny Boyle’s film about the fictional former slum-dweller Jamal Malik’s rags to riches story of true love and happy endings, despite awful circumstances. The jury is in: It’s orientalist, it de-contextualizes India’s poverty, and above all, it suggests the most absurd notion of all—with a little bit of luck and hard work, anyone can win in global capitalism. That was in Mumbai, India.
Gaza, Palestine is no different. As in the case of “The Idol”, this similarity is important to point out because “Slumdog” was directed by a non-Indian and “The Idol” was directed by a Palestinian. But as is evident in “The Idol”, symmetrical representation, whether racial, national or ethnic, doesn’t always change the story.
Obviously, India and Palestine have been decimated in different ways and by different people, but above all, the impoverishment of Gaza and Mumbai have a common enemy— racist regimes of capitalist exploitation. In Mumbai, colonialism has a new face in the multinationals like Tata Steel that exploit and rob the indigenous Adivasi population of 104 million, among others. And in Gaza, colonialism is still alive in its original iteration there, that is, Zionist rule.
So then, what are we to make of “The Idol,” the film about Palestine’s national hero, given that the Palestinians have been through hell the past decade (and more) and that the film’s real life figure Mohammed Assaf has stirred nearly every Palestinian to tears, given them hope and lifted their spirits?
The first half of the film is wonderful. The child actors are full of character and spunk, and Abu-Assad’s direction keeps you engaged. But all of our engagement in their hopes and dreams is diminished when halfway through, the film culminates in a plot point that feels forced in order to justify the “Slumdog” story Abu-Assad really wanted to tell above all. Actually, it would be generous to call it a story. The whole thing is really a formula to make us believe in a myth, the same myth perpetuated in “Slumdog.”
What “The Idol” does is play into the phony dream of the same system that oppressed Assaf. It tells us, we should advocate for that one special boy (the girl dies, as do most in stories about heroes made by men) on his quest to stardom! And when we have doubts about what we’re valuing and where we’re putting our focus—all critical philosophical questions worth asking and debating—we dismiss them, as does the friend of Assaf’s character in the film, Omar, who tells us that competitions, like Arab Idol, exist to “distract us from resisting the occupation.”
In the film, Omar is the idiot. Because Assaf does finally make it to Cairo, and he does get on the show, after some kind stranger hands him a ticket (super plausible), and he does win the show! (This all happens in the course of minutes.) Thus we can say strongly to others and to ourselves—don’t listen to that fool.
But what makes him a fool? It is because he sees the meaning behind the billboard advertisement, the true message in the commercial. And he/she/they asks us to critically examine the lies we are being sold. They don’t always make for an entertaining character, nor are they attractive—because in the end, an individual’s dreams of wealth and celebrity will always be much more attractive than critical thought.
In reality, Assaf is the ultimate exception. In reality, the majority of Palestinians cannot compete on shows like Arab Idol, and it’s a crime against them and their struggle for liberation to think for a second that they can.
Do not misinterpret my words. There are a multitude of brilliant artists among the Palestinians, as many as there are in any other country. But we must ask ourselves, “why do they need the sanctioning of an international corporate media franchise to be deemed ‘successful’ or a ‘national hero.’” Assaf did, as the film suggests, and that is why we should interrogate his narrative.
We do not need our artists’ art and our singers’ voices to be sanctioned and certified by the few corporate hands behind an international franchise like Arab Idol or Who Wants to Be A Millionaire for that matter. In art, we must lift up our own people, publish our own books, sing at our own concerts for our own judges—not for some corporate media elite, who will use a Gazan’s story as pity porn.
A reminder: When Assaf wins Arab Idol, one person wins. Meanwhile, the Palestinians are still living under occupation.
The irony of success stories like Assaf’s is that in order to work as stories, they must at once both rely on and distract from the circumstances of oppression that give relevance to the story. But in the end, the wise character Omar, the one who reminds us of what the problem really is (the occupation) is distant memory. Our capitalist dreams of stardom win.
Why is a character like Omar not worth making a movie about? Why is his story of grassroots resistance not as interesting as Assaf’s, of Western media accreditation?
I’ll be waiting for such a film. In the meantime, I have this “Slumdog Millionaire for Arabs.” Well, at least the first half.
Two for one: Ave Maria
A short film that screened before “The Idol,” also included a Skype interview with the director.
Basil Khalil’s Oscar-nominated short film is a humorous ‘confrontation story’ between a settler family and a convent of nuns. It doesn’t normalize, and balances the light with the dark, sometimes in subtly symbolic ways. Khalil is particularly talented at exposing the unequal power dynamic between Israeli settlers and Palestinians, showing how entitlement and privilege tamper with the stability of Palestinian religious lives. When the settlers’ car breaks down, the power dynamic is somewhat inverted, and the film paints a revealing portrait of the settlers.
But it’s also a human comedy, and Khalil is not afraid to make the point that every “type” of person, Palestinian-Christian or Israeli-Jewish, has his or her quirks.