Not since Elia Suleiman nabbed the Grand Jury Prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival has a Palestinian film director made as much of an impact as Hany Abu-Assad. The Nazareth, Israel-born director’s teeth-gritting thrillers “Paradise Now” (2005) and “Omar” (2013) both swept him all the way to the Academy Awards, but these days, with Seville Intl. doling out global rights for his significantly softer 2015 “The Idol” and a feature with Fox 2000 in the works, Abu-Assad is focused less on chasing statuettes and more on discovering beauty.
Q: “The Idol” tells the Cinderella-esque story of a wedding singer from Gaza who beats the odds to win the Arab World’s version of “American Idol.” How did making this film change you as a director?
A: “When I was younger, I did dark movies. It was a reflection of what I saw around me. Now I feel like my job is to give hope. The world is in a dark place and we are living in somewhat of a nightmare. So I want to make films to give hope. I feel that this is very important — because without hope, we won’t survive.”
Q”: Did you learn about Muhammed Assaf’s story by watching “Arab Idol”?
A: “No! I don’t watch these programs. I think they are disgusting, because they are exploiting the hunger of young people to become famous. But my sister, who is very smart and has a doctorate in music, told me about him. She said, ‘This man, he is from Gaza, what are the chances? And he has an incredible voice.’ And then I started to realize what this boy did. He united not just the Palestinians, the Hamas and Fatah, but also everyone else — Algerians, Egyptians, all rooting for him. And I realized, my God, art can do this? This is what art can do in our time. Unite people, and give them hope.”
Q: As a Palestinian director, do you feel compelled to make films about the Palestinian cause?
A: “My most important movies so far have been set in Palestine, because this is very close to me. But as a human being, I will always feel that where there is oppression, I am with the underdog. Humanity has survived because the strong among us have, in the past, been obliged to help the weak. Without this, we would not survive.”
Q: You talk a lot of beauty and helping humanity. Can a filmmaker truly change the world?
A: “Most of us want to live in harmony and peace and be good to others. Right now, however, the world is in a very turbulent time, and our leadership has gone crazy. I don’t read the news anymore because I know it would make me depressed. So instead, I make beauty. I make movies.”