Film & Television

Big little lies in ‘Ali’s Wedding’

By Steve Dow
Australia’s first Muslim rom-com is a shimmering, engaging romp

Osamah Sami says he has always been at war with himself, wrestling with his Muslim faith. The 34-year-old was born to an Iraqi family in Iran while the two countries were at war, his father then fighting for Iran and his uncles for Iraq. At seven, the oldest male in the house, he had to read verses from the Koran while the shrouded, bloodied bodies of soldiers were lowered into the ground. In 1995, when Sami was 12, his family left Iran and resettled in Australia. His father became the head cleric of Melbourne’s Shi’ite community. Perhaps Sami’s ironic and understated humour fomented when his father, his “confidant, friend and absolute hero”, cast Sami as Saddam Hussein in a musical rehearsed in their own mosque. When the cast attempted to enter the United States in 2005 to perform the musical, written in Arabic, US Immigration interrogated, handcuffed and deported them.

Back in Australia, Sami’s career as a theatre, film and TV actor took off. And that satire of the Ba’athists has inspired some of the best bits of his recent output as a writer, sitting neatly within the local sensibility for lopping tyranny. In 2015, Sami released the wry memoir Good Muslim Boy. When our minister for immigration and border protection claimed last year that “illiterate and innumerate” refugees would take Australian jobs or “languish” on the dole, Sami tweeted back: “I’m a refugee & just won the #NSWPremiersLitAwards prize. For writing a book. In my 3rd language. Can you read these words, Dutton?”

Now comes Ali’s Wedding (in national release), in which Sami plays Ali, who is the son of a Melbourne Muslim cleric and struggling with his identity. Sami co-wrote the film with Andrew Knight (The Water Diviner), and it is director Jeffrey Walker’s first feature, after helming television shows such as Chris Lilley’s Angry Boys. Geoffrey Lamb does a fine job with the editing. Although the 110-minute running time might have been better trimmed and the symphonic soundtrack overplays its hand conveying the emotional peaks and troughs, the film is a shimmering, engaging romp.

Two Muslim lovers are kept apart by their families and must meet in clandestine situations because another woman has already been chosen to be Ali’s bride. Their encounters are chaste by Western measures but scandalous by the standards of their gossiping, insular community. Will Ali and Dianne marry? Won’t they? “I hear she wears ripped jeans,” hisses one older woman. While the tropes of romantic tragicomedy suggest one lover should finally dash to an airport or train station to save the union, the film plays with the cliché by turning that journey into a pilgrimage to patience, standing as a testament to faith.

Sami embodies his romantic role with sincerity and heart, in part because he has drawn many of the narrative strands from his own life. Apparently, you can just turn up for university tutorials in medicine even when you’re not enrolled. As a loveable liar, the character of Ali reminds me of Muriel Heslop in PJ Hogan’s 1994 film Muriel’s Wedding: spinning bullshit about personal achievements as a flimsy foundation for success. Helana Sawires, in her first feature film, plays Dianne as earthy and relatable.

Ali’s father, Mahdi, is a cleric whose conservative front – “No man is complete without marriage,” he tells his son – barely conceals a liberal heart. Don Hany employs dignity and elegance as Mahdi, who wants to mount a play, The Trial of Saddam Hussein, starring Ali, who has mastered a whiny impression of the dictator. “The man caused us so much pain,” Mahdi reflects. “It will be a great comedy.”

In 2009, Hany, whose Iraqi-born father was playing his on-screen father in the SBS drama East West 101, told me: “I don’t think the climate to be broadcasting yourself as a Muslim on Western television is positive. Often what we read or learn about Islam and its identity in Australia is negative, and I think that’s frightened a lot of Muslims off being proud and expressing the beauty of the culture and the religion.” 

One wonders how hard it must be in the current climate to play Muslim for the Australian mainstream viewer.

Ali’s Wedding has every chance of commercial success. It blends nods to the local religion – cricket and Australian Rules football – with the wittily rendered idiosyncrasies of a transplanted culture. A tea-party scene, for instance, has Ali press-ganged into asking for a woman’s hand in marriage. Ali has no many idea how many lumps of sugar he should add to his tea to signify his rejection of the proposed marriage, so he overloads his cup. Rodney Afif (Lucky Miles) amusingly plays an over-eager potential father-in-law.

Once you’ve seen Ali’s Wedding, I recommend you get hold of the audio book version of Good Muslim Boy, narrated by Sami himself. His wit and rhythm in delivery are as sharp and idiosyncratic as, say, David Sedaris, and if you like his film, as I did, you’re going to want to hear his rendering of the Iranian piety police, the Monkerat, as well as his poignant account of his father’s final moments. Sami will star in a theatrical adaptation of Good Muslim Boy at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre in February.

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.


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