SHAFAQNA – In the opening moments of new Australian romantic comedy Ali’s Wedding, our hero, wearing a tuxedo, attempts to outrun the police on a stolen tractor. “Stop being a dickhead and pull over,” says the cop through the sound of the siren. “I can’t!” Ali yells back. “I’m trying to get to the airport!”
It’s a well-worn romantic-comedy cliche. But seeing these familiar filmic tropes performed by a largely Middle Eastern cast is something different for an Australian audience.
“That was definitely the appeal from my point of view,” says director Jeffrey Walker. The film’s writer and star, Osamah Sami, Walker points out, approaches writing about his culture in a refreshingly light-hearted way. “There was a warmth and humanity there to be mined, rather than the divisive, political approach. We take a lot of those tropes to universalise the story, to make it accessible.”
This is Walker’s first feature film, but he’s been in the industry for most of his life. He’s directed episodes of Neighbours and Rake and Modern Family in the US, but long before that he was a child actor in Ocean Girl and Blue Heelers, and before that, he was Bronson in Round the Twist. But Ali’s Wedding was a new challenge. He had to step in to direct someone else’s life story (in which, yes, even the ridiculous bits are true) and step into a culture and religion vastly different to his own.
Ahead of filming, Walker spent a lot of time with Sami’s family and members of Melbourne’s Muslim community.
“I wanted it to become second nature, so it didn’t feel like research,” says Walker. “I didn’t want to represent the entire culture, just a part of it – just Osamah’s experience.”
Ali’s Wedding is being touted as the first Australian Muslim romantic comedy. To the best of my recollection, it might be the first positive, lighthearted portrayal of Muslims in this country, full stop. The film pulls back the veil on the Muslim communities that One Nation MPs and Daily Mail readers obsess over, and what it reveals is something … extremely normal.
Ali, played by Sami, is a bit of a fuck-up. He’s under pressure from his father to become a doctor, so he lies about being accepted to the University of Melbourne and keeps up the pretence for a year. Then he accidentally agrees to an arranged marriage, and subsequently falls in love with the wrong person (Helana Sawires). He lies to cover up mistakes, which only compounds them. The humour comes from the clash between the freedoms of a first-generation Australian and the expectations of his very tradition-focused community. It’s a story as old as migration in this country.
And it’s largely true. If you read Sami’s book, Good Muslim Boy, you’ll discover the film is only about two chapters of his quite extraordinary life.
“We needed to fit it into a romantic comedy framework,” says Walker. “To be honest, we didn’t have to work that hard. We leant hard on the absurd truth.”
The rom-com airport chase? True. The starring role in an Osama Bin Laden-themed musical? True. The scene in which he’s detained by US immigration for 20 hours, and interrogated over his enthusiastic texts supporting “the Bombers”? True. He’s an Essendon fan.
“Osamah is fun because he’s extremely happy to point out all the warts, all the flaws, and everything he’s done wrong over the years,” says Walker. “Religious communities don’t usually want to draw attention to that. But he knows we’re all as flawed as each other.”
“Australians have got more in common than we don’t,” says Walker. “We just wanted to make something entertaining and joyful.”
By dropping one of the country’s most misrepresented communities into a mainstream comedy, perhaps Ali’s Wedding will be able to make a small difference. And make you laugh.
Ali’s Wedding is in wide release at cinemas across Australia.