Ali’s Wedding (2017)
There is a narrow space between intelligent racial satire and mocking humour. Of course, you never get just one or the other in the same film: it’s always a mix, but the balance is critical and contentious. The Big Sick (2017) is an example of a film that nails the balance with clever dialogue that is genuinely funny and culturally insightful. An example of a film where the balance is less assured is the Australian-made Ali’s Wedding (2017).
Filmed in multicultural Melbourne, it is a story based on real people, real events, and loads of racial stereotypes. Many of its gag-lines depend on audiences noticing the difference between Lebanese, Egyptian, Iraqi and Iranian Muslims. The son of a popular Iraqi Muslim cleric, Ali (Osama Sami) carries the high expectations of his family who want only that he becomes a doctor and marries a Muslim girl of their choice. Ali is a mediocre student and fakes his medical entrance results to make his family and the community proud of him. He falls for a Lebanese girl called Dianne (Helana Sawires) but dares not tell his family as she is the ‘wrong type’ of Muslim. Meanwhile he is duped into an arranged engagement to the ‘right type’ of girl. He sneaks into medical classes to be near Dianne but the intricate web of lies that he has built begins to unravel and his life is a mess.
The highlight of this film is the comedic tension caused by Ali’s lies. We know that the web must collapse, but we just don’t know how or when. There are gags aplenty aimed both at Muslims and at those who laugh at Muslims. The cinematography has a low key, low budget feel that works well with this kind of situational comedy. There are enough sub-plots to give the ‘big lie’ texture, with a script designed for those who like to laugh at others expense. Osama Sami plays Ali with monotone authenticity while the shining starlight in this film is Helana Sawires. She brightens the screen with intelligent insights into what it’s like to be a smart repressed Muslim girl and she easily steals every scene in which she appears.
Cross-cultural gags can be funny but when the cinematic lens is widened one asks what are we really laughing at? Comedy is situational, character or script driven, and the situation that Ali has constructed has loads of comedic potential. But the script and characters struggle. For example, the satirical value in staging ‘Saddam The Musical’ is sabotaged by its amateurish presentation and seriously unfunny theatrics. The cultural differences between various Muslim ethnic groups are trivialised, like in Ali’s tea drinking ritual, and the exaggerated responses to the Iman’s words of teaching are mocking rather than respectful. In a global climate of Muslim-phobia, the gags in this film at times feel uncomfortably like laughing at people just because they are different.
It is unlucky timing that Ali’s Wedding is released so close to The Big Sick as comparisons are inevitable and for some, they will be unkind. Ali’s Wedding will be seen by many as a well-intentioned light-hearted rom com, and so it is. But it treads in the same space as other Aussie inter-racial films and it could have done more with the opportunity.
Director: Jeffrey Walker
Stars: Osama Sami, Helana Sawires, Don Hany