We talk to Ali’s Wedding star + writer Osamah Sami

Ali’s Wedding takes cues from your own experiences. What’s it like to control that narrative? What are the perks and challenges?

The biggest blessing in telling stories from my own experiences was having an insider’s perspective into the Muslim world. I’ve been lucky to see the world from different cultural lenses (growing up in war-torn Iran to Iraqi parents, and then raised and neutralised in Australia). This helped tell the story in a fresh and unique form. Being specific was key.

The challenges on the other hand were many: what to do with the plethora of colourful stories, for instance. How do we weave these stories into a plausible cinematic structure without losing their essence? How will we approach dramatisation of events without losing the truth?

Thanks to screen legend-masters Andrew Knight and Tony Ayres, we were able to nurture these stories into the film, whilst maintaining their integrity.

You mention Andrew and Tony, who are legends in the industry, plus veteran cinematographer Don McAlpine. Equally exciting are the emerging creatives such as producer Sheila Jayadev and director Jeffrey Walker. The cast features lots of fresh faces too. Who are the ones-to-watch here?

Helana Sawires is captivating, luminescent and just as beautiful and down-to-earth in real life as she is in the film. She injected Dianne with iridescent magic and spice, and she’s most definitely a star to watch.

Majid Shokor, playing dad’s nemesis, is another stand out. In real life, he is gentle as a deer, and the darkness and layers he brought to the role is a testament to his skills.

Don Hany needs no praises, but his work as Ali’s dad Mahdi – including his meticulous preparation during pre-production (he came to the mosque with me for 12 consecutive nights during an annual 12-night commemoration event) – is quite special. He transformed and submerged himself into the role so well, at times I forgot it was Don.

Behind the scenes, I have to give a shout out to my producer. Sheila wasn’t just a great producer to work with, but a wonderful human to interact with away from the film and I’m looking forward to collaborating with her in the future. Her creative smarts and hunger for detail is the reason behind the final picture before you today.

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How did you meet Jeffrey Walker, and what was this collaboration like?

I could write an entire journal on my collaboration with Mr. Walker, whose surname was the name of a drink that haunted my teenage years in Iran (half a chapter of my book is dedicated to my pursuit of this contraband and eventual beatings by the piety-police, so I’ll stop here).

I learned about Jeff’s involvement whilst shooting another film overseas (Journey) and I was to remain away from the country for six weeks on location, yet so desperate to meet the new General at the helm of Ali’s Wedding. I still hadn’t been cast in the film and was itching to get some face-to-face with him, to gauge whether he was at all interested in auditioning me for the role or if he saw me solely as the writer.

So I finally wrote him an email, about how excited I was in having him onboard after thoroughly enjoying his previous work, especially the Jack Irish telemovies and Chris Lilley’s Angry Boys. I then finished my email by pitching him the idea of my involvement as an actor, reinforcing it was not simply because it was “my story” but also due to the fact that I’d started to forge a career as an actor years ago.

Fortunately, he came back with a thoughtful response, indicating he’d seen some of my work (Tony Ayres’ Saved with Claudia Karvan) and assured me the decision wasn’t about ‘acting chops’, but more broad and logistical (i.e. Ali’s age). In our next few exchanges, I put my writer’s hat back on and we only discussed the film from a creative point of view.

When I finally got back to Australia, I was primed and prickled to meet him. Soon, he was in Melbourne and we had coffee. It was like the first day of school, both exciting and nerve-wracking. We greeted, hugged it out and I was immediately drawn to his congenial warmth. He had read my book and we chatted about some of the stories not in the film. We ended up having more than the one coffee. The rest is sacred history.

I successfully auditioned for the role and worked with him both as a creative in pre-production and then as an actor on set. He was a respect magnet and his vision for the film, and his leadership qualities, were universally admired.

What I found annoying about Jeff was his calm. At one stage I was so pissed off about his composure, I tried to raise his ire by acting out (and I don’t mean in front of the lens), but Goddamnit he never lost his cool. One time I thought I was finally going to cop a well-earned spray when he summoned me to sit in the Porsche (action vehicle) after filming another unsuccessful take during a scene on Sydney Road. I sat in the car, waiting to be told off for my lack of professionalism. To my disappointment, Jeff took out his mini lens and discussed lining up a new shot, almost oblivious (or perhaps impervious) to my ruse. I learned a galaxy from Jeff.

Cinephiles and critics often dismiss romantic comedies as ‘lowbrow’ or ‘disposable’. What sets Ali’s Wedding apart in this genre? 

I’m not great at marketing myself (or anything for that matter) and would rather let the work speak for itself. It will be quite subjective an answer for individuals, as audiences will connect with the story in their own way. My hope is that the themes resonate with everyone who has a beating heart, since love is universal to all humans. Perhaps the detailed insight and intricacies of a community often marginalised and misunderstood by many will be a welcome change in the public arena. It’s about time we allowed Muslims in, and let them make us laugh and feel good about the world. What better way than through Australia’s first Muslim rom-com!

If you could give a free ticket to the film to anyone in the world, who would you choose and why?

Pauline Hanson. No further comment.

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ADL Film Fest hosts the world premiere of Ali’s Wedding on Friday 28 October, 6.30pm.

Meet Osamah – plus Jeffrey Walker (director), Andrew Knight (co-writer), Sheila Jayadev (producer) and Helen Panckhurst (producer) – who’ll be in conversation on Saturday 29 October, after our repeat screening.