In 2006, a troupe of Muslim Australian actors landed at San Francisco Airport en route to Detroit. Saddam: The Musical had played in Melbourne and Sydney to appreciative expat Iraqis, and the show had received an invitation to play in Motor City. The lead actor was a young man called Osamah. On his mobile phone were messages mentioning how much he liked to “barrack for the Bombers”.
Suffice to say, US customs officers had a few questions. Twenty hours later they were still asking them.
“They said, ‘what do you think of American foreign policy? If we dropped a bomb on Iranian soil how would you react?’” Osamah Sami recalls. “And I go, ‘I’m a human, I’d be upset.’ ‘So you’d be angry?’...
“After 20 hours of interrogation, when we said we were hungry, they put a box of pizza in front of us. They said: ‘there’s free toppings of ham and sausage for you.’ Thanks, Yankees!”
Sami is annoyed about being deported from the US 11 years ago, but he’s made the best kind of lemonade from the experience. The whole debacle replays hilariously in Ali’s Wedding, the autobiographical movie the 33-year-old Sami co-wrote and stars in, opening in Melbourne next Thursday. Tagged as ‘A True Story… Unfortunately’, the film recounts Sami’s childhood in Iran as the son of Kurdish Iraqi refugees; his arrival in Melbourne at age 13; and his struggles in young manhood to live up to the expectations of his family, including the marriage they have arranged for him.
Sami’s father, Mahdi (played in the film by Don Hany), was a hugely beloved imam, not least for his talent at writing Arabic-language stage shows illustrating Islamic teachings and Iraqi history. Osamah was cast in the role of Saddam, complete with moustache and fat suit, mainly because he was able to imitate the dictator’s voice.
“[Saddam] was the reason dad didn’t see his mother for three decades. He was the reason that I lost a brother during the war,” says Sami, leaning over a table at the offices of the film’s publicists in Redfern, Sydney. “Satire has the ability to heal wounds.” The musical played to crowds of up to 1,200. “We played in Cobram in rural Victoria and halfway through a guy got up and hurled a shoe at me and said, “This is for killing my family members!’”
As political refugees, Sami’s family never found acceptance in Iran. The Iran-Iraq war was raging and Osamah recalls trying to convince his school friends his father was not a spy. In 1995 the family found asylum in Australia and boarded a flight for Melbourne. “Leaving Iranian airspace, some of the women took off their headscarves. It was the first time I saw female hair, just cascading. I was 13 and my hormones were just… wow.”
The adult Osamah (called Ali in the movie) was expected to study medicine but flunked the university entry exam. Rather than confess his failure Ali tells the first in a series of lies. What was going through his head at the time? “Nothing mate. I wasn’t thinking and I was feeling this immense pressure. It was one decision that led to another that became a runaway train.” It was the same when he submitted to an arranged marriage despite being involved with another woman (called Dianne in the film and played by Helana Sawares). “I asked god to deliver the miracle that I knew would not come.” What was it? Sami laughs. “I was hoping for an earthquake that would only kill me.”
While Sami was acting in the 2009 TV movie Saved opposite Claudia Carvan he shared some of these memories with the director, Tony Ayers. Astonished, Ayers hooked Sami up with veteran screenwriter Andrew Knight (Hacksaw Ridge). After the Ali’s Wedding screenplay was complete Sami adapted it into his award-winning book Good Muslim Boy, which is taught in some Melbourne schools. “It’s teaching year 10 English and I came here not speaking a word of English!” the author marvels.
Nor is the film a niche effort. Directed by TV journeyman Jeffrey Walker with cinematography by the legendary Don McAlpine, Ali’s Wedding has mainstream appeal as well as superficial similarities to another movie currently in theatres, Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick. Sami’s not worried about going head to head against another true life, Muslim-arranged-marriage romcom. “The more of these stories there are, the better it is for us as human beings,” he reasons.
Ali’s misadventures may seem larger than life but they’re grounded by the amount of authentic detail in the film about the local Muslim community. That includes intra-mosque backbiting, questionable traditions such as temporary marriages, and sexism. “Andrew [Knight] and I talked about not shying away from the truth. Not going “we’re all great people, please like us.” This is how we are, warts and all, and we’re like you.”
Indeed Ali’s Wedding enjoyed rapturous receptions at the Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne film festivals, including the Age Critics Award for best Australian feature film at SFF. “I’ve heard this from so many people: halfway through the film you forget these people are Muslim. At the Sydney Film Festival this young woman came up and said, “I’m Ukrainian Jewish, and that was my story.” I felt so good inside hearing that.”
Ali’s Wedding opens Thu Aug 31.