Though the premise of Ali’s Wedding may not appear unusual to anyone remotely familiar with rom-coms, that’s not where Jeffrey Walker’s film shines; instead it’s the expert framing of these tropes in a context rarely visited by the genre that makes for a refreshing take. The premise of the movie is one of forbidden love and all the expected things that come along with that. Ali (played and written by Osamah Sami) is the son of a Muslim cleric (Don Hany) and has been raised with high family expectations of becoming a doctor – from his father, his doting mother (Frances Duca) and the clergy of his local mosque. Predictable, Ali doesn’t want to be a doctor but, succumbing to the pressure, he tells a white lie to further his medical career. The narrative unfolds as this lie snowballs, shaping not only how his expected career develops, but also how the love story moves forward, with Ali later accidentally stumbling into an arranged marriage that he wants no part in due to his infatuation with Dianne (Helena Sawires).
Although all of what I have described won’t feel unfamiliar to rom-com fans – the distant father, the doting mother, the pressure, the lies and the forbidden love –what sets Ali Wedding apart is its atypical setting. These familiar themes unfold against a backdrop that’s still unusual on the big screen – an Australian-Iraqi Muslim family. The most interesting parts of the film exploit the intersection of Islam, various migrant community cultures and the predominant (white) Australian norms.
To Jeffrey Walker’s credit, he does not hold the audience’s hand and guide them through the significance of every Islamic tradition – instead, he lets them unfold naturally on screen. Some of the differences between the Islamic sects from various countries are presented as confusing even to those who abide by them, to great comic effect. The intricacies of a tea ceremony that takes place during the arranging of the marriages is what leads Ali to accidentally promise himself to Yomna (Maha Wilson). The humour of this scene is emblematic of the comedy of the film as a whole; instead of inviting the audience to laugh at the ‘wacky other’, this heart-felt, earnest portrayal left me feeling neither alienated nor uncomfortable. As a white viewer, it was at once relatable (if not in terms of the plot!) and novel. I’m sure if you were that way inclined you could find offence in here somewhere, but this true story translates into a hilarious step forward for the representation of Muslims in pop culture.
Although this is first and foremost a love story, not the story of Islam, some of its best moments are the scenes of the families’ tumultuous past and the present-day conflicts affecting the them. The story of how and why Ali’s family left Iraq is told briskly and with little melodrama placed on even the most tragic moments of despair and racism. This is much to the films’ credit, as the audience is not given a chance to dwell on these events much like the characters that try not to. They are trying to move along into the new life they have created in Australia, rather than dwelling on the circumstances that brought them there. Using these scenes sparingly makes them all the more poignant for simply informing the audience that they happened, rather than letting them shape the narrative. These moments don’t just occur in recollections, but also in the small glimpses of present-day racism they are subjected to, whether it is the overt racism displayed by immigration in America or the inert ill-informed racism of some Australians. We are also given a glimpse into the racial tensions within the Muslim community, like the stereotypes one Iraqi Muslim beholds of an Egyptian and so on. All of these aforementioned issues, past and present, are very real issues and very real horrors experience by migrant Muslims, but the way Walker chooses to portray them is both sensitive and off-hand to a degree that allows the dark comedy within them to be seen without diminishing their poignancy.
Though it could be easily said that Ali’s Wedding is just another cliched rom-com dressed in an Islamic garb, that certainly doesn’t diminish the drama and the impact of the story. It’s a story scarcely told and one portrayed in a tender, considerate manner that doesn’t feel mocking or pandering. Assuredly heart-warming and considerately told, Ali’s Wedding might be more significant than most rom-coms, but it’s smart enough not to itself too seriously.
Ali’s Wedding is available on Netflix.
Words by Elliott Bonnell