Before seeing this romantic comedy set largely in Australia’s Arab and Iranian migrant communities, I suspected a lot of heart would, in all likelihood, be used to paper over an inevitable roughness around the edges. Not because of its ethnic background, but because that so often happens with local comedies when they’re the work of first-time feature directors, in this case Jeffrey Walker.
But I now confess to having underestimated this delightful film, based on the real life experiences of its charming lead actor and co-writer, Osamah Sami, an Australian born in Iran to Iraqi parents. Ali’s Wedding turns out to be an unusually accomplished production: well directed, written, cast and acted, beautifully shot and unerringly well paced, adding up to a film that is amusing, relentlessly entertaining and unlike any Australian film that we have seen before.
Of course it is not entirely original – few films are. At its heart is a variation on the Romeo and Juliet story, but it’s one dressed in myriad new clothes. Our Romeo is Sami’s Ali, a naïve young man living with his Iranian-Iraqi family in the Melbourne suburbs. Ali works in a convenience store while waiting to see if he’s got into uni to study medicine as desired by both his family and the local community. His Juliet is Lebanese-Australian beauty Dianne (Helana Sawires), another would-be doctor who’s both more mature and smart.
The story is crammed with potentially destabilising sub-plots, from family manoeuvres around an arranged marriage versus Ali’s awkward attempts at wooing Dianne, to the hapless hero’s fraudulent entry to university and his role as (wait for it) Saddam Hussein in an amateur musical.
Somehow the film also finds time to weave in observations about the mosque’s central role in the local community (Ali’s father, played by Don Hany, is an Imam); the differing expectations for Muslim men and women; the tug-of-war between Australian and traditional migrant cultures, and between Muslims of differing countries of origin.
This, then, is so ambitious that it could easily have been a complete mess. That it all unfolds so naturally has much to do with the presence as co-writer of screenwriting veteran Andrew Knight, whose credits range from TV’s Seachange to Mel Gibson’s recent war film Hacksaw Ridge. The reason for the proficiency in all other filmmaking areas becomes obvious when the final credits roll to reveal such senior talents as composer Nigel Westlake (Babe) and cinematographer Don McAlpine (Moulin Rouge), while director Walker has a long history of directing for local and US television comedy and drama.