Halal or haram? Legal or illegal? That's the question at the heart of Halal Love, a revealing comedy that features during the Arab Film Festival, now in its 13th year. Socially relevant and progressive, it looks at the tangled lives of contemporary urban Muslims as they try to navigate love, marriage and desire in contemporary Lebanon. It went to Sundance Film Festival in January with its alternative title, Halal Love (and Sex).
Halal Love was premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival late last year, and has been seen widely on the festival circuit, including Sydney, Rotterdam, Locarno, and Edinburgh. Challenging stereotypes, no doubt, that are widely held. Starting off in a classroom during a sex education class, Halal Love is an eye-opener into the battle of the sexes, Muslim-style, as couples try to manage their love lives creatively, without breaking the rules.
There are three intertwined love stories. A mother, too tired for sex with her amorous husband at the end of a long day, who recruits a second wife to help out, and help her with cooking, cleaning and looking after the lively kids. A pathologically jealous young man who keeps divorcing his beautiful new wife every time she looks at another man the wrong way, until he can no longer marry and make up. Not before she marries another man and consummates the union, will he be able to marry her again - a fourth time. Just desserts, anyone? And there's a young divorcee who can marry her true love, but only on a short-term contract, because he is already married with family.
The writer-director of this bitter-sweet comedy, Assad Fouladkar, is a guest of the Arab Film Festival this year. Over the phone from Sydney he told me how he had sourced his ideas. With input from the women he knew? No, it was not like that. "Although Halal Love is mainly stories about women and it's mostly their point of view, the ideas are from what I remembered hearing in my childhood, from what women talk about in private, in their homes," he says.
"I wanted people to get inside my world. […] To get inside my bedroom…!" he explained, to understand that in the Arab-speaking world, life is the same as it is for everyone everywhere else, a struggle within family and relationships. The pursuit of happiness, inalienable right or not, is what most of us strive for.
Fouladkar is based in Egypt where the majority of Arab-language cinema and television is made, around 75 per cent of the output. He has eight seasons of the successful sitcom, A Man and Six Ladies, to his name. So what is the most popular film genre in the Arab-speaking world? "Always comedy," Fouladkar says, without a second's hesitation. Everyone needs diversion from the tragedies unfolding in the Middle East.
The Arab Film Festival offers a unique entrée into the lives of people of the Arab world. Three of the films screening in the touring festival, including Halal Love, a co-production with Germany, hail from Lebanon. Two are from Egypt, two from Iraq, and one each from Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Qatar. Home, directed by Shahin Alanezi, is an Australian production. A selection of these films will be screening in Canberra.
This is the first time that a film from Syria appears. Waiting for the Fall explores how the inhabitants of a small town try to maintain normality in war-time, as far as it is possible. An air strike is expected anytime soon but they are keeping a steady focus on the women's volleyball final. When a local photographer is taken prisoner by rebels everything can unravel at any moment. Alternating between suspense, slapstick, satire, and poignancy, Waiting for the Fall captures the surreal mix of life in a warzone. It was awarded the prize for best film in the Horizons of Arab Cinema competition at the Cairo International Film Festival.
A Palestinian documentary is also screening here. Roshmia is a study of an elderly and childless refugee couple who are in a final standoff with local authorities over their home, a shack in the Roshmia valley. It is written and directed by a Syrian filmmaker, Salim Abu Jabal, who is based in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Roshmia will screen with another doco, Home, a short film made in Australia. It looks at how an Iraqi refugee struggles to accept her son's embrace of Australian culture over the traditions of his family background. Director Shahin Alanezi arrived here in 2008.
The final film in the Canberra season, El Clasico, directed by Halkawt Mustafa, screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York earlier this year. Set in another battleground, Iraq, it tells the story of dwarf Kurdish brothers who make a quixotic overland trip to see football's game of games in Madrid, thereby gaining acceptance and winning hearts and minds. It is played by brothers in real life, and, like all of the films set to screen, affords a glimpse into people and cultures so rarely seen on our screen.
A selection of films from the touring Arab Film Festival will screen at the National Film and Sound Archive, McCoy Circuit, Acton, ACT, between August 5 and August 7.