Earlier this year, the 25-year-old Egyptian-American filmmaker Sam Abbas made waves at the Berlin International Film Festival with the launch of his production company, ArabQ Films (pronounced “Arabic Films”), the first Arab-based production house solely dedicated to providing a platform for queer narratives within the Muslim and Middle Eastern communities. In and of itself, the company’s mission statement, which mandates that every director and lead producer of all ArabQ projects self-identify as queer, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender, cuts to the heart of the cultural and faith-based taboos that surround queerness and sexual fluidity in Muslim communities—or even, as Abbas says, the idea that sex in general can be a permitted topic of conversation. “Even if you’re a straight, Muslim man, you can’t really talk about sex, let alone be curious,” he shares. “And that is so deeply ingrained in you, to be silent about it and to associate shame to it. The first time I had sex, I felt this enormous guilt. It lessened as sexual activity became more of a regular thing for me, but then I would go through phases of not seeing anyone. When I eventually was intimate with someone again, that guilt came crawling back.”

This week, Abbas is confronting this innermost conflict on a major scale with the debut of ArabQ’s first full-length feature film, The Wedding, in which he plays Rami, a young sexually curious Muslim man living in Brooklyn who pursues affairs with his male friends while engaged to his American girlfriend, Sara (portrayed by Iranian-Canadian actress Nikohl Boosheri, who also stars on Freeform’s The Bold Type). The film is screening in Turkey, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Egypt—countries in which it is at best difficult to identify as gay or nonbinary, and at worst illegal—in secret, speakeasy-style locations where viewers are subject to the equivalent of airport security safety measures in order to attend.

Enthusiasm for the film is already high, according to Abbas, who is aware of the incredible risk he and others are taking to bring The Wedding directly to its audience. “Rami’s story is less about love and more about taking what’s offered to him, from whomever is offering,” Abbas says of his character (a hunger, he says, that many of his friends from strictly religious households can relate to). “He’s felt so deprived of that simple sense of connection after having grown up in a Muslim home, where you don’t feel open, and he’s searching for something. I think that’s something that many, regardless of sexuality, can understand.”

For Abbas, too, who moved to Old Bridge, New Jersey, as a young child from Alexandria, Egypt, the film signifies not only a personal dream realized, but also a seed quietly planted for the possibility of a someday-freer Middle East. It’s why he and his business partner have taken yet another risk, in choosing to headquarter ArabQ not in the U.S., but in Egypt, where they’ve already received funding from a prominent Egyptian producer who has chosen to remain anonymous, as well as a host of unsolicited scripts. “We’re saying it’s time for change,” explains Abbas, “and we’re not saying it in a ‘We’re here whether you like it or not’ way, but just . . . ‘We’re here.’ And we’re making these films that are very personal to the community.”

Below, Abbas told Vogue about the early reception of The Wedding, how he organized the Middle Eastern run, and what’s next for ArabQ.

Tell me a little bit about how The Wedding came to be.

I grew up in a very religious Muslim household where I had to go to Sunday school and attend private lessons to learn Arabic and study the Koran. My parents were pretty strict; I wasn’t even allowed to go to the mall with friends, so I didn’t have many friends. Once I got into college and moved into a dorm—I went to NJIT Rutgers for information technology—I began to live my life as a “normal American” kid, in a way. I became two different people—“Sam at home,” and then “Sam with his friends.” I think, to a point, everyone is sort of like that, but for me, that disparity was extreme because there are so many things, within the Muslim religion, that cannot be done. I really wanted to act and make films, so I made a short called Time to Come, which dealt with how frustrated I was by how cultural and religious upbringings affect an individual, even if they are not religious. I felt sort of tortured by how much my religion had an impact on my emotions and ability to interact with people, and that drove me nuts, especially as I began to understand myself more . . . as a person, sexually, even in my sartorial choices. In certain ways, I feel so behind.

Time to Come ultimately didn’t relieve me the way The Wedding did, and the impetus for this new film came when I was working at the Tribeca Film Festival, three years ago. I was watching these great films there, and thinking, What am I doing with my life? I went home depressed every day, wanting to do something to make a difference. The third day, though, I watched a film [Daniel Grove’s The Persian Connection] that starred the Iranian actress Nikohl Boosheri. As soon as she spoke at the Q&A afterward, I was like, “I need to work with her, she was amazing.” So I wrote The Wedding in the week that followed, about everything I was feeling, about the experience of romantic relationships after growing up in a Muslim household and then having that emotional and sexual freedom that can feel like a shock to the system, that you don’t always know what to do with. I’m lucky that everything came together after that.

How much of the story of the lead character, Rami, reflects your own?

Every character is me, to some extent. When we had work-in-progress screenings for feedback, someone on the panel said, “Your lead character is very unlikeable and he’s . . . a piece of shit essentially.” That hurt my feelings. I said, “What do you mean? He’s very charming!” [Laughs] Coming from such a repressed culture forces you to act irrationally sometimes, and I suppose that came through in Rami. The film, overall, is very true to my story . . . even down to Rami’s relationship with his family. My family, for example, doesn’t even know about this film. Hopefully, no one Google searches me anytime soon . . .

You’ve said you don’t like to use labels. Is your family aware of your sexuality, or choice not to self-identify?

Absolutely not. In terms of sexuality, I am very anti-labels. I like to think of myself as free and open to whatever comes my way. Right now, I’m seeing a girl, and, you know . . . who knows? I’m open. I think you should be open. But no, they don’t know.

Did you conceive the film around the idea that you would eventually try to screen it in the Middle East?

I didn’t think it would actually be possible until my business partner told me we could try it. We were getting good enough press in America, and enough eyes—supportive eyes—on it in the Middle East after people there found our trailer on Vimeo. We thought of this great secret screening system and tried it out in Egypt. People came. So then we decided to do a November run in select Middle Eastern countries: in Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and Tunisia, though I can’t really say [for safety reasons] how many screenings are happening or where in those countries they are.

Can you share some of the safety measures you’ve had to take in order to make these screenings happen?

Yes. I came up with six rules to ensure that the screenings go smoothly, and safely. The first is that I personally can’t attend them, as much as I’d like to. A huge population throughout the Middle East is very aware of this film, for better or worse. If there’s any chance that I’m followed into a screening, I risk not only my safety, but everyone else’s, too. The second rule is no reporters are allowed to attend, because we can’t reveal the identities of the people coming, the theaters who are working with us, or any of that, no matter how well-intentioned or supportive the reporter in question is. The third rule is if you’re invited and you want to RSVP, we have to make sure that everyone attending doesn’t talk about the screening, and we have them sign a version of an NDA, and bring a copy of their ID. Which I felt weird about . . . but by someone giving us a copy of their ID, it sort of holds them accountable to what we’re asking of them. The next rule is absolutely no outsiders—I can’t talk about how the RSVP list works exactly, but if you are invited, you cannot bring anyone else. Then, no cell phones or cameras. A few people will be monitoring the actual screening, and they’ll pat you down when you first enter the theater. Finally, there’s no re-entry once the film has begun—and that means no bathroom breaks for an hour and 15 minutes . . . which I feel bad about!

Are you nervous at all about the reception of the more sexually explicit and emotionally intimate scenes?

I’m nervous about the whole thing, to be honest. It’s nerve-racking also not to be able to go myself, and to gear myself up for finding out about how the screenings go from pure hearsay, as opposed to being there myself to gauge reactions. At the end of the day, though, I’m really happy with this film because I made something that’s very authentic to me and my story. I guess that’s what I’m focusing on. Some of my friends saw the film and while I wanted to throw up while they were watching, their feedback was incredible. Many of them are Middle Eastern and could relate to it. And I remember feeling like if no one else ever laid eyes on it again, that would be okay, because I completed something meaningful and it meant something to someone from my culture, no matter their sexuality . . . just these concepts of having to live with some degree of repression and alienation in a strict religious household.

Have you heard from many queer people living in the Middle East about the film already? What have they said?

Yeah, people have written me. It’s very strange that they know me, and also so great. Reuters debuted a new outlet recently called Openly, which features LGBTQ stories, and the trailer ran there. Middle Eastern trade publications syndicated that story, which was really surprising because initially they were afraid that covering it at all would mean advocating for LGBTQ issues simply by writing about the movie. But as soon as Reuters got to it, people were able to sort of place the blame on them. Of course, there was a fair amount of backlash, but also a lot more support than I thought I’d get. I remember when I saw the first story about it published in Arabic writing, in a local newspaper—that was incredible, because it was something from my childhood, and I wished I could send it to my parents and say, “Look at what I did!” But, it is what it is.

What do you hope to achieve with this film?

I just want people to see it, hopefully identify with it. It’s not a character-driven or plot-driven piece . . . I’d like people to just watch it, and take a walk and think about what they just saw. I’d like people to simply reflect on these issues. A lot of films in general have happy endings . . . not to say that this one doesn’t, but it has a real ending, and those are the films I love the most. The ones where you’re not sure what’s happening because that’s reality, right? I think people can appreciate that.

 

SOURCE: Vogue.com

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