'The Wedding': Film Review

THE WEDDING Still 1 - ArabQ Films - Publicity -H 2018
Courtesy of ArabQ Films
Strong material in a weak package.

A sexually confused New Yorker from a conservative Muslim family lives a double life in this autobiographical debut from Sam Abbas.

A closeted Egyptian-American struggles to keep his sexuality a secret from his family and his future bride in The Wedding, the debut feature from actor, director and screenwriter Sam Abbas. Born in Egypt but raised in New Jersey, Abbas based the story closely on his own life. Indeed, his family does not even know about this film, which means it could end up becoming one of the most unusual coming-out declarations in history.

The Wedding is the inaugural production from ArabQ, a boutique operation dedicated to promoting queer cinema and LGBT filmmakers from the Middle East. The company is bravely headquartered in Egypt, despite the very real risks associated with promoting gay rights in such a conservative Islamic society, where even waving a rainbow flag can lead to arrest on spurious "debauchery" charges. Hence the tight security surrounding the pic's clandestine Egyptian release last month, where it screened to invited guests in secret "speakeasy-style" gatherings.

But beyond its commendable challenge to cultural and religious bigotry, The Wedding ultimately proves more interesting for its political context than for its dramatic content. LBGT stories from the Arab world have grown into a vibrant sub-genre over the last decade, spawning landmark Egyptian productions like Maher Sabry's All My Life (2008) and Hany Fawzi's Family Secrets (2014). By contrast, Abbas plays safe with this oddly passionless low-budget chamber drama, skirting cautiously around its key themes of sexual and religious taboo. Set for limited U.S. release on Friday, this well-intentioned but underpowered debut will have only niche audience appeal.

Abbas stars in The Wedding as Rami, a young Egyptian-American New Yorker with traditional Muslim parents, who never appear onscreen. Rami's fiancee Sara (Nikohl Boosheri) keeps trying to pin him down on wedding plans, dates, venues, honeymoon destinations and even potential names for their future children. But Rami appears evasive and withdrawn, almost catatonically so at times. He also shows ominously little interest in sex. Or at least not with Sara.

Between these tetchy domestic vignettes, Abbas delves into Rami's clandestine double life as the lover of bohemian British artist Lee (Harry Aspinwall), whose studio he frequents for irregular boozy hookups. Inevitably, Sara becomes suspicious and uncovers Rami's secret, leading to an explosively angry showdown. Their wedding plans fall apart, but Abbas leaves the door open for reconciliation, hinting that both partners may need the official seal of matrimonial union for more complex reasons, not least to win the approval of their conservative families.

The Wedding is rooted in potentially rich ingredients, but Abbas shoots it in such a flat, minor-key register that most of the dramatic energy dissipates. Each scene is framed by a single static medium shot, and separated by black-out chapter divides. The characters converse in sullen, pause-heavy, naturalistic exchanges that shade into mumblecore territory at times. We learn almost nothing of their jobs, their families, their histories, their social and religious hinterland. Bottom line: No movie featuring illicit lust and cocaine-fueled threesomes should be this dull.

Shooting on 16mm, with a bleached-out color palette that lends everything a milky hue, Abbas stays firmly within this dogmatically minimal style, aside from occasionally allowing text messages to scroll across one corner of the screen. Such formal austerity is clearly a conscious aesthetic, but it makes his film much more a muted relationship drama than a timely exploration of clashing sexual and religious values. The Wedding is a noteworthy first effort, and a welcome addition to the growing canon of LGBT stories from Muslim filmmakers, but hopefully ArabQ will move on to produce bolder and braver projects in future. A giant personal leap for Abbas, perhaps, but a small step for queer cinema.

Production companies: ArabQ Films, Survivant Productions, Polyglot Pictures, Audeliss, INvolve?
Cast: Nikohl Boosheri, Sam Abbas, Harry Aspinwall, James Penfold, Hend Ayoub?
Director-screenwriter-editor: Sam Abbas?
Producers: Sam Abbas, Neal Kumar, Casey Hartnett, Kyleigh Johnson?
Cinematographer: Shane Ainsworth?
Music: Bill Prokopow?

75 minutes