Arab Film FestivalJuly 28, 2016
This week found me at the opening of the Arab Film Festival in Parramatta for a Lebanese movie called Halal Love. The place was packed with a noisy, bustling crowd estimated by the festival directors as 70 percent Muslim, 30 percent non-Muslim. As a celebration of the strength and diversity of Arab culture in Sydney’s western suburbs it would have been an eye-opener for those who like to believe Australian society is hopelessly divided along religious lines.
Assad Fouladkar’s Halal Love is probably as close as Arab cinema gets to a sex comedy, and it was very funny in a manner that Hollywood has completely forgotten. It plays on customs that seem unusual, even bizarre, to western audiences.
In a Talaq divorce, for instance, a man may divorce his wife by pronouncing: “I divorce you!” It sounds remarkably simple, but there is a three-strikes-and-you’re-out clause which allows for two reconciliations but only permits a third after the wife has married and divorced another man. This is the problem that confronts Mokhtar, a jealous hothead, who allows his temper to ruin his marriage to the beautiful Batoul.
Then there is the scenario in which Awatef, a middle-aged woman worn out by her husband Salim’s sexual demands, arranges for him to have a second wife. The Qur’an permits a man to have four wives, which originally served as a restriction on unlimited polygamy. In the film the husband is reluctant to comply – it is Awatef who really dreams of having a wife – someone to share the cooking, cleaning and conjugal duties; someone to boss around. Meanwhile their two young daughters have been bamboozled by a sex education lesson that leaves them with the strangest ideas about how babies are made.
The final storyline concerns a woman named Loubna, who has finally escaped from her arranged marriage only to find that the man of whom she had been dreaming was much more attractive as a dream. She quickly learns that being single is not a recipe for sexual freedom when your every move is watched by censorious acquaintances who expect a divorcee to return to the house of her mother.
One can imagine the comic possibilities of these stories, and Fouladkar, who is known for his work on Egypt’s most popular TV sit-com, A Man and Six Women, is well equipped to extract every drop of humour.
“Halal” simply means “permitted or lawful”, and the movie charts the difficulties of reconciling what is desirable with what is permissible. It is precisely this element of morality which is absent from so many lamentable comedies coming out of the United States. If one were to put Halal Love alongside Dan Mazer’s Dirty Grandpa, for instance, it’s obvious that one film is made by a sophisticated and subtle humourist, the other by a cash-in merchant who believes the fastest route to box office success is to be as gross and offensive as possible.
Although a vast amount of screen comedy relies on the breaking of social taboos it requires an infantile mind to think there is something intrinsically funny in pushing those transgressions way beyond the bounds of conventional behaviour. This is what we find in the typical American teenage slob film, which is all smut, sleaze and toilet humour.
If one thinks of a classic Japanese comedy such as Yoshimitsu Morita’s The Family Game (1983), the humour springs from a succession of small transgressions that become progressively anarchistic. For a society as formal as Japan the movie was hysterically funny, but western audiences found the same scenes only mildly amusing.
It is, however, preferable to find one’s way into the comic mysteries of another culture, be it Arab or Japanese, than to be bludgeoned by the excesses of one’s own – by movies that falsely celebrate anti-social values then collapse into grotesque sentimentality.
The issue is that great philosophical hobby horse: freedom. When all is permitted, filmmakers feel compelled to push harder and harder to get a reaction from an audience. If this devolves into puerile dick jokes and fart jokes it’s because the real, unspoken limits of American popular comedy cannot be breached. Can one imagine a slapstick feature about a pedophile ring or a group of terrorists? How about a teen slob movie about 9/11? Even the grossest comedies usually end with a rousing reassertion of American middle-class values.
A film such as Halal Love takes the issue of freedom seriously enough that none of the characters actually question the rules imposed by religion. Instead they try and turn those rules to their own advantage or look for ways to get what they want without crossing the line. It’s the acceptance of rules, and subsequent limits on personal freedom, that adds spice to the comedy. The laughs spring from innocent misconceptions, small contradictions or hypocrisies. What the best Arab and Iranian filmmakers have understood is that when freedom itself becomes a problem it can generate new levels of cinematic wit and ingenuity.
The Sydney season of the Arab Film Festival is over, but the films will be shown in Melbourne, Canberra and Perth.
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 30th July, 2016.