Osamah Sami

From run­ning away from his own wed­ding to star­ring in Sad­dam: The Mu­si­cal, Osamah Sami’s life is the stuff of movie com­edy. Now the ac­tor-co­me­dian’s search for ac­cep­tance is an ir­re­sistible film, Ali’s Wed­ding. Sami tells Nick Dent about his jour­ney from

Time Out (Melbourne) - - The Time Out Interview -

“Half­way through the film you for­get these peo­ple are Mus­lim”

IN 2006, A troupe of Mus­lim Aus­tralian ac­tors landed at San Fran­cisco Air­port en route to Detroit. Sad­dam: The Mu­si­cal had played in Mel­bourne and Sydney to ap­pre­cia­tive ex­pat Iraqis, and the show had re­ceived an in­vi­ta­tion to play in Mo­tor City. The lead ac­tor was a young man called Osamah. On his mo­bile phone were mes­sages men­tion­ing how much he liked to “bar­rack for the Bombers”.

Suf­fice to say, US cus­toms of­fi­cers had a few ques­tions. Twenty hours later they were still ask­ing them.

“They said, ‘what do you think of Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy? If we dropped a bomb on Ira­nian soil how would you re­act?’” Osamah Sami re­calls, 11 years later in Red­fern, Sydney. “And I go, ‘I’m a hu­man, I’d be up­set.’ ‘So you’d be an­gry?’... Af­ter 20 hours of in­ter­ro­ga­tion, when we said we were hun­gry, they put a box of pizza in front of us. They said: ‘there’s free top­pings of ham for you.’ Thanks, Yankees!”

Sami is an­noyed about be­ing de­ported from the US 11 years ago, but he’s made the best kind of lemonade from the ex­pe­ri­ence. The whole de­ba­cle re­plays hi­lar­i­ously in Ali’s Wed­ding, the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal movie the 33-year-old Sami co-wrote and stars in. Tagged as ‘A True Story… Un­for­tu­nately’, the film re­counts Sami’s child­hood in Iran as the son of Kur­dish Iraqi refugees; his ar­rival in Mel­bourne at age 13; and his strug­gles in young man­hood to live up to the ex­pec­ta­tions of his fam­ily, in­clud­ing the mar­riage they have ar­ranged for him.

Sami’s late fa­ther, Mahdi (played in the film by Don Hany), was a hugely beloved imam, not least for writ­ing Ara­bic-lan­guage stage shows il­lus­trat­ing Is­lamic teach­ings and Iraqi his­tory. Osamah was cast in the role of Sad­dam Hus­sein, com­plete with mous­tache and fat suit, mainly be­cause he was able to im­i­tate the dic­ta­tor’s voice. He per­formed the mu­si­cal to crowds of up to 1,200. “We played in Co­bram in ru­ral Vic­to­ria and half­way through a guy got up and hurled a shoe at me and said, “This is for killing my fam­ily mem­bers!’”

As po­lit­i­cal refugees, Sami’s fam­ily never found ac­cep­tance in Iran. The Iran-iraq war was rag­ing and Osamah re­calls try­ing to con­vince his school friends his fa­ther was not a spy. In 1995 the fam­ily found asy­lum in Aus­tralia and boarded a flight for Mel­bourne. “Leav­ing Ira­nian airspace, some of the women took off their head­scarves. It was the first time I saw fe­male hair, just cas­cad­ing. I was 13 and my hor­mones were just… wow.”

The adult Osamah (called Ali in the movie) was ex­pected to study medicine but flunked the uni­ver­sity en­try exam. Rather than con­fess his fail­ure Ali tells the first in a se­ries of lies. What was go­ing through his head at the time? “Noth­ing mate. I wasn’t think­ing and I was feel­ing this im­mense pres­sure. It was one de­ci­sion that led to an­other that be­came a ru­n­away train.” It was the same when he sub­mit­ted to an ar­ranged mar­riage de­spite be­ing in­volved with an­other woman (called Dianne in the film and played by He­lana Sawares). “I asked God to de­liver the mir­a­cle that I knew would not come.” What was it? Sami laughs. “I was hop­ing for an earth­quake that would only kill me.” While Sami was act­ing in the 2009 TV movie

Saved op­po­site Clau­dia Car­van he shared some of these mem­o­ries with the di­rec­tor, Tony Ay­ers. Ay­ers hooked Sami up with vet­eran screen­writer An­drew Knight ( Hack­saw

Ridge). Af­ter the Ali’s Wed­ding screen­play was com­plete Sami adapted it into his award­win­ning book Good Mus­lim Boy, which is taught in some Mel­bourne schools. “It’s teach­ing year ten English and I came here not speak­ing a word of English!” the au­thor marvels.

Ali’s mis­ad­ven­tures may seem larger than life but they’re grounded by the amount of au­then­tic de­tail in the film about the lo­cal Mus­lim com­mu­nity. That in­cludes in­ter­mosque back­bit­ing, ques­tion­able tra­di­tions such as tem­po­rary mar­riages, and sex­ism. “An­drew [Knight] and I talked about not shying away from the truth. Not go­ing ‘we’re all great peo­ple, please like us.’ This is how we are, warts and all, and we’re like you.”

In­deed Ali’s Wed­ding en­joyed rap­tur­ous re­cep­tions at the Sydney, Adelaide and Mel­bourne In­ter­na­tional film fes­ti­vals, in­clud­ing the Age Crit­ics Award for best Aus­tralian fea­ture film at MIFF. “I’ve heard this from so many peo­ple: half­way through the film you for­get these peo­ple are Mus­lim. At the Sydney Film Fes­ti­val this young woman came up and said, “I’m Ukrainian Jewish, and that was my story.” I felt so good in­side hear­ing that.” àali’s Wed­ding opens Thu Aug 29.

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