A childhood framed by the Iran-Iraq war gave comedian, author and now movie star Osamah Sami a certain outlook on life. "Once you grow up in a war zone and you lose loved ones… you come to appreciate your life much more and focus on the positives, on the beauty instead of the brutality."
Born in Iran to Iraqi parents, that turbulent period saw all manner of disasters befall his family, including violent interrogations and the death of a brother. Leaving for Melbourne when he was 13, fitting in held its own trials, as detailed in his at turns hilarious and harrowing memoir Good Muslim Boy.
Elements of that occasionally jaw-dropping autobiography detailing the conflict between honouring tradition and defining personal identity have been adapted into Ali's Wedding, a bright new rom com from powerhouse producers Matchbox Pictures. Co-written by and starring Sami as the charismatic and cheeky Ali of the title, bearing an uncanny similarity to himself, it's a rambunctious comedy of errors. A little white lie spins out of control as Ali attempts to cover up bad grades and falls in love with an unsuitable Lebanese girl while his parents are preparing to marry him off.
Laughter as medicine
Humour has been an invaluable tool for Sami, not only in his ascendant career, but also personally, compartmentalising the nightmarish stuff he's seen. "If I was to stay in that frame of mind with those horrors, which mind you I have to go to sleep with every night, then I'm not going to be able to live a happy life and if I'm not happy, I can't make the people around me happy, the people that I love and my community."
His positive outlook has also helped Sami cope with what can be a relentlessly toxic media cycle surrounding Muslim Australians. "Nowadays I've got some tools in order to deal with it and one of those tools is a little neat thing called the rubbish bin I have in my mind that I send all this information to, just like the recycling bin on the computer."
That negative press can be so hysterical, there's even dark humour to be wrought from it. "It's gotten to a point where I laugh now, it's so comical some of these headlines," Sami says. "Terrible puns and writers trying to be clever. It's no longer about reporting something real and I think people are onto that as well. This is why I'm so thrilled with a movie like Ali's Wedding or a book like Good Muslim Boy. It sort of represents the 99 per cent that we don't hear about."
A new Aussie narrative
Directed by Jeffrey Walker, who has worked on Modern Family and the ABC's Jack Irish adaptations, Ali's Wedding revels in the multiplicity of Australia's Middle Eastern and Muslim communities, with universality recognisable beyond those groups.
"We are part of the Aussie narrative now and that's a fact that no one can take away from us," Sami says. "Collectively this is a land of song and story and dance and history and we're part of its DNA now."
Sami feels a great responsibility to use his unique voice to reach as many Australians as possible. "My duty as a storyteller is to continue shining a light on these stories and invite people to our backyards, because forever and a day white Australia, if you like, has been peering over the back fence. They've never come in for that barbecue. I think a story like Ali's Wedding invites people inside. There is no us and them, it's just a collective we."
Comedy in the blood
How does his family feel about having their ups and downs showcased on the big screen? "I translated the whole script from English to Arabic for my mum," he says, noting that the unexpected death of his father while on a return trip back to Iran a few years ago meant bringing up happy but also painful memories of their joyous three decades together. His dad, a Muslim cleric, was also a witty man, penning Saddam: the Musical.
"They have been the most amazing supportive family one could ask for," Sami adds. "When I was growing up in Iran during the war, it was mum and grandma and aunties taking care of us whilst the men were fighting on the front line and mum was instrumental in giving us that love which has held us in good stead as a family because we can empathise with others regardless of where they've come from."
His mum keeps his feet on the ground too. "I always pull the vainglorious card with my brother and my sisters," Sami chuckles, "I'm like, 'yeah, guys, I shouldn't have said that, but have any of you walked a red carpet with your major motion picture?' Then my mum comes in with a broom chasing me. 'Come here you son of a shit'."
Ali's Wedding is now showing in selected cinemas.