When Egyptian-American filmmaker Sam Abbas debuted his first feature film, “The Wedding,” in the Middle East, he barred himself from attending his own screenings.
It’s not that Abbas didn’t want to go, he did. But his movie, which tackles the issue of same-sex attraction in the Muslim community, had already caused a stir in the Arab world, where homosexuality is considered a sin and, in some cases, an illegal act punishable by death.
“The film was receiving an incredible amount of press and it was becoming very clear there would be a chance that I may be followed,” Abbas told TheWrap. “And that wouldn’t be good for my safety or the safety of anyone else.”
“The Wedding” follows Rami (Abbas), a young closeted Muslim man from Brooklyn who, while getting ready to marry his American fiancée (Nikohl Boosheri), is having affairs with other men.
The film — which is based in part on Abbas’ own experiences grappling with his sexuality in a Muslim household in Central New Jersey — has so far screened in Turkey, Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt in secret speakeasy locations by invitation only. Abbas also banned reporters and film critics, usually a hot commodity at any movie premiere, from attending.
In fact, no cell phones were allowed anywhere near the venues, for fear someone might take a picture and accidentally divulge the theater’s location. Attendees were also required to sign non-disclosure forms and submit to an I.D. check (“to ensure that no one would talk about the screenings or where they were”) before seeing the film.
Finally, once the movie started, there was no leaving the theater until the credit scene.
“We had to make it as safe as possible to allow people to come without a sense of fear,” Abbas said.
LGBTQ people have faced intense discrimination across the Middle East over the years. In January, police arrested 10 people in Alexandria, Egypt, accusing them of “debauchery,” according to Human Rights Watch. The arrests were just the latest in a major crackdown on LGBT people, which was triggered after rainbow flags were waved at a rock concert outside Cairo last year.
In fact, all 13 countries in which being gay or bisexual is punishable by death are either Arab or Muslim, according to a 2016 study published by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. The list includes Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Mauritania, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, UAE, parts of Nigeria, parts of Somalia, parts of Syria and parts of Iraq.
The idea for the film, Abbas said, came after watching Iranian-American actress Nikohl Boosheri during a screening of “The Persian Connection” at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016, where he worked as a staffer.
“I was like, ‘I’m going to write a movie and she’ll be in it,'” he recalled thinking. “After that, I would wake up at 6 a.m., write for a couple of hours and do my shift at the festival, catch a movie and then write again. It took me a week to finish.”
Last year Abbas made a splash at the Berlin Film Festival when he announced the launch of his Egypt-based ArabQ Films, the first-ever Arab production company whose projects require either the director or lead producer to be LGBTQ.
Mirroring his movie plot in many ways, Abbas’ own parents are still unaware of their son’s success. He says he hasn’t told them about his movie.
“They’re very against homosexuality and very against sex before marriage,” Abbas said. “It’s just like the movie where you learn to live somewhat a double life in a way.”
“They don’t know about any of the press I’ve done, which I find very sad,” he added. “I’d love to share this with them but they’re very religious.”
Hopefully they won’t Google him anytime soon.
“The Wedding” screens at New York’s Cinema Village from December 14-20.