Jeffrey Walker on diversity and directing Ali’s Wedding

The director of upcoming film, Ali’s Wedding, talks about growing up a child-actor, and making Australia’s first Muslim rom-com.

This piece is from our continuing coverage of Sydney Film Festival over the next month. Check out the rest of the content here

Firsts are always an important milestone. Making his feature film directorial debut, Jeffrey Walker also faced the challenge of creating Australia’s first Muslim romantic comedy.

Ali’s Wedding tells the story of co-writer and lead actor, Osamah Sami, whose arranged marriage fell apart after two hours. Under pressure from his Muslim immigrant family to practice medicine and be placed in an arranged marriage, Ali struggles with the all-too-familiar desire to make his family happy, while also staying true to himself.

Though Walker was directing a tale about family drama in a Muslim community, he found the universal elements shone through and made his task easier. “We wanted it to be far-reaching, we wanted it to be something that would show the qualities we all have in common,” he says.

“We focused on family pressure and love and trying to sort yourself out as a young person in terms of what you’re going to study and how you’ll fit in to your community … you don’t uniquely have to come from a specific background to appreciate the story.”

Though the film is billed as a rom-com, Walker is confident that audiences can engage on a deeper level and “there’s a little more to it than that.”

While the film was always geared towards a wide audience, Walker admits that the movie is an important stride for on-screen diversity.

“Any opportunity that I can work on anything that speaks to a greater understanding of culture, diversity, identity and things that are ultimately very personal stories but able to transcend, that’s where I’m happiest,” he says.

Growing up as a child actor from age seven, Walker is uniquely able to comment on the changes in the Australia media industry. He is confident the stories that are told will only get better from here in depicting the country’s diversity.

Walker’s priority was to translate Sami’s vision onto the screen faithfully, especially in the unique situation where the lead actor is whom the story is also based around. He admits it’s incredibly unusual to find an actor able to write a screenplay, who has also had a life interesting enough to write about. “The authenticity that came from him helping me depict the story from the inside is something incredibly unique and special,” he says.

But making Australia’s first romantic comedy about a Muslim family is a big deal — one that Walker certainly doesn’t wish to shy away from. According to him, the film is a statement in a world where Pauline Hanson is in Parliament and Islamophobia is escalating. “We certainly didn’t set out to be extremely overt. It’s a political film without talking politics in anyone’s dialogue,” he adds.

Using humour, Walker and his team seek to expose an Australian audience to a community they may not have seen before; a community “who’ve effectively been demonised and feared wrongly for such a long period of time”.

“It was not the broad political film by any means, we certainly weren’t trying to make an exposé into this or that. It really was saying look at the similarities of the pressures of Osamah’s life and the joys and see how akin they are to your own,” he says.

Detailed research was paramount in portraying Sami’s culture accurately. Once he had that foundation, Walker “threw the research out the window” and focused on the personal and anecdotal experiences of Sami’s life. In a pivotal scene where Ali receives his university entrance scores and lies about his drastically low marks, the audience is able to connect with Ali’s fear of disappointing his family.

“I’d hope that anyone of any political persuasion would be able to see the humanity of this film and find something they can relate to. Ultimately it might just nudge the conversation into a more equal place.”