Lebanese helmer Assad Fouladkar’s “Halal Love (and Sex)” just received its North American premiere in Sundance, following a gala screening at the Dubai Intl. Film Festival in December. The film’s comedic take on issues of love and sex have a specific Middle Eastern flavor, addressing topics usually considered taboo, yet they’re also universal in addressing the eternal male-female divide. Fouladkar received multiple awards with his 2001 debut feature, “When Maryam Spoke Out,” and is the director of the hit Egyptian sitcom “A Man and Six Ladies” (Ragel W Sit Sitat).
How would you describe comedy in the Middle East?
Comedy is very related to culture. It’s so hard to find something funny when it’s related to a country you don’t know. For comedy, how it translates depends on the audience. Are they laughing at the film, or are they laughing at the religion, or laughing at the people? This is why I’ve been very nervous about the different reactions: will Arabs feel offended? And in the West, will they think they’re watching people doing something weird?
I feel my film is real, because I’m living in a place with real difficulties, real problems, and this is how we express ourselves in that place. It was a very tough script at the beginning. I was so free, I was just writing, and then when I started to realize that I’m going to direct this, and this is going to be a real film, this is when I felt, wow, you know, it could be a bit different. And sometimes some scenes could be understood differently. Sometimes I wish I did drama, which is much, much, easier than making comedies. Especially about this kind of issue.
There’s been a big gap between your last feature and this one. What have you been working on during this period?
It’s not that it took me a long time to get back to making another movie: it took me a long time to get this script done. Almost eight years. And then I had another script that also went to Sundance Lab, more than 10 years ago. I got an award from another festival for that script, but it’s still not produced. Hopefully now it’s time to do the other scripts.
We don’t have much of a film industry in Lebanon, so every time you’re starting from scratch. And no one is supporting the film industry, so you have to find other work as well. I worked in TV, I was also teaching, and this took a lot of my time. And then I went to Egypt and did TV work, which I’m still doing. And I enjoy this work.
Have you found room for creativity in your television work?
I was limited by the format, which is a sitcom. There were practically no Arab sitcoms before, at least no successful sitcoms before. Mine was very successful, and now we’ve finished the 10th season. It’s called “A Man and Six Ladies.” I got myself more into comedy with that sitcom, with the situations, the stories and the way people laugh. How they laugh, and why.
What would you say are your comic influences?
This is a cliche, but definitely Fellini. “Amarcord.” The Italian way is very close to the Middle Eastern way. With Fellini, you don’t feel there’s a difference between drama and comedy. I love laughing while watching a drama, and crying while watching a comedy. When it’s a black comedy, we don’t watch only to laugh: when we observe the characters, we laugh because of the ways they react to their problems. This is how Fellini was in his movies. We cannot simply place him as a comedian. He was just very real.
How did Germany’s Razor Films come on board for “Halal Love (and Sex)”?
The whole thing started seven, eight years ago. I had a Lebanese producer, and we decided this is the kind of film that will have international interest, so the first step was looking for a foreign producer. When Gerhard Meixner and Roman Paul from Razor got the script, the whole thing started to speed up; they made things possible. Razor was the right company to work with.
Were they with you on the shoot in Lebanon?
Oh, they were with me during the whole process. We went through script editing – it was very interesting for me to get the opinion of someone in the West, because I’m very involved in the whole issue, and I needed opinions from someone from a different country that what I’m doing is working, and what I’m doing is funny.
What are you hoping for from the Sundance audiences?
Sundance is kind of a dream for me. Having my film in Sundance is a big thing. Seriously. What am I looking for there? Getting to the audiences in the West, in America. It’s a totally different opinion in America, and I’m interested to see how it’s going to be received. I’m not thinking beyond this, other than the personal pleasure of being there.