Two considerations need to exist side by side when discussing “The Wedding,” the debut feature of Egyptian-American multihyphenate Sam Abbas. One involves the film itself, a dull slice of Lower Manhattan mumblecore about a heterosexual New York couple fitfully planning their wedding until she discovers his gay dalliance. The other, getting the lion’s share of attention, is focused on Abbas’ company ArabQ Films, which apparently is incorporated in Egypt, but given its mission to produce queer-themed movies, can only operate virtually in the country’s increasingly authoritarian and state-sanctioned, virulently homophobic polity. How the company can function, and whether the films it produces can properly be categorized as Egyptian (doubtful), are questions that must be raised in tandem with any treatment of “The Wedding” itself, now on a tiny release in New York and unlikely to get much traction elsewhere.
The film’s lack of originality goes beyond its title as it tediously imitates fixed-camera observational indie dramas while privileging dialogue that plays like uninspired improvisation. Claiming influence from Asian art-house masters such as Tsai Ming-liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (but coming off like an unformed early period Joe Swanberg acolyte), Abbas uses a detached approach, keeping the camera at a middle distance that ensures his insipid characters remain charmless — for this sort of method to work there has to be something of interest on the other side of the lens. Instead, we get the story of Rami (Abbas himself) lounging with his fiancée Sara (Nikohl Boosheri) in or around their apartment on New York’s hipster Lower East Side. Lifeless scenes of them talking about making plans for their wedding cut to equally airless moments in which Rami and British artist Lee (Harry Aspinwall) clumsily flirt before making out.
Phone calls in Arabic with his traditional mother (Hend Ayoub, voice only) are the sole indication of Rami’s origins, though the word “Egypt” is never mentioned, and Sara’s Muslim background is made even more generic. Apart from hanging out in their apartment, on the steps of their tenement house, or in the neighborhood, we have no clue about their lives. Equally tepid chemistry exists between Rami and Lee, whose kissing sessions, already passionless, are rendered even more hum-drum by Abbas’ insistence on keeping the camera at several arms’ length from the actors.
The sole flare-up is when Sara looks at Rami’s cell phone and realizes he’s screwing around, leading her to call him a nasty epithet — not exactly the words of a hipster Manhattan couple, though the colorful language of intolerance can presumably rear its ugly head anywhere. It’s no more artificial than anything else here, including the production’s publicity-generating claim to be a film about Muslim attitudes towards homosexuality. While the camera’s rigidity and voyeuristic p.o.v. does create an atmosphere of alienation, it’s manifested via the apathy audiences feel toward what’s onscreen rather than the characters’ response to religious/family repression. The pressure Rami feels from his mother is hardly limited to Muslim households, no matter the location, though leading an openly queer life in Manhattan is considerably less fraught than doing so in Alexandria.
DP Shane Ainsworth uses a 16mm lens that reinforces the pallid indie aesthetic while adding very little else to the overall package: this is the sort of film where the camera is set up down a side hall while two characters hold a banal conversation in a doorway, offering nothing of particular interest for the eye to rest on. Abbas, also acting as editor, includes black screens as chapter stops between some scenes, further contributing to the distancing effect. At least the sound design is more developed.