A smiling woman is at the centre of a large banquet hall. Her face is beaming as she swirls in a white wedding dress. Her large family surround her as the music plays and they celebrate their young daughter.
It’s a scene played out around the world. Except with one crucial difference – there is no groom in sight. Just one single bride.
It was this real-life scene that inspired director Fatima Mawas.
“It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” Mawas told SBS, recalling her invite to an Arab wedding in 2015 thrown by a Muslim family for their daughter with Down Syndrome.
“I thought: this is a story I want to tell.”
From September 13–15, the inaugural SBS Short Film Festival screens on SBS On Demand.
The result is Amar - a short film following the tensions between three generations of a female Arab clan. Layla’s mother and grandmother are desperate to see their closeted daughter married and subject her to a drill of suitors. Her sister Amar who has Down Syndrome, looks on starry-eyed, desperate for the bells-and-whistles of a traditional Arab wedding of her own. The status of both sisters, reflect the challenges of those whose identities bar them from acceptance in a culture centred around conformity to traditional marriage and family bonds.
Layla eventually agrees to help Amar date online, with the matriarchs conceding to hosting a wedding bash to celebrate her.
“I thought this strength here of this family, this love, this community, is what I want us as Muslims to be seeing and starting to create in our lives, and it’s what we never see. I’m so tired of the drug dealer, the terrorist, the sportswoman, the slam poet – all of these clichéd stereotypes.”
Mawas, a Melbourne-based filmmaker born in Western Sydney developed a taste for film after editing and gathering vox pops on a community project on Muslim women in the early 2000’s.
She was immediately entranced by the craft and became fuelled by a desire to see stories that would resonate with her Lebanese-Muslim family represented in the mainstream.
“It was the combination of being able to tell your own story and to be able to make something that myself, and my cousins and my family can really connect to and laugh with.”
A TAFE course followed, where Mawas learned the basics of filmmaking – followed by decade of knocking on doors to try and break into the Australian film industry.
For Mawas the small details of the film were crucial, from the heavy flower-patterned wool blankets in the bedroom, the leopard print prayer scarves and the Adidas that Layla sports - a quiet nod to her down-low queer status.
“I had this make-or-break rule that most of the cast and crew were going to come from a Muslim background or a diverse background …to translate that detail of authenticity that was going to be a private nod or wink to the audience.”
“I always like to drop little signs in my work to certain audiences that are missed by others – a hidden Morse code of a kind.”
Despite being demoralised by knock-backs, Mawas entered a competition, the SBS Short-Form Content Initiative on a lark and ended up being one of the handful chosen to make short films.
“I remember throwing in the application not even thinking I would be successful,” she said, citing the simple entry scheme that made it easy for industry outsiders to apply.
“I always had that feeling that it would be amazing if I could do this, but I never had the opportunity. I was always focused on paying the bills.”
Mawas credits the support she received from the all-female SBS scripted commissioning team – including SBS drama maestro Sue Masters and Nicole Coventry as vital.
“To not only be selected but also to work with people – who really understood where I was coming from and my weaknesses and helped strengthen that - it was very much a raising opportunity.”
Making the film was not without challenges, with the largely Muslim cast and crew mourning the Christchurch tragedy on the eve of production, and last minute scrambles with the script.
They were valuable lessons to take into the next project Mawas is hoping to develop - a Sufi sci-fi feature film, inspired by Black Panther style Afro futurism. The film is set in the future and features a time-travelling Muslim woman grappling with the Islamic concept of naseeb or destiny, and free will as she reviews her life choices.
“I feel like as a community what we don’t do is imagine our future.
“What will the mosque look like in the future. How are going to paying zakat in the future?” she muses.
It’s a wild concept, but something you can imagine Mawas’ creative brain furiously ticking away at reimagining.
From September 13–15, the inaugural SBS Short Film Festival will showcase short films from diverse and underrepresented Australian filmmakers, exclusively at SBS On Demand.