My major discovery — though it may yet win the Audience Prize at Sundance in the World Dramatic Competition, is the new “Divorce, Italian Style”. Or as my friend Gary Meyer said, maybe it’s more like the great Norman Lear’s “Divorce, American Style”. “Divorce, Sharia Style” is actually entitled “Halal Love (and Sex)” and depicts four tragi-comic interconnected stories about devout Muslim men and women as they try to manage their love lives and desires without breaking any of their religion’s rules.
“Halal Love (and Sex)” is hilarious and eye-opening, culturally open and sharing, and God knows, we all need a good laugh about what we spend 90% of our mental life wishing for…good sex.
The film opens in an elementary school classroom as the teacher begins to explain to the young girls how babies are made.
In Beirut, Awatef is recruiting a second wife to help her satisfy her overly loving husband. The jealous Mokhtar needs to find his ex-wife another man to be able to marry her again, for the 4th time. Lubna, freshly divorced, can finally marry her true love, but on a short-term contract only. Everyone tries to live and love, by the rules of Islam.
This is a sophisticated, bourgeous comedy, somewhat French in character but most likely 100% Lebanese in its warm humor and its depiction of love and sex in civilized society today. Assad Fouadkar, the writer and director and the two Razor Film producers Roman Paul and Gerhard Meixner are all fully educated in the U.S. as well as their own respective countries of Lebanon, Australia and Germany and their understanding the meaning of cross-cultural brings special veritas to this comedy of manners.
Assad Fouladkar was born in Lebanon where he taught at the Lebanese American University before going to study filmmaking at Boston University. His thesis short, “God Have Mercy” was a finalist at the Student Academy Awards. Fouladkar’s debut feature, “When Maryam Spoke Out” won major awards worldwide and was selected as Lebanon’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. Recently he has also directed the sitcom “Ragel W Sit Sitat”.
He originally took the treatment of his idea to Locarno Film Festival’s Open Doors and while it attracted interest, no company came aboard definitively until the script was developed.
Roman Paul says, “We met Assad via the commissioning editor of ‘Wadjda’, Layaly Badr. Then we teamed up with Sundance to further develop the script.”
That development took place with the Sundance Institute’s own Paul Federbush who felt it merited his personal efforts outside of any Lab. Assad was already an alumnus of the Sundance Institute. Being head of the international labs however, Paul had the protection of a firewall between the lab and the festival, so its ultimate selection for this year’s festival was not a result of his involvement or the lab’s involvement. The film was accepted on its own merits. The Guardian gave it four out of five stars. Assad will be interviewed by Newsweek Magazine; the BBC has taken note of the film and U.K. is now awakening to the film’s attractive merits. And I was not alone in my surprise at encountering such a fun film here in Sundance; I have heard many others buzzing about it too.
Producers Roman Paul and Gerhard Meixner have been focused on international feature film production for worldwide distribution since forming Razor Film Produktion in 2002. Their movies have premiered and been awarded at major festivals all over the world. They have won two Golden Gloves and one Emmy, were nominated twice for an Academy Award and received the Bernd-Eichinger Award for Outstanding Achievements in Production at the German Film Awards in 2014. They have been codirectors of the International Productions Masterclass “Atelier Ludwigsburg-Paris” at Filmakademie Ludwigsburg and La Femis Paris. Roman Paul studied at the Goethe University in Frankfurt and in Paris, the U.S., and Japan. He holds a Masters Degree in Theater, Film and Media Studies and American and German Literature. He started his career in the film business as an assistant of acquisitions for the arthouse distributor Prokino in Munich which is, I think, where I met him one year at the Hof Film Festival. In 1999 he took over as head of international acquisitions at Senator Film Distribution in Berlin and Los Angeles. He is a member of the European and the German Film Academy and ACE (Atelier du Cinema Europeen) initiated by the late Claudie Cheval.
Gerhard Meixner originally trained in economics before working in marketing. He went on to study film production and media studies at the Hochschule fur Fernsehen and Film in Munich and at UCLA in Los Angeles. He worked for MGM/ United Artists. After graduating, he worked as a freelance story editor and script reader for various companies in film and TV. He began working as a producer for Senator Films in Berlin before setting up Razor Film. He too is a member of the German and European Film Academy.
Razor’s past films, the Uruguayan coproduction “Mr. Kaplan” 2014, the groundbreaking “Wadjda” 2012, the sleeper of TIFF 2012 “The Patience Stone” (coprod), “The Future” 2011, “Goodbye First Love” 2011 (coprod), “Womb” 2010 (coprod), “Paradise Now” 2005, the debut film they coproduced, “The Wind Journeys” by Cirro Guerro (current nominee for Oscar Award Best Foreign Language Film “Embrace of the Serpent”) 2009 prove that Roman and Gerhard have a sharp eye for talent and good material as well as the broad cross-cultural understanding which makes for international film successes.
“Halal Love” was not produced by Razor alone however. Sabbah Media is the Lebanese production company, a company established in the 1950s. Aside from producing they distribute for Dreamworks, Warner Bros., BBC and others and have two other media companies. Sadek and Ali Sabbah currently lead and manage the full line of the whole business, to preserve a leading market position and carry on their ancestors’ dear mission: honoring the past and promoting the future.
It is refreshing to see a comedy from the region and particularly one that bucks traditional stereotypes and depicts strong women in control of their own lives within their respective relationships.
“Halal Love (and Sex)” is edgy but it just skirts the far edge of propriety and never oversteps what is halacha or kosher. I think Americans and other citizens of the world will get great enjoyment out of these human stories and it will soften the hard edges of mistrust growing around religious factions today much to the rest of our collective distress. Laughter is the best medicine and this provides plenty of laughs.
Sundance 2016 – World Cinema Dramatic Competition
Director: Assad Fouladkar
Writer(s): Assad Fouladkar
Producer: Roman Paul, Gerhard Meixner, Sadek Sabbah
Starring: Darine Hamze, Rodrigue Sleiman, Mirna Moukarzel, Ali Sammoury, Zeinab Khadra, Hussein Mokadem, Fadia Abi Chahine