Queering Film | HowlRound Theatre Commons

by NEW YORK DIGITAL NEWS


 

Nabra Nelson: Salam Aleykum. Welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. Kunafa and Shay discusses and analyzes contemporary and historical, Middle Eastern and North Africa, or MENA theatre from across the region.

Marina Johnson: I’m Marina.

Nabra Nelson: And I’m Nabra.

Marina Johnson: And we are your hosts.

Nabra Nelson: Our name Kunafa and Shay invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how, with complex and delicious sweets like Kunafa, and perfectly warm tea, or in Arabic, shay.

Marina Johnson: Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and sometimes to engage with our differences. In each country in the Arab world, you’ll find Kunafa made differently. In that way, we also lean into the diversity, complexity, and robust flavors of MENA Theatre. We bring our own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

Nabra Nelson: In our third season, we highlight queer MENA and SWANA or Southwest Asian North African theatremakers, and dive into the breadth of queerness present in their art.

Marina Johnson: Yalla. Grab your tea. The shay is just right.

Nabra Nelson: Film reaches a larger public than theatre, due to the way it’s produced and disseminated. In this way, it has a large and lasting cultural impact that we felt was important to discuss. The film and theatre field influence each other as they both contribute to culture change and performance methodologies.

We started the season by talking about representation in the US. This episode aims to continue that conversation about queer tropes that have existed in film, and the ways that our guests re-envision queerness taking place in film with two artists who do both film and theatre work.

Marina Johnson: Mike Mosallam is a producer, director, writer for theatre, film, and television. Through his production company, Mike Mosallam Productions, he and his team produced short films: Breaking Fast at the Conn Film Festival; Brothers, which is a twelve time jury and audience award winner. And they were both written and directed by Mike. Along with the award-winning short film Ubuntu, a co-production with the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

His featured film debut Breaking Fast, based on the short, had its Los Angeles premiere at Outfest Fusion and holds a 96 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. After playing more than seventy plus festivals worldwide and winning major awards, it was acquired for distribution by Vertical Entertainment and released on Hulu, Apple TV, iTunes, Amazon, and anywhere else you can buy or rent movies on demand.

He is the creator and co-executive producer of the critically acclaimed TLC series, All-American Muslim. Most recently, Mike was an executive creative consultant on season two of Hulu’s Ramy, episode nine. He’s a proud Muslim Lebanese American as well. Mike is represented by the Gersh Agency, Echo Lake Entertainment, and Granderson Des Rochers, LLP.

Nabra Nelson: Amin El Gamal was born during an earthquake in Palo Alto, California. His parents are both Egyptian immigrants. His mother came to the United States with her family at thirteen to escape political persecution, and his father immigrated to study electrical engineering at Stanford University.

He attended Palo Alto High School and then earned two BAs at Stanford University before progressing to the USC School of Dramatic Arts where he graduated with an MFA in acting in 2011. Shortly thereafter, El Gamal landed roles on the Newsroom, Shameless, and The Librarians.

In 2017, he played sinister fan favorite Cyclops on the Prison Break revival, which established him as the first openly queer Muslim actor to play a leading role on a TV show. With a recurring role on Good Trouble and notable appearances in the films Namour, Message from the King, and the indies First Love, Spring Bloom, and Breaking Fast.

Marina Johnson: Amazing. Thank you both so much for being here with us today. This is special because we, I think, love film work that you both do. But also personally, I love work that I’ve seen you make in the theatre too. So it feels really wonderful to get to be in this space with both of you.

Mike Mosallam: Well, thank you for having us.

Amin El Gamal: Yeah, thank you. I’m a big fan of the podcast, so I’m really moved.

Marina Johnson: Thanks. We’re always grateful that we get to have these kinds of conversations because we know that there are these conversations happening in different pockets and circles, so we’re always really happy to put them all together.

If it’s okay, so we have already introduced you by your bios, but if you could tell us a little bit about what each of you are working on right now, it always feels great to start with knowing what current projects are, or things that might be happening in the near future.

Mike Mosallam: Amin, please?

Amin El Gamal: I have ventured into film producing, so I’m about to go into production for a short film that is called “Unmasking.” And it’s about the intersection of gender and neurodivergence written by a friend of mine, Audrey Hanna, and directed by a Sundance winner who is trans and neurodivergent named Aubree Bernier-Clarke. So I’m very excited about that.

And I just started working on a feature film with Palestinian writer Randa Jarrar, which I’m extremely excited about. So we’re applying to all these things. Yeah, it’s so queer, it’s so MENA, it’s so messy and fabulous. And it’s in very early stages, but I’m very excited about it.

And theatre wise, I’m working on a play with Mona Mansour, a production of a play called We Swim, We Talk, We Go to War. That’s going to be a small production in Massachusetts in a couple weeks, which I’m really excited about as well.

Marina Johnson: Amazing. My Palestinian book club just read a Map of Home by Randa Jarrar, so I’m feeling very excited there too.

Amin El Gamal: It’s so good. She’s so brilliant. I love her so much. I hope that you don’t move–Indie filmmaking is such a crap shoot, and it takes so long, so we don’t know what will happen, but I’m just really honored that she trusts me in the producer realm, and I’m just excited that this work exists.

Mike Mosallam: I mean, I’m so happy to know about all those things. I mean because in any which way that I can lend or offer any kind of support to them, I’m in. Those all sound phenomenal.

Amin El Gamal: I will 100 percent take you up on that. As you know, producing an independent film is a journey.

Mike Mosallam: Yeah, it certainly is. But I mean, every one of those projects you mentioned feels like they are necessary and important, and also everyone involved feels like a blast. So why wouldn’t we want to have a party?

Amin El Gamal: Yes, more parties.

Mike Mosallam: That’s amazing. Yes, yes. I’m working on a couple of different things in the film side. On the TV side, we’re still sort of in early discussions around a TV fantasy around what Breaking Fast looks like as a TV series. So there’s some discussions happening there.

And there are two feature films, one of which is called the Untitled Muslim Chubby–Chubby Muslim Project. That is a script that I wrote that is actually on the blacklist that I’m hoping to make soon. And there’s a biopic about the first Muslim NFL football coach that I’m hoping to make.

He’s an incredible guy, and it’s sad. I mean, I think the saddest thing is when we fantasize about who might play him, the pool of Muslim Lebanese specific kind of actor availability is so small. But also at the same time, it’s such a great opportunity to really dig in and discover talent that doesn’t always get that kind of opportunity. So I think it could be a really fun and cool adventure.

And then on the theatre side, I have gratefully stumbled into producing. And so there’s two shows on Broadway that I’m currently producing, both nominated for Tony Awards, that I’m excited about. And there’s a couple of projects for next season that we’re eyeing to join the producing team of. So yeah, there’s good stuff on the horizon, inshallah.

Nabra Nelson: Inshallah. And you can’t just say that without telling us what the names of those plays are, please.

Mike Mosallam: Oh, yeah. I’m on the producing team of Parade starring Ben Platt [Marina’s note: for which he won a Tony after this episode was recorded]. And on A Doll’s House, starting Jessica Chastain. Both nominated for Best Revival of a Musical and Play respectively. And yeah, it’s been a ride. It’s been super fun.

It’s been a great learning experience too. I mean, the theatre is my first love. The musical theatre is my all-time absolute first love. But I’ve just been so immersed in the film and TV world for so long, that it’s great to sort of revisit and just sort be in and around that world that I love. So it’s been really fun.

Marina Johnson: Definitely. I mean, yeah, just to second what you said, Mike. I’m just excited these projects are all existing and also really excited to know more of this producer side of both of you. Because we don’t actually get to talk much about producing on the podcast in general.

Mike Mosallam: Understandably so. It’s the most nebulous title in the world. It could mean if you said you were a producer, I mean most people would be like, “Oh, cool.” And then actually not know what that means because most time, producers don’t know what that means. So it’s understandable because it really doesn’t have a finite path.

Amin El Gamal: Yeah. It encompasses a lot of things. I mean, the title can mean a bunch of different things. Of course, it could be a financial contribution, it could be a cast attachment. It could be the person on the ground putting everything together. It could be creative producing, line producing. But I’m happy to talk about it as well.

Nabra Nelson: I actually do want to talk about it just briefly. More from y’all’s perspectives, what interests you about producing? Or how’d you get into that? And why are you doing more of that at this point in your career?

Amin El Gamal: I’m newer to it than Mike. But I think for me, I’ve never been satisfied by just, I’ve never just been happy to be there as an actor, I always wanted to give more input. And I had some experiences where I was on a TV show and my scene wasn’t really working and I had an idea to make it work and the director just wouldn’t. I’d been on the show for a year and the director just wouldn’t listen to me. It was as if I didn’t say anything.

So I was like, even when it comes to my own character on a show, problem solving my own scene, I feel like I don’t have that much agency. And I think maybe for some actors that is okay, and they’re just really excited to be there, and kind of eager to please. But for me, I was like, “I want more agency in terms of what stories are being told, how they’re being told.”

I have a problem solving brain. I have a story-dramaturgy brain, and I like to lend that to what I’m working on. And it’s not always appropriate to do exclusively as an actor. So I think primarily it’s a talent I have that it hasn’t really been used and that I’m eager to use and is fun and satisfying for me.

And in terms of being an actor, you just have so little agency even when you are working, that I feel like it’s a nice antidote to that for me. Yeah, it’s been really exciting and really fun. And I think eventually I’ll produce stuff that I’m in, but I’m also really excited to produce things that I’m not in.

It’s not necessarily about more work for me as an actor, but I think it could ultimately come up to that. And I’ve just been really inspired by Mike. And I’ve been inspired to start up my own production company and I’m slowly kind of doing that. But I’m eager to hear Mike’s answer. Because he is the real, he’s a much more accomplished at this than I am.

Mike Mosallam: First of all, you’re so nice. And second of all, no. But I think it’s a very similar answer. I mean, I think at a certain point, I, many, many, many years ago also was started out sort of as an actor. And quickly just learned about myself that I was more interested in the bigger picture than the sort of one specific job that I had.

I think it’s because I’m a control freak and also I probably have undiagnosed ADHD. So it was just easier to focus on multiple things than just one singular thing. That was initially how I got into directing. And I love directing and I want to continue to direct a ton. And my favorite part of directing is working with actors, especially when those actors are named Amin.

But I think similarly for producing, for me, it was really just wanting to cultivate and spearhead stories that were both interesting and relatable to me, and at the same time didn’t really find their way into the world for a million different reasons. Whether it was because of the system that we live in. Or because I think culturally there are some limitations to the dreams that we have and where the world might want us or see us.

And I think I’ve been given a lot of really great, privileged opportunity to work in spaces where I am sort of one of a kind. And to sort of continue to open that up and bring more folk in and be a part of movements. And there are multiple, multiple amazing people who are working tirelessly every day to bring as many brown folk in to these spaces and God bless them all.

But that was the big impetus for me. God knows the Arab in me hates asking anyone for money. It’s not because that’s the fun part of the job, but I think the desire to get stories out into the world that deserve to be there, is the biggest driver.

Marina Johnson: Yeah. Well, I mean there’s so much there and I hope that we’ll come back to certain pieces of this as we go. But for stories that want to exist in the world, I would love to start with Breaking Fast, if that’s okay.

So your film Breaking Fast is a favorite of mine. And I’m curious, I think whenever I first heard about it, I think a friend from Michigan was like, “Hey, have you heard about this queer Ramadan movie?” I was like, “No.” And so I was like, “I must watch this.” And then I’ve watched it, of course, many times since.

But I found it very moving and beautiful, but something that I just hadn’t seen before, and with a lot of people that I recognized from theatre work like Haaz Sleiman, whom I had recognized from Food and Fadwa at the time. And so I’m just curious about how that idea for the movie came to you? And then how you chose to develop it? And then also why film specifically there? 

I am as proud as I am gay, I am proudly Muslim. And those things are not diametrically opposed. They work hand in hand. I have said often being gay has made me a better Muslim. And I think I have never wavered on that, despite there being a fair amount of society who would like me to waver.

Mike Mosallam: Thank you. Thank you a million times. Thank you for those very, very generous words. I never thought, never wanted to write, I was never—and I even still to this day, despite writing scripts and cultivating stories all the time, still feel somewhat a little bit of an imposter to say that I’m a writer or that I have written a screenplay or whatever.

But there was a show on the air at the time on HBO called Looking. That show was a sort of a Sex in the City meets Queer Eye set in San Francisco, but sort of less yucky, yucky, joke, joke, joke. And much more like let’s do a subtle, sophisticated, deep dive into the intersectionality of being queer and also the polylithic approach to what being a queer man means.

And I was very in love with the show because the only other show that I had seen like it, which wasn’t really like it was Queer as Folk, which sort of highlighted a section of the community that is a space I never belonged in. I never felt like that was my space. And I really did feel like Looking did a good job of showing me that there are other gay and queer men who believed in the things that I believed in or looked like, whatever.

However, as you can imagine, those men definitely didn’t look like me. They were not swarthy. So anyway, all that to say the creator of Looking is a guy named Michael Lannan. He and I were working on the same studio film lots, had sort of forged a friendship. And I had asked him to coffee and we were just chatting over coffee and he was like, “Who best in film and TV represents your experience?”

I literally could not think of anyone because I am as proud as I am gay, I am proudly Muslim. And those things are not diametrically opposed. They work hand in hand. I have said often being gay has made me a better Muslim. And I think I have never wavered on that, despite there being a fair amount of society who would like me to waver. Those things have never wavered. And he was like, “You should write it.” And I was like, “No, no, I would never. No, not me.”

And then I went home and I could not stop thinking about it. And I started writing this story, the screenplay. And I remember I was so novice that I was writing in Word, I didn’t even know what Final Draft was. I was writing in Word and I would write the character’s name and a colon and then the line. Just like I was so used to reading plays in that formatting.

And I gave it to my best friend and I was like, “I don’t know, what do you think?” Whatever. And she was like, “We need to make this immediately.” And it was this sort of first imagination of what Breaking Fast the short was. And there was a producer on Looking who I had also become friendly with. And I had said to him, “Hey, just wondering what your opinion of this is. No pressure, just curious.”

And we met a few weeks later and he was like, “When are we making this? We have to.” And his name is Seth and he has been my producing partner since. And he’s a good friend of Amin’s as well. And I think it was his legitimacy of being a producer on a TV show that really gave me the confidence to say, “All right, let’s sort of see where this goes.”

And we had spent some time developing the story. And he taught me what Final Draft was and gave me some proper formatting so I didn’t look like an absolute idiot. And then the short happened, the short was an incredible labor of love. A lot of amazing people came together to make that short and we were blessed for it to go to Cannes.

And then from there, we had gotten a lot of interest in terms of what happens next. And I had not even thought about, we had not developed the short to be considered for a feature. It was just kind of going to live in a little box. And on the plane home from Cannes, I had started outlining what the feature would look like.

And in the short, it was the first night of Ramadan, it’s essentially the story of how Mo and Kal meet and go on their first date. Unbeknownst to them, it’s a date. And then we had this great device of Ramadan that it lasts thirty days. And it became a series of dates over the month of Ramadan and they got to break fast together.

And dates also had the double entendre of dates, and we eat dates when we break our fast. And there was all these sort of little punny things happening. And the other thing that I really loved is that I very seldom get to watch queer content that isn’t sexually motivated, or isn’t driven by people’s physical carnal desires for one another.

And I loved that the chasteness of Ramadan allowed these two men to get to know one another in kind of a different way, in a way that I hadn’t normally seen. And so we made the feature and it was super fun. And it was a short, it was a feature. Now God willing, inshallah, will be a TV show someday in some iteration. And hopefully will star Amin El Gamal in the role of Sam because no one else in my heart or mind could ever play that role.

Yeah, that was that. I’ll say to your point about theatre actors, I said earlier how much my favorite part of the job of directing is working with actors. And it’s no coincidence that the people that I love working with are theatre actors, because there’s a nimbleness, there’s the ability to speak a certain vernacular. There’s ability to sort of mind through a scene in a way that is just so fun.

And I mean, I have many, many anecdotes and fun stories about Amin on set. And his ability to sort of take a nibble of an improv moment and just turn it into an entire meal. And so I don’t know if I answered the question, but that’s where I’ll stop.

Marina Johnson: You absolutely did. And also this, I don’t know, that might be just the time that I can note this, that Nabra and I were in Michigan for MENATMA, and we got to watch part of a rehearsal where you were working on Heather Raffo’s Noura.

But just seeing the way that you worked with actors in the room, I mean, you can tell as you’re working with actors, that you are asking them to bring their whole selves and this nimbleness, this really, I think dramaturgical brain, as Amin was talking about, to the table. It was just such a beautiful way of seeing you work with folks. And seeing that just made, I think both of our hearts really full.

Mike Mosallam: Oh, thank you.

Nabra Nelson: It was such a treat. It was such a treat to watch you work.

Mike Mosallam: Oh, thank you so much.

Nabra Nelson: And especially since you don’t usually get to see directors working, so it really was a lovely treat.

Mike Mosallam: I just have to say, in the same breath of those beautiful words that you’re saying, thank you, is that what a gift for me to have Heather Raffo on the other end of that. Who is an icon in her own way and is, I often say the Meryl Streep of the Arab world. But I get to sort of mind through scenes with Heather like, “Sure, sign me up any day.” She’s perfect. I love working with her.

Nabra Nelson: We also love Heather. We’ve talked about her work on this podcast before. And speaking of incredible actors that are really the heart of a piece, Amin, when did you get involved with Breaking Fast? And what was your experience like acting in the film and its reception?

Amin El Gamal: I had crossed paths with Mike a few times. I had started a sort of monthly support group for LGBT Muslims and people who had Muslim background, and we’d crossed paths in that context. We had some mutual friends. And then also I remember being at a protest early Trump era and running into you and Sarah, who was the producer on Breaking Fast.

Mike Mosallam: It was at the airport, wasn’t it at LAX?

Amin El Gamal: No, I think this one was at some federal building in downtown.

Mike Mosallam: You’re so right. Yes, correct.

Best way to connect with other queer Muslims seems to be hold a giant sign that says “Queer Muslim,” and then the community will come.

Amin El Gamal: And I was holding this big sign and it was like, “Queer Muslim here,” or something like that. And Mike was like, “Me too.”

Nabra Nelson: So best way to connect with other queer Muslims seems to be hold a giant sign that says “Queer Muslim,” and then the community will come.

Mike Mosallam: Yeah.

Amin El Gamal: Exactly. And I think my first introduction to the project, I think our mutual friend Ramy had suggested me for reading, that I couldn’t do of the script years ago, years before. Then I was friends with Seth, so I was familiar with, I’d read the script a few times. And then I auditioned because I hadn’t done a lot of comedy.

So it was unclear that I could be funny, which I found out later. I didn’t realize. If I knew that that was a concern, I probably would’ve been so freaked out at the audition. Nothing is less funny than someone trying to be funny or afraid that they’re not funny.

Mike Mosallam: And trust me, I sat through some auditions of people trying to be funny and it did not go well.

Amin El Gamal: I don’t think that would be the right approach to this character, though. As funny as he is, and as funny as the writing is, if you approach him that way, then it’s not going to work, I think.

Yeah. So that’s how I got involved. And then some weeks had passed, and then I found out that I was being offered the part, and I was very excited. I’ve never, still have not seen a movie like this even broadly about the intersection of a SWANA identity and queerness with such joy. Let alone Muslim, a Muslim identity, and let alone a movie that is not necessarily about those two things in conflict. So I felt very lucky.

Mike Mosallam: If my memory serves, Amin was the first Sam we saw, and I pushed for him to be the last. I knew immediately he was the one. And our casting director was like, “Absolutely. He’s fantastic. For posterity, you should see a few more.” But truly, truly, if they would’ve let me, I would’ve offered him the job right then and there.

Frankly, the film is only what it is because he’s graced us with it. I mean, he is just the, we can talk about his talent endlessly. But I think also the way he as a human being shows up, shows up to set, shows up as a friend, shows up as a colleague, is just unparalleled. So I hope the rest of the world gets to experience that from you.

Amin El Gamal: Mike, you’re too generous and I don’t know how to receive compliments, but thank you. I also will say a lot of credit is due to your direction and the script that you wrote. You have a very strong sense of story and a very clear vision and the gift of being able to communicate the vision.

And to also know how to sort of be an actor whisperer and just tell us what we need to hear to achieve what will make the scene work. And that’s a rare talent. So yes, it’s going to be a compliment for you.

Mike Mosallam: Thank you.

Amin El Gamal: And I’ll have the last compliment because that’s very Arab.

Mike Mosallam: No, I’ll pay the bill.

Nabra Nelson: We’ll be here all night if we let you two just pour love upon each other. It’s lovely. It’s so lovely to hear.

And I also want to pile on, just by referencing back to how you were sharing, Mike, that this script really came from necessity and urgency in the representation. And I think I wish that all art came from that. That’s where the most beautiful, in my opinion, art comes from—when you need to tell this story that you’re not seeing this story told.

And regardless of whether you want to write it or not, it’s going to happen. And that kind of brings me to this question of representation in film. Of course, a lot of what we talk about on this podcast is representation. But in this particular episode, thinking about film, Marina, and I wanted to do this episode specifically because we noticed that film really in its breadth, is so culture changing.

It has so much to do with our culture change. So many people consume, so many more people can consume film and TV than theatre in general. And so why is, in your two opinions, why is film so important in changing the culture around queerness and MENA identities nationally and internationally?

Mike Mosallam: Yeah, I mean think for me, I think it’s just the accessibility. The accessibility of the medium to reach as far out into the horizon as it does. I mean, I think even more, I mean I know we were talking about theatre earlier, but I think especially more than theatre, digital content, film, and TV allows for just so many more eyeballs.

And I know how overused the expression is, but it’s profound how representation matters. It’s profound what it does to a person’s psyche to see themselves reflected back, or to see their culture, or their identity in some fashion reflected back. And I also think it’s why, when marginalized groups have so few opportunities to see it, we’re so protective of the ones that we have.

So I think there’s amazing discussions around. And the show Ramy, which I’ve worked on, and Ramy (Youssef) is a friend of mine. And I think about the necessary discourse and discussion around that show is so vital, but it’s also so important because what it should be saying is the door is open, go write your own, right? This is not an exercise to represent the whole. It’s an opportunity for you to know that your story also matters and your story deserves to be told.

One of the very first TV projects I ever did was I created a TV show on TLC called All-American Muslim. It was a docu-series set in Dearborn, Michigan. Five families of varying degrees of religiosity. And obviously we were not by any means having the kinds of sophisticated and nuanced conversations that we’re having now, that we were having ten years ago. But those were all Lebanese Shia families from Dearborn, Michigan.

They were all representing one version of the story, but in reality, they were really representing me. I am Lebanese Shia from Dearborn, Michigan. And it’s not an opportunity to say, “This show represents all of the American Muslim experience.” More so similarly to Ramy, it was an opportunity to say, “The door is open.” What’s your American Muslim story? What’s your version of this story that feels more representative of what it looks like for you to see yourself reflected back?

And I think there’s this discussion around what the industry needs to do, but also I think culturally what we need to do to own our own stories. And not expect that the stories that exist will represent us in exactly how we want them. But also to say, “Fine, I’m going to tell my own.”

Amin El Gamal: Yeah, I think that’s really important because even the discourse around Breaking Fast, we had so many people come up to us and tell us how much this movie means to them and how much it’s changed their lives. All kinds of people. Anytime I go to any gay space, I might be at a gay rave, someone will pull me aside to tell me how much they love Breaking Fast. And most of them are not Muslim, some of them are not even POC.

So it’s had a profound effect. And we saw it. I mean, we were lucky enough to have a few screenings before the shutdown. And there was one particularly powerful one in the LA premiere. And people, there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience. It was very profound. At the same time, I’ve gotten lots of unsolicited criticism of the movie because it didn’t match a particular person’s Muslim experience, or it was too soft on the same, or this and that.

All valid. But also I’m like, “Okay, well then make that movie.” Exactly what Mike is saying. It’s a very charged intersection of identity for a lot of people. A lot of people are used to being the only one and they have ownership of their experience. But unless we support each other telling our stories our own way, we’re never going to go anywhere. You know what I mean?

I think it’s very common for MENA/SWANA folk to bemoan the lack of representation and then not encourage their kids to go into the arts or into media. And go boycott Ramy or whatever shows they’re actually trying to do what they can because it doesn’t match exactly their values. And then we don’t really go anywhere as a community.

I think it’s really important, even if we have issues artistically or critically, or we find something there might be something problematic or it doesn’t match with our experiences that we do show up, obviously within reason. Show up for each other and support each other and maybe keep our criticism, unless it’s solicited, or take that and learn from it to make our own thing.

Mike Mosallam: And I really believe if you are an armchair critic, if you have criticism of work, and are not putting yourself in a position to put your own vulnerabilities out there, kind of sit down, step back.

Amin El Gamal: It’s a therapy thing. It’s something you’re going to discuss offline without the creatives, with your friends or with your therapists because there’s clearly stuff that you’re being triggered and need to work out. Or be inspired to make your own thing.

I think I understand where that discourse comes from, and I probably engaged in it when I was younger. But I think to a certain extent, we have no right to complain about things if we’re not supporting each other, even if we appear imperfectly.

Mike Mosallam: And it’s also, I don’t know, I mean if you agree with this, but I also have this, I experienced this with Miss Marvel and the criticism. Forget the show, forget the SWANA representation, or that part, forget that for a second, just the filmmaking of, storytelling of, that side. People wanted to be really critical.

And I found myself saying to a lot of brown folk, “Those conversations we’re only having with each other. You’re not telling any white people any of that stuff. You’re supporting it. You’re saying you love it, you’re saying it’s perfect, you need it, you cried, move on.” Because we can keep that shit in the family, but don’t tell anybody else because we got to support everything.

Nabra Nelson: Yeah. And we’ve actually talked about that before in previous episodes. That this tension between wanting to support other SWANA and MENA creators and art, while having our own criticisms. And how we keep ourselves accountable within our community, but still uplift. Uplift the need for, if nothing else, the need for more representation.

Because then there isn’t the responsibility of being the queer MENA film. If there is simply more, not to mention all of these wonderful artists who are creating their work that should be supported regardless. So I love the way that you talked about that balance of keeping ourselves accountable, continuing to have a critical lens as a community, but also being thoughtful about how we’re promoting and rising the tide for all boats.

Amin El Gamal: Yeah, I think it’s an important balance. I don’t think we should turn off the critical lens, of course, but it’s about how do you channel that? Where do you put that in a constructive way, I think.

Marina Johnson: Yeah. And I appreciate that you’re talking about, you can have the criticism, but we don’t want to flatten representation. The representation that you’re creating is not supposed to represent every single person. Because these intersectional identities are actually quite capacious and large, and we don’t want to just make them one thing.

Mike Mosallam: Yeah, 100%. Yes, exactly. And I think we also, in a way, we dumb ourselves down by projecting an idea that we are a monolith, right? By saying, “No, that’s not us. This is us,” as though we are not all things, doesn’t help anybody.

I feel like it’s so ingrained in us. If we don’t like Walter White, we have Tim the Tool Man Taylor. There’s so much variety of white man and what space he can live in and take up on TV, that we get the one shot and it has to represent the whole. And it’s just for me, not the way to think about it.

Amin El Gamal: Yeah. It’s the way that an oppressive system wants to tokenize people. And if we internalize that same, if we internalize that position ourselves, then we’re screwed. If we start seeing ourselves as the one that represents everything, which is a kind of dodgy diversity strategy that we’ve seen that doesn’t really work. But if we start treating ourselves that way, then we’re in trouble, I think.

Marina Johnson: Yeah. Well, and I think I love the way that you’re both gesturing towards moving them away from scarcity mindset. We can’t have that. And I wonder, before we started recording the episode, Mike, you mentioned the representational risks in theatre versus film. And I wonder if this is a time that we could open up that conversation?

Mike Mosallam: Yeah. I was in my head about it because I was like, “What do I actually mean?” And I think what I mean is that film and TV just as a business are so expensive. Just it is so much money to actually produce something and let alone get it to air.

Whereas if I write some crazy, fun story scripts, I can pull my three best friends and this guy and that person and whatever, and go to a park and just start performing it. And the theatre can live in such a different way that can be for commercial purposes, for art, for storytelling. For a million different things that in a way, I don’t think that the mediums of film and TV can just from a business.

So I think that’s what I meant, is that it’s easier to explore or take greater storytelling risk. I think if I created a Breaking Fast series that was vignettes of a play. Think of the way Tyler Perry used to do plays of his experience. I think it would find an audience so far easier than getting a distributor to put it on a network and care about the ratings and worry about what ads we’re going to sell alongside it.

I think there’s just a more tenable way to produce theatre if you’re not worrying about the business structure. Than it is because there is only a business structure when it comes to film and TV. Does that make sense?

Nabra Nelson: Absolutely, absolutely. And in that same realm, what do you see as the difference between how the two industries, film and theatre, treat queer SWANA artists and art differently?

Mike Mosallam: Similarly to what I just said, I would say that I am in far less shock when I have a queer, intersectional SWANA lead protagonist in a play, than when I turn on the TV and that person is leading a series or a film.

Now, there are exceptions, right? Sort Of on HBO is a really good exception to that rule. But I would say that it would surprise me more. And I would ask the question, “Wow, how did that get to air?” Before I would ask the question, “Who produced that play?”

Nabra Nelson: And, Amin, from your perspective as an actor or in your other spaces of artistic expression, have you found the way that you go through each of these industries having a different quality or feeling in your experience?

Amin El Gamal: I don’t think so.

Nabra Nelson: That’s exciting.

Amin El Gamal: I think they’re equally bad.

Nabra Nelson: Oh no, they’re equally bad. I was hoping they were equally good.

Amin El Gamal: I think they’re equally bad and I’ve come across the same issues in both. If we’re talking about professional theatre as opposed to me activating a space, like Mike was saying, in some cases I feel like I’m even more pigeonholed in theatre.

I think in both cases, I always end up being in front of usually a group of white people trying to assess how ethnic I am and how much clout I can give their theatre. Or if I’m too light skinned. I find that I’m in that position in both theatre and TV and film a lot of times.

And it’s a humiliating position to be in, where a bunch of white people are assessing your ethnicity and your status as a person of color. While they don’t allow you to, they’re not open to seeing you in roles that are reserved for white people and you’re still other enough to be put into these kind of terrorists related or stereotypical stories.

So I want to believe that theatre is better, but I don’t really think it is. If you look at regional theatres and what they’re putting out, that tends to be the centralized thing. I don’t really see that much difference in the last ten years, and I think there’s more diversity in TV and film in terms of that, flatly.

Mike Mosallam: Fascinating.

Nabra Nelson: It’s also interesting to analyze that. To hear from the acting perspective as well as from this backstage directing, producorial perspective, since Mike was bringing in the risk involved, especially financial risk. And what actually gets a story to the point of auditions, of bring in an audience.

While you’re constantly on the audition circuit and the onstage or on film part of that process. So it’s so interesting to get both perspectives. That perhaps, Mike, you’ve seen more come to that point, versus what you’re getting, that you’re experiencing yourself is still so caught up in these systemic forms of non-representation essentially.

Amin El Gamal: I think it’s easy to look and be like, “Oh, Ramy exists. Oh, English just won the Pulitzer Prize.” Those two things have done nothing for me as an actor. I’ve had never worked on Ramy. I have nothing to do with Ramy. I’ve never auditioned for English, never really crossed paths with that project.

And not that every one project serves every actor of that thing. But it doesn’t necessarily feel like, I think for me, the true representation is sort of stuff like Breaking Fast. Where it’s like these are the backgrounds of the characters, but it’s not going to be about that necessarily.

And eventually Muslim characters like Muslims exist in America, for instance, are just in normal jobs living their lives. And there can be this background, this texture to who they are, and their background, but they’re actually exploring other human issues that are not identity. It’d be great not to have conversations like this, that would be very liberating for me as an artist.

Mike Mosallam: But you bring up a really good point that I think even in all that I was describing, I wasn’t really thinking. Is that you are 100 percent right that the commercial theatre world, the space that takes less risk than La Mama, or some spaces that will allow you to spread your wings, is far more leaning to the film and television sort of commerciality business plan of it all.

So from that perspective, there is probably, and you are correct, far less opportunity to have that kind of representation. Then what I see is the sort of secondary character in every tenth show in film and TV. That’s sort of what I was thinking of, but you are totally right.

I just think that the wealth of theatre, meaning that regardless of commerciality, there’s like one hundred things, plays happening at any one time in a million different formations. Versus six things getting green lit. But from how you described it, I totally agree with you.

Amin El Gamal: Totally. No, you’re completely right. And then it becomes a matter of scale. So then you’re like, “How many people are seeing these plays?” Theatre is ephemeral, film is commodified. There’s all these distribution channels. So you can’t really measure what the impact is on an audience member really. I’m sure it sort of varies.

I think an interesting side note where these two things kind of converge, is given COVID and the rise in sophistication of filming theatre. In Drowning Cairo, a show I did at Golden Thread last year in San Francisco, there was a, I guess I don’t know what they called it, pay-per-view, virtual version streaming. And a remarkable number of people across the country and even the world saw it.

I heard in Egypt there were queer, kind of underground screenings in people’s homes and stuff. I’ve heard at least three or four of these, which is just incredible. And then that’s theatre. So I don’t know. And it was not really, no one would call the taped version of that a film in any way. It was like two cameras maybe. It was not necessarily great quality.

But I think if we talk about reach, then there’s this kind of hybrid model that can kind of do a bit of both. This is an aside, has Breaking Fast entered into SWANA markets regionally?

Mike Mosallam: No, not yet anyway. We are in the UK, we are in Mexico, the Virgin Islands, Greece, Asia. There’s a bunch of different kind of international sales deals that I am hearing about. But not the Middle East, no.

Nabra Nelson: Can you illuminate us as to why?

Mike Mosallam: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know.

Nabra Nelson: So it’s not like an identity political thing necessarily? Is what I would immediately go to.

Mike Mosallam: Yeah, I mean, I would have to assume. I would also have to assume that just general, and this doesn’t have much to do with, well, I guess it does, but I think there’s just general variance of censorship laws around the content that does go on the various platforms in the MENA region. So I don’t know if we would fit the profile. But I mean, it’s not been like we’ve approached and have been rejected. I just haven’t heard of opportunities that have come along.

Marina Johnson: Well, Amin, I’m glad that you mentioned Drowning in Cairo too, just trying to always put puzzle pieces together from different seasons. But we’ve definitely talked about Drowning in Cairo. We’ve had Adam, the playwright on, and Sahar, the director of that production on. So just lovely to tie these pieces together as well.

I know that we’re running out time with you both. I’m wondering if we can end with queer film, TV, theatre recs, MENA/SWANA or otherwise, for folks that are listening. Yeah, I mean, I guess really any media that you’re engaging with that you’re really interested in. But yeah, especially those.

Amin El Gamal: There was a Moroccan movie called The Blue Caftan that I really loved. Very sensitive, heartbreaking, but also hopeful portrayal.

Marina Johnson: Saleh Bakri is one of my favorite actors, so love that.

Amin El Gamal: Yes, so good.

Mike Mosallam: And I loved Fire Island.

Amin El Gamal: Oh yeah, that was great.

Mike Mosallam: I did. I loved Fire Island. It was just fun.

Amin El Gamal: Yes. I think there’s something we haven’t really discussed enough that we kind of, I guess alluded to, it was just the need for more like fun.

Mike Mosallam: Joy, joyous.

Amin El Gamal: Joyous, queer Muslim, MENA, joy. Something I love about Randa’s film. I can’t really talk about it too much because it’s so early, but it’s so fun. And it’s Muslims, sort of queer Muslims reclaiming space. It’s queer Muslims just behaving badly. Having characters don’t have to be sort of icons of representation and well-rounded human beings. That have flaws and that have fun and are a little bit naughty. And it’s just, that’s what we need.

Mike Mosallam: Amin, two questions. Who’s attached to direct that film? And am I attached to direct that film?

Amin El Gamal: We should have this conversation offline.

Mike Mosallam: I think this is the perfect platform.

Nabra Nelson: Mike is using the fire of the podcast to make it happen.

Mike Mosallam: That’s right.

Amin El Gamal: Well, right now as we’re going through sort of the first process we have, Randa is interested in directing her own film. But I think if she found the right director, she would rather not. I think it’s just a matter of we haven’t really, we haven’t attached anyone else. So right now she’s sort of default directing. But she loved Breaking Fast. She was at the premiere.

Mike Mosallam: And I love her, and I own two of her books, and I think we should have a conversation offline.

Amin El Gamal: Definitely.

Nabra Nelson: Well, we’re going to leave that as the cliffhanger of this episode because I think by the time this air, I don’t know if we’ll have an answer, but we’re going to have to keep our eyes out for that. And I have an entire now watch list that I’m really excited about.

Thank you both so much. And really, really cannot wait for your upcoming projects either. And really manifesting some more queer SWANA joy and fun and troublemaking in the art sphere moving forward. So thank you both so, so much for joining us. This has been so much fun, and I’m excited to dive into my watch list now.

Amin El Gamal: Thanks for having us.

Mike Mosallam: Thank you both. Yeah, thank you so much. And thank you for what you are doing to promote people and stories. It’s so necessary and you’re both such amazing vessels for it. So thank you.

Marina Johnson: This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of Kunafa and Shay and other HowlRound podcasts by searching HowlRound wherever you find podcasts.

If you loved this podcast, please post a rating and write a review on your platform of choice. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on the HowlRound.com website.

Have an idea for an exciting podcast essay or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit HowlRound.com and contribute your ideas to the comments.

Nabra Nelson: Yalla. Bye.

Marina Johnson: Yalla. Bye.





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