A flavour of happiness

Mike Mosallam on love, food, Superman and Breaking Fast

by Jennie Kermode

Breaking Fast
Breaking Fast Photo: courtesy of Iftar Productions

The story of a gay Muslim man, Mo, cautiously embarking on a new relationship a year after breaking up with his long-term boyfriend, Mike Mossalam’s Breaking Fast is part of this year’s Outfest line-up. It’s a sweet story which manages to juggle a number of different themes without ever losing its balance. Chatting to Mike as it screened at the festival, I asked him whether it was the love-story, the post-break-up drama or the chance to show viewers something of what it can be like to be gay and Muslim that came first.

“I think that the core of the story is its heart,” he says, “and I think all of the things you just listed are important to me as long as we lead with our heart, but really, for me, this film is an exploration of how we love, how we accept love, how we let love into our hearts. I always reference that Julia Roberts taught me about love through her repertoire and I really just wanted to see a version of Julia Roberts that looked a little bit like me.”

Mo and Kal enjoy iftar
Mo and Kal enjoy iftar Photo: courtesy of Iftar Productions

It’s notoriously difficult to find funding for films with intersectional content, yet the film is highly polished. Did he manage to secure a bigger budget than most of his contemporaries, or was this simply a result of having a really good team?

“We were lucky enough to secure funding through a private investor, but more than anything, I had the best team in the whole world,” he beams..” A team of five producers who handled every aspect of this film with the utmost of professionalism and no short cuts were made. I was very, very blessed to have them.

“The biggest challenge, I think, in general, when you’re deep diving into a very nuanced character or story is that people come in with their very preconceived ideas about what that community or that person or that culture should look like, so I think in this case when people hear the words gay and Muslim immediately their ideas is that ‘Oh God, this is going to end badly!’, or that this is a movie about shame or having to pick between those two, and really that’s just not the experience that I’ve had. It’s not the experience that people around me have had. It certainly exists but not for me, luckily – and I say from a particularly privileged point of view, I’m grateful that we can explore the very very nuance of that intersectionality and that people are receptive to learning about it.”

Is that one of the reasons why he had two main characters with very different experiences of it?

Up above the city
Up above the city Photo: courtesy of Iftar Productions

“That’s exactly right. And three, actually. There’s a triangulation between Hassan the boyfriend, Mo the lead character and then Sam the best friend, and they all conflict and complement one another and they all come from extremely different points of view and the main impetus for that is that Mo’s privileged vantage point is certainly not the only one that exists. It’s just like anything: no Muslim experience is a monolith.”

I tell him that I like the way the film explores different kinds of family, from Mo’s close relationship with his natal family to the way that the gay scene provides a family environment for people who have experienced rejection or found themselves alone for other reasons.

“I think at the core of this film is the themes of family,” he responds enthusiastically, “whether it’s chosen or given, and truly what I think people feel in this film is not only the family onscreen but the family that was created offscreen amongst the producing team and the production staff. It was a labour of love to make this film, as I’m sure you can imagine, and I’m so happy that the familial aspect resonates onscreen because that was something that was just driving us every day and on these long nights.”

Did that reflect his approach to casting? Did he look for actors who would click with those he already had?

Mo at prayer
Mo at prayer Photo: courtesy of Iftar Productions

“I worked with a phenomenal casting director by the name of Tineka Becker,” he says. “Casting and chemistry was really important and I think the chemistry began with the casting of our lead, Mo – Hazz Sleiman, who is just so charming and charismatic and also in a role unlike anything he’s ever played before. I just felt great chemistry between him and Michael Cassidy, who plays Kal, and there was a shorthand almost immediately between him and Amin El Gamal who plays Sam. Even when they barely knew each other they had so much in common because their worlds intersected so much, that I knew that those chemistries would be an easy find.”

If there’s one warning that I would attach to the film for viewers’ sake, I venture, it’s that they should have plenty available to eat when they watch the film because there’s so much gorgeous looking food on display.

“Just as soon as it was filmed it was consumed,” he says. “People could not wait to just devour the food on set. It’s funny, somebody said to me recently ‘I was ten pounds thinner before I watched your movie.’” He laughs. “Culturally, as an Arab, food is just so much a part of our experience. If you have bad food you have a bad reputation. If you have no food, God help you. So having an abundance of delicious and enticing food was obviously at the forefront of making sure that the food looked right, especially during the month of Ramadan.”

Did it also help to create different atmospheres at the iftar celebrations Mo shares with his family and his friend’s birthday party which is focused around drink?

"You - you've got me? Who's got you?"
"You - you've got me? Who's got you?" Photo: courtesy of Iftar Productions

“Yeah. There’s definitely juxtaposition going on there, but so much of the holy month is sitting around to eat with family and cooking all day for that five or ten minutes of mass consumption. It’s obviously a very familiar world to me. That’s the world I grew up in and I participate in it every year. And I don’t drink, so it was actually very foreign to me to have to plot out what the consumption of alcohol looked like in the party scene, but fear not, we had great resources who knew exactly how to guide us.”

Plenty of people willing to do research?

“Yeah, totally!” he laughs.

There’s also a scene in the film which I love, in which, just as Mo’s mother finishes a rant, a caged bird in the foreground keels over and falls off its perch. How did he manage to film that?

“So the bird is not credited, unfortunately,” he says. “The bird came with the house that we shot in and we decided to give the bird its feature film début – or at least we think its feature film début – and it just happened. It was the end of a take and the bird was like ‘I’ve had enough of this!’ and it just sort of fell off of its perch.”

Just one of those serendipitous moments, then?

“Yeah. It’s fine, it’s alive,” he reassures me.

Mo's best friend Sam
Mo's best friend Sam Photo: courtesy of Iftar Productions

How did he cast the parents?

“The mother is an incredible actress. Her name is Rula Gardenier. She came to us through our casting director and she’s a Chicago-based theatre actress, but now living in LA. She just immediately knew this world, again because she is from this world, she is of this world. And the father, God bless him, was a day player. I’d never met him, I don’t know who he was, and he walked in from our extras casting person and kind of just looked perfect. He didn’t have any lines. He just had to sit there and eat his watermelon but he really nailed that.”

Another important things in the film is the mutual love that Mo and prospective new boyfriend Kal share for Superman. Is it a favourite of Mike’s, too?

“That’s definitely a favourite of mine,” he says. “If I gave you a tour of my house right now, you would see too much Superman paraphernalia for a 40-year-old. I think on a lot of levels Superman represents that very all-American, very alpha male embodiment of what we’re taught a man should be. It’s had a big impact on my life – specifically Christopher Reeve in the 1978/79 films. We can have a discussion about the later films at another time.

“I think that era of superhero movies was something that people of my generation know very well, even if you think about, like, Star Wars, those iconic superhero movies from the Eighties are certainly a generational thing. To have two guys coming from two very different walks of life have that in common immediately bridged them together.”

So how does he feel about his film screening at Outfest?

“I’m honoured! Oh, I’m so thrilled that it’s at Outfest,” he exclaims. “Outfest is the largest LGBTQ film festival in the world. I’m honoured that they would select our film.”

He’s also planning for the future.

“I’m just putting some finishing touches on a first draft of my next feature, which is a very different kind of feature than the one you’ve just watched. I’m also working on a musical because I love musical theatre. And we’re getting ready for the wide release of this film early next year. We’re very excited for more people to see it.”

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