Subversion can take many forms…even a love story.
In a time when images of happy, healthy queer couples continue to increase in number in films and TV, Mike Mossallam aims to bring the subversiveness back to gay romance. The out-gay, Muslim filmmaker has just completed his first feature: Breaking Fast. It premieres at OutFest Fusion March 8 before hitting the festival circuit. The film is currently seeking distribution.
Based on Mosallam’s short film of the same name, Breaking Fast stars Haaz Sleiman as Mo, a gay Muslim doctor getting over his closet case ex-boyfriend. One night he meets Kal (Michael Cassidy), a handsome gay man familiar with Mo’s Muslim culture. As their attraction intensifies, Mo feels torn between his feelings for Kal and his need to observe the month of Ramadan, which prohibits sexual thoughts. Mo also runs afoul with his best friend Sam (played by Amin Al Gamal), a non-practicing Muslim who encourages Mo to indulge in his sexual feelings. Is Mo putting his faith first? Or he using Ramadan as an excuse to avoid intimacy?
We snagged some time with writer/director Mosallam just ahead of Breaking Fast’s world premiere to chat about the film, the intersectionality between Islam and queerness, and his own journey to reconcile his faith with his identity.
So this is based on your short film of the same name. Was it always your intention to make a feature with this material?
It wasn’t always the intention. After the short went to Cannes and we started to get a lot of feedback from various folks, we started to think about what a feature would look like. Then our “baby” was born. It really came out of our go-round at Cannes.
How do you go about fleshing out a story to feature-length?
Creating Mo and Kal and the world they lived in the short was so unbelievably fulfilling. It felt like uncharted territory. It was an experience I could relate to, and all my friends could relate to, but it wasn’t something I’d ever seen manifested in film, shorts or otherwise. So to be able to dive back in and flesh out all of the other things we couldn’t talk about or didn’t have time for in the short—other aspects of Mo’s life: his best friend, his family, who John was and how that affected Kal—that was awesome and fun. The iterations of early versions other than the film you saw were also really fun. It could have been taken in so many different directions.
Were you reluctant to revisit the material at all? So many directors don’t want to repeat themselves. How did you find a fresh passion for it?
Going back to my first point, because there was such an appetite to hear more about the story we were telling, and because people were expressing appetite to hear more about it, the canvas was so blank. Everything felt fresh and new no matter what we did. So it wasn’t hard. And I love these guys: Kal & Mo, I love them and exploring their nuances.
Obviously, because this really is Mo’s story, more so than even Kal’s, your leading actor is key to making the film work. How did you settle on Haaz?
Haaz and I have known each other for many, many years. We’re from the same hometown. We had not interacted a ton, but we had known each other and become friends. A little tidbit: Haaz played Hasan, Mo’s ex, in the short in one scene that was cut.
And I really wanted to work with a gay actor in this gay role. Haaz is an Arab, he’s Muslim, he understands this world. We had a very easy shorthand with all the culture and religiousness on the film. Also, he is the “It” Arab actor of the moment. It was a pleasure to work with him.
One thing that makes the film so wonderful is his performance. I don’t know that he’s had a chance to show this kind of range, or this level of charisma before.
I love hearing you say that!
It’s true. And his career is on the rise. Was he reluctant to take the part?
Funny you should say that. Haaz and I luckily, as I say, have a shorthand. We spent a fair amount of time talking about this character, and how he’s a little like him, he’s a little like me, and he’s not like either of us in some ways. Haaz and I spoke at great length how even in his robust career, he generally isn’t given an opportunity like this. Most of the cast, but Haaz specifically, but all those playing Arab, Muslim roles—and I use those words though they are not synonymous—are not generally asked to play roles that are light-hearted or comedic or have dimension. Brown roles tend to be written in such a very stereotypical way. Haaz really saw the value in how different this role would be, not just for him to play, but for people to see.
I want you to elaborate on something you said there. Haaz brings a lot to the role of Mo, but he’s also partially you. How much of Mo is you?
How would you know?
Well, you said so. And I don’t know, so I’m asking…
Listen, there is no bigger musical theatre fan in the world than me, as is Mo. Mo and I probably rival each other that way. I love Superman. I love my grandmother—God rest her soul. And like most people, I can easily self-sabotage. And I’m very grounded in my faith. Those are aspects of myself that people who meet me don’t often see. They don’t often hear of Muslims with Broadway dreams.
This one has one. So in that respect, Mo and I are very similar. Much to the sadness of my mother, God rest her soul, I am not a doctor. Mo’s a doctor. She wanted me to be a doctor. She named me specifically to be a doctor.
Oh my gosh.
But I’m not. So instead, I wrote one.
The next best thing, no doubt.
She’s smiling down on us now.
Well going off that, another element of the film that I found very compelling is that it shows Muslims being secular and pragmatic about their faith, which is not an image I’ve ever seen before. That really breaks with the idea of Muslims as being rigid and dogmatic.
I would actually describe Mo as rigid and dogmatic. But that’s another story.
That’s true. I know what you mean. He’s rigid and dogmatic but in a different kind of way from how we usually see Muslim representation where those elements are more faith-based.
So for you, as a queer Muslim man, why don’t we see more images of Muslims being secular with their faith, more open, more accepting in general?
That’s a question you’d have to ask Hollywood. Those stories exist. I’m surrounded by people who have those stories to tell, people fighting the good fight to get that visibility onto wider platforms. Hopefully, this film will be one of them and will be embraced. God willing. But there are laundry lists of Muslim people, of Arab people, who are telling nuanced stories that will feel universal to all. I compare this movie in a lot of ways to My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
In a lot of ways, all of us from ethnic backgrounds related to the kind of film that was and the way it portrayed family. I hope that in its own way this film will do the same. You know, we got Haaz right on the heels of Jack Ryan, and a lot of the conversations we had were about the differences [in the portrayal of Arabs].
You also wisely address—in the dinner scene—one of the criticisms this film is bound to get, especially from LGBTQ people—that Islam prescribes death to queer folks. Obviously, there is nowhere in the world where it is more dangerous to be openly queer than in Islamic nations.
I have known gay Muslims, but they are more like Sam—they are apostates. How do we address the role of queer people in Islam? Unlike Christianity where references to homosexuality are often based on misunderstandings or mistranslations, the Quaran is quite explicit in denouncing homosexuality, as do the writings of early Caliphs. So, I wonder if you might speak to the origins of anti-LGBTQ sentiment in Islam?
I’ll quote the film a bit: I’m not going to stand before you and say that being gay in Islam is easy. That’s not what I’m going to say. What I am going to say is that the faith has been co-opted by a non-fallible interpretation of it. I’m not a Muslim scholar. I’m not somebody who will sit back and quote scripture. I will tell you I’m a devout believer in my God.
Denying my belief in God would be equal to me living in the closet. I will not do either. I’m not going to say I’m 100% right or wrong. What I know is that I will live my life as I know it, and on the day of judgment, I will stand before my God and be judged like any other soul on Earth. It is my core belief that every ounce of the journey of this film has been guided by the hand of God. I hope the discussion you reference will be brought up many more times. I think we need to talk about it and stop trying to erase the visibility of people who have a belief in God that doesn’t fit into a box the way people tell us we should believe.
Well said. One question I want to address: I know homosexual sex is very common in the Middle East, due in part to the strict segregation of the sexes. How do these societies reconcile the notion that sex with men or even boys is totally healthy, but two consenting adult men loving each other is wrong?
Sex with underage boys is never healthy. That’s never OK. I also should very boringly tell you I’ve spent very little time in the Middle East except to visit relatives in Lebanon where I’m from. The history of homosexuality in the Middle East is not an expertise of mine. My lens is quite Arab-American. I’ve never had underground gay sex in the Middle East.
Nor have I. Maybe we’re missing out on something great.
We should go on a trip together.
I’d be down. One thing I love about the film as a whole—and which I found quite provocative—is that it seems to be a cry for a place for religion/faith in the LGBTQ community.
What is it that faith can give the community?
Faith is so personal, I don’t want to make a blanket statement that the queer community needs more God. That’s not what I’m saying. I do feel that there are times where certain people feel compelled towards faith in the queer community feel a bit of a push-pull to choose between the two. That’s not just because of religion. Sometimes the queer community is not hand-in-hand with God. What I would hope is that people find some reconciliation that there is a place for the intersectionality of those identities. It doesn’t have to be a choice between one or the other.
That’s something that I, as someone raised as a Protestant Christian even feel. It so often feels like religion says you can’t be gay. It also feels like the community says religion is needless and oppressive.
Totally. And it’s the same concept. Would you ever live as a closeted Protestant Christian?
No. I tried that. It didn’t work.
But would you have your faith in secrecy?
Well, I suppose I see faith as a personal, private matter. I don’t feel like it’s my place to tell others what God wants for them.
Yes, I feel the same way. As a Muslim, I wholeheartedly agree.
But, on Pride I get my Pride Flag out. On Christmas and Easter, I get my crucifix out. It’s part of the celebration. To have a religion or a community, you need to have a party.
For sure. Every tribe loves their parties.
There’s something else I need to ask you then. You’ve described making this film as something of a spiritual experience for you, a journey guided by God. For you as an artist, as a gay man, as a Muslim, how does it affect you to go on that kind of journey to explore yourself and your faith? In a sense, you’re exploring your relationship with God through your creativity…
I know you’re not trying to make me cry…
Don’t cry. Then I’ll cry. And I’ll get in trouble.
Here’s the thing: in a lot of ways—and I don’t mean just me, I mean humanity—we compartmentalize the versions of ourselves. We don’t always know how to put the ones that don’t fit perfectly together in the same room. I really figured out a way in my life to live happily in one silo, and happily in another. Now I’m 40, and I really love how all these different silos are all merging. The only way the doors of those silos ever open is by faith. Even if it’s scary, even if there is the inevitable criticisms we spoke about, only through God that those doors merge, and you learn to accept all parts of yourself. I don’t think I’m built as a human being to do that without the guiding hand of a Divine Power. When I allow that to happen, I’m the best version of myself.
That’s beautiful. So this is the most personal and most epic work you’ve done to date. What’s next for you?
I’m currently developing a film about a 14-year-old boy who is going to fail 8th grade because he fails gym. He’s a little chubby. He gets sent to his brother’s college campus to lose 20 lbs over the summer to pass 8th grade. It’s partially based on a true story. It’s a story about gaining a family.
Breaking Fast has its world premiere at Outfest Fusion on March 8. A festival rollout will follow as the film currently seeks distribution.