“Breaking Fast” highlights queer muslims

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Haaz Sleiman as Mo and Patrick Sabongui as Hassan in Breaking Fast. Image courtesy of Iftar Productions.

Out gay writer/director Mike Mosallam’s fabulous romcom, “Breaking Fast” screens March 29 at 7:30 pm the Suzanne Roberts Theater as the closing night of qFLIX. Mosallam will receive the First Time Filmmaker Award and out gay star Haaz Sleiman will receive the festival’s Artistic Achievement in Acting Award.

Full of humor and heart, Mosallam’s wonderful feature debut gives visibility to queer Muslims. The film shrewdly depicts the romance that develops between Mo (Haaz Sleiman) and Kal (Michael Cassidy) who meet during Ramadan to break fast each night. As the guys talk over meals, alone or with others, there are discussions about how gay Arabs reconcile their sexuality and their religion. But to Mosallam’s credit, these moments do not feel didactic. Moreover, they balance out the charming romance that develops as Mo and Kal slowly fall in love. 

Mosallam and Sleiman chatted with PGN about “Breaking Fast” in a recent conference call.

PGN: Mike, there are not a lot of films by or about gay Arabs. What decisions did you make, and what pressure did you face, in telling this story and representing this community?

MM: The very creation of [“Breaking Fast”] came about because no one looked like me, or represented me, my friends, or the people from my background and where we lived. We don’t see ourselves reflected, so the visibility and representation of these experiences, our culture, and characters who are seen as nonthreatening, was most important to me. I haven’t experienced any backlash yet, but when the film has a wider reach, people will have opinions about it. But I say let them. That’s the beauty of art. 

PGN: The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. What can you say about the food and meals in the film?

MM: Food is such an essential part of Arab culture. If you throw a party or a wedding and have bad food, you get a bad reputation. That is our cultural relationship with food. 

PGN: The gay Arab characters range from closeted to virginal to flamboyant. Can you talk about the images, assumptions, and stereotypes of queer/Arab men in the film?MM: I wanted to create a range of characters living the same experience with different versions of that experience. Generally, what I have seen so far are gay Muslim men living in fear, shame, or in hiding. I have to acknowledge that, and though that experience is exacerbated in the media, it comes from a real place. But it is not my experience. 

PGN: Your film smartly defies some Rom-com tropes while embracing others. Can you talk about the tone?

MM: So much of my definition of love was built on the idea that Julia Roberts finds, courts, runs away from, and ends up with the guy. She was my muse on how I found love in the world. So, I thought, if Julia Roberts was a gay Muslim man living in West Hollywood….and I thought there is no other better Julia Roberts than Haaz.

HS: I’m not as pretty as she is. [Mike disagrees.]

PGN: Haaz, what can you say about playing the comedic, gay romantic lead in “Breaking Fast?”

HS: This was my first Rom-com leading role. I was frightened. But I clicked into my empathy and love for the screenplay and the importance of the story. My love took over my fear. Mike’s energy made me feel comfortable. I’m grateful I did it. My favorite thing about the film is that it has a big inner child. I’m corny in real life. I do silly things like voices. It’s cute, because you’re being intimate, and when it’s reciprocated, it is really sweet. 

PGN: Haaz, are you like Mo, who is described as, “a rigid, self-centered loner who runs away from challenges?” How did you identify with the character? 

HS: To a certain extent, absolutely, yes! That’s what a lot of people can relate to. Not everyone is like that, but it’s not an uncommon quality. Being controlling and trying to protect yourself from being hurt — that’s a human quality. And that’s what is so great about Mo; he’s imperfect, and perfectly human.

PGN: You get to sing twice in the film. Are you a show tune queen? What do you like to perform?  

HS: I love to sing. I’ve seen “The Sound of Music” a hundred times, so singing one of the songs from one of my all-time favorite films was beyond a dream. Mike is the big show tune queen. I’m not. I once did a musical called “Venice,” at the Public Theater, which was very difficult. You have to be an athlete.  I’m not that a big fan of musicals. Music is my passion, though. I wanted to be a recording artist.