SABAH directed by Ruba Nadda, with Arsinée Khanjian and Shawn Doyle. 90 minutes. A Mongrel release. Opens Friday (May 27). For venues and times, see Movies, page 97. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
Winnipeg - they cut quite a figure in the lobby of the Fort Garry Hotel. Two women turning heads as they pass, faces lit up like windows, black curls bouncing against winter black clothes. They're not sisters - more like co-conspirators. Ruba Nadda and Arsinée Khanjian have come to town, and they've brought the arguments of Arab Canada with them. Khanjian stars in Nadda's film Sabah, about an Arab Muslim woman who falls in love with a white Toronto man, bringing down five kinds of family hell on her head.
As Sabah's sister warns her in the film, "Arab girls don't fall in love. Arab girls fall in love with who their brothers and their fathers tell them to."
It's a familiar Canadian story, and it plays especially well here at Winnipeg's Film Exchange Festival, set against the blinding contrasts of prairie multiculturalism.
Although she's still young, Nadda has carved out an international career with over a dozen striking short films. But Sabah is winning her new attention. That's partly because of Khanjian's disarming performance, and partly because her affecting family story just happens to punch global hot buttons.
"Part of the reason I started making films," she says, "is I was so sick of the stereotypes that Arabs and Muslims are hounded with."
At the same time, Sabah is about a woman both sheltered and shackled by tradition, the kind of women Nadda grew up with in her Syrian-Canadian family.
"My mother, I love her," she says, "but she depends heavily on my father. She doesn't know how to withdraw money from a bank machine. She wouldn't know how to get on a subway."
So, when Sabah is threatened in the film with being expelled from the family, it's a legitimately scary prospect.
"It happened to me," Nadda confesses. "I broke off with my parents for a year. They disowned me for a year. I remember when I was kicked out it was 11 o'clock, and I had never seen 11 o'clock at night. I was alone, and 21, and I'd never experienced that feeling."
Khanjian is famous for her independent mind, but she knows this kind of woman, too. She spent her early years as part of Lebanon's Armenian community.
"I left when I was 17," she says. "I'm not a Muslim, but I certainly was surrounded by that culture. It was intimate to me, the traditions and values that suppress individuality."
But neither woman was interested in condemning Arab tradition.
"I didn't want the message to be that all Arab Muslim women need is a white guy to liberate them," Nadda insists. "At the end of the film, Sabah still believes in wearing the hijab."
As it turns out, liberation can take surprising forms. Sabah presented Khanjian with a whole range of challenges, from speaking snippets of Syrian Arabic to learning to dive and play basketball. But the hardest of all was belly dancing.
"It's the toughest dancing to do," she laughs, "because every part of your body, from the head to the neck to the shoulder to the breast to the stomach to the waist to the hips to your bum and knees moves separately."
Even worse, "I'd never belly danced, because it wasn't considered proper to do it. I hated it when I started learning because I was brought up with this stigma of belly dancing being vulgar. The teacher would say. 'Move your breasts,' and I would say, 'What? I cover them, I don't move them!'"
SABAH (Ruba Nadda) Rating: NNN
Arsinée Khanjian plays a sheltered Arab Canadian who falls for a white man (Shawn Doyle), which brings down the wrath of her protective brother. This is a modest film in scope and execution, but Nadda breathes new life into a classic integration story, capturing the in-between lives of Syrians in Toronto. And Khanjian nails the precarious feel of falling in love in your 40s. More than being sympathetic to its characters, Sabah understands all the details and texture that made them. A quiet charmer.