When Montreal filmmaker Babek Aliassa was a young man, arguing with his conservative Iranian family over appropriate professions, he used to tell his father, a surgeon, that his job was no different from a butcher's. Aliassa vowed back then that when he made his first film, it would feature a butcher who had once been a doctor.
It has taken a few decades, but 51-year-old Aliassa has been as good as his word. His first feature, Boucherie Halal (Halal Butcher Shop), a drama about Muslim immigrants in Montreal, was released late in 2012 and makes its Toronto debut April 5 at the Cinéfranco film festival. It tells the story of Jamila and Hedi, a young couple from an unnamed Islamic country who run a halal butcher shop in Montreal. They struggle to get by doing jobs they dislike: He was a medical student back home; she is too tender-hearted to help him cut the animals' throats.
It is not, however, the family joke about doctors turned butchers or the professional disappointments of many immigrants that is going to stir up audiences. Jamila's and Hedi's lives are further disrupted by the arrival of Hedi's unbending father, a fundamentalist imam who opens a mosque in the shop's back room and encourages his son to divorce the infertile Jamila. The couple's closest friends are Dayen and Amel; he's very receptive to the fundamentalist message but she hates the head scarf and is sneaking out to belly dance behind his back.
Jamila, too, questions the need for the head scarf. "I am not anti-religion, but I am against the idea of religion imposing rules on people who aren't interested," Aliassa says in French. "If she takes off the veil, it is not religion but the community she is leaving. It's the community that suffocates you."
Born in Iran, Aliassa spent part of his childhood and also his twenties in France, where he studied architecture and cinema. He emmigrated to Canada as an adult in 1994, arriving in Toronto where he worked in the arts and helped establish the francophone media centre Le Labo. He moved to Montreal in 2010 to make his film because finding francophone actors from the Arab Maghreb was impossible in Ontario.
It was still difficult in Quebec, where most of his cast members, including Christine Khalifah and Mani Soleymanlou in the lead roles, work in theatre more than in film.
Aliassa's goal was to put more of the Canada he saw into film. "One person in four in Montreal was born somewhere else, and that isn't reflected in [Quebec's] cinema," he says.
Still, he adds: "It takes immigrants to speak of their communities. It's not up to a Quebecker. If I make a film about the Chinese community, it's different than if a Taiwanese-Canadian does."
Neither Aliassa nor his family are religious – they belonged to Iran's prerevolutionary, secularized professional classes – but the relationship between Hedi the butcher and his difficult father cuts very close to the bone.
"I wanted to be an artist and there was a lot of conflict … children should be lawyers and doctors," he says. "I'm a bit of a black sheep." Aliassa's mother died in 1996, and his father lives back in Iran but occasionally visits Toronto, where many of his relatives remain.
He has shown the film to two cousins with good results, but not to his entire family. "I have been discreet."
The film, however, is far from discreet on the sensitive topic of the veil. "In a new country, you don't have to adapt 100 per cent to its customs, you have to keep what is good from your own culture, but you do have to let a bit go," Aliassa says.
And so what of the Parti Québecois's infamous charter?
"It's not pretty," he replies, criticizing the proposed ban on religious symbols in the public work force as pure politics. "I miss Toronto for that reason. Toronto does a better job of balancing things, all these different people, all these different ideas. I tell my friends, there is racism in Toronto but, there, the institutions lead by example. In Quebec, it's the reverse: The institutions aren't leading, but in the community it goes well. I think if a Muslim goes to a small town in Quebec, people are welcoming."
Boucherie Halal has done the festival circuit but has yet to get commercial distribution in Quebec; one distributor told Aliassa that the film lacked the recognized Quebec stars that would draw an audience.
The reaction from festival audiences has been mixed; some viewers have thanked the director for his honesty; one woman complained that the confrontation between the fundamentalist cleric and his oppressed daughter-in-law was a cliché.
Aliassa is optimistic, however, that he can make an impact. He says he is now at work on a second feature, about an immigrant woman who gets work as a surrogate mother.
"I hope I am encouraging others to pick up the camera."
Cinéfranco opens Friday at the Royal, 608 College St. in Toronto, and continues to April 6. For more information see cinefranco.com.