Web Series Wednesday: Halal Gurls

Cinema Australia Original Content: 

Halal Gurls.

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Created by Vonne Patiag
Produced by Petra Lovrencic and Vonne Patiag
Written by Hajer, Sara Mansour, Vonne Patiag, Danielle Stamoulos and Aanisa Vylet
Directed by Vonne Patiag
Starring Aanisa Vylet, Hajer, Jessica Phoebe Hanna, UC Brigante, James Mitry, Zahra Al Awady, Sahar Gebara, Brille Flynn, Vonne Patiag, and Bryan Brown.

Article written by Petra Lovrencic and Vonne Patiag

The inspiration of Halal Gurls first came to showrunner Vonne Patiag when he was sitting in the backroom of Hijab House, a popular modest clothing store in Sydney’s West. He had been co-opted to help build the brick and mortar shop (a close childhood friend was the store’s owner) and would spend every day with twenty or so Hijabi women, who were being trained to work in the store. Vonne would spend his lunch with them, and was amazed to find they were quite different to how the media portrayed them – they were loud, sassy and fierce, exchanging witty barbs and sharing make-up tips. These women had one thing no one else saw: resilience. The image of a Hijabi, orange pop soda in one hand, cigarette in the other, sending Snapchats and voice messages to friends, was forever burned into his mind, and so Halal Gurls was born.

Over the next year, Vonne developed the idea with Petra Lovrencic, a Producer with a keen concentration on women’s stories, and together sought to tell the story of Halal Gurls through an inclusive lens, collaborating with the community on crafting the stories and characters. With development support from Information + Cultural Exchange in Parramatta, the pair met with creatives from the Muslim community, meeting performers, writers, singers, artists and filmmakers; all women from the Western Sydney Muslim community who had a story to tell. From this group, the Halal Gurls writer’s room was formed, and once the Producers secured financing through the Digital First Comedy Initiative (through Create NSW and ABC), the world of Halal Gurls slowly came to life.

On the set of Halal Gurls.

The writing process was long and tough, as the Producers constantly had to navigate between the cultural expectations and experiences of the Writers and what the industry stakeholders expected to see, testing their commitment to working inclusively. At the heart of the project were the three HALAL GURLS – Mouna, her older cousin Foufou and younger sister Fatty – and the writers all drew on their personal experiences to flesh out these characters, knowing they had an arduous task of infusing these women with larger-than-life humour and nuanced attitudes informed by their living environment (which they decided to set in Bankstown). Sara Mansour (who started the ground-breaking Bankstown Poetry Slam) called upon her experience of working as a lawyer in a top-tier city law firm to flesh out the plot for Episode 3, titled ‘Going Up’ – a comic takedown of diversity politics in an office workplace. Series main star and writer Aanisa Vylet pulled upon her past experience working at a wedding venue to dissect the group dynamics at a ‘layliah’ (Muslim Hen’s night) in Episode 5, titled ‘After Hours’. By infusing the process with authenticity, the writers were able to craft the story from within the characters, leading to stronger story beats that balanced comedy with drama, and helped tackle the Producers’ biggest hurdle, which was getting the stakeholders to trust the writing team. By taking on script feedback, and finding creative ways to solve story blocks, the Producers and Writers could deliver a culturally nuanced story that honoured the experiences of real life Muslim women without sacrificing the comedy of the series. They constantly pushed the envelope, and wanted to deliver episodes that were unexpected, wanting to share these ideas of resilience with the wider Australian audience.

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The production of Halal Gurls was quite smooth, with the Producers securing a female-led Camera and Design department led by Emma Paine and Isabella Andronos respectively. By having more female crew on set, it also allowed the Hijabi actors to feel comfortable, with the gender ratio of traditional film sets seemingly a huge barrier to entry for many aspiring Hijabi actresses. It was also inspiring to go out into the community to find extras and day-players, which only helped build anticipation for the show in Western Sydney. The whole series was shot in eight crazy days, but barring the sacrifice of one scene (where Foufou threw a chair!), Patiag, this time sitting in the Directing chair, felt like he shot everything the series required – quite a feat for the ambitious low-budget series.

Bryan Brown in Halal Gurls.

The trailer for Halal Gurls dropped in September 2019 to huge fanfare, garnering over 30K views in just a week, and the series recently debuted on October 4th on ABC iView, followed by an International Premiere on the ABC Comedy Youtube channel the following week. Patiag and Lovrencic, together with Social Media Strategist Tarik Houchar, closely monitor the Halal Gurls social media, anticipating some cultural backlash, which they have already received. Most of it, surprisingly, is from the Muslim community itself – which the Producers pin down to the fact that first-time representation for cultural groups does leave them vulnerable in plain sight, and not everyone is happy to be dragged into the limelight. But it’s the private messages that many women send to the Halal Gurls social pages that show them the power of representation – after watching the series, many Muslim women feel finally seen, and the series has started major discussions about patriarchy and the empowerment of women in closed circles. And while they can’t publicly display their support for the series, it is in the Instagram likes and Facebook comments that they silently show their support. Guaranteed these women would find a way – after all, this community is built out of resilience, and Halal Gurls always find a way.

Watch HALAL GURLS now on ABC iView and Youtube.

You can view the entire series on ABC iView or YouTube

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