Iranian refugee takes centre stage at Arab Film Festival

Abbas Sharhani has been hooked on Michael Jackson since he first came to Australia four years ago and fellow asylum seekers held at the same Darwin detention centre said he looked like the pop king.


After innumerable internet searches devoted to learning to dance and dress like the icon, Mr Sharhani underwent plastic surgery on his nose and straightened his hair to create a more Michael-esque appearance.  

Now the Iranian refugee is the subject of a short documentary about his life, Man in the Mirror, which will be screened at the Arab Film Festival in Sydney.

“It’s not that easy to impersonate a legend… I’ve been training hard. I spend countless hours on my moves,” Mr Sharhani says, adding that Jackson is “just super lovable”.

“He’s energetic. Everyone loves him. I said to myself, ‘I want to be that guy’.”

Mr Sharhani came to Australia to create a new life. “It was hard to live back home in my country. It’s a difficult life.”

“Now I’m enjoying what I’m doing, very much – from the bottom of my heart.”

Director Ali Mousawi became intrigued by the great lengths Mr Sharhani took in an attempt to perfect his impersonation.

“When we met for the first time in Parramatta, it was very exciting because he looked like Michael Jackson,” Mr Mousawi says.

“I wanted to show how people come to Australia and change their lives. When [Abbas] was in Ahwaz, he was a simply guy. When he came to Australia, he became famous.”

“It’s not that easy to impersonate a legend… I’ve been training hard. I spend countless hours on my moves.”

Mr Mousawi describes his home country of Iran as a hard place to make films.

“In my country, it’s not easy. You have to get permission from the government and Iranian intelligence and then you can make a documentary. It’s easier here,” he says.

Amin Dora, director of the festival opener Ghadi, also had difficulties trying to get projects off the ground in Lebanon.

He says Ghadi was the first time a film in Lebanon was produced by private investors.

It’s story is set in a small Lebanese coastal town in which mounting superstitions around a young boy with down syndrome spurs his father – played by Georges Khabbaz, the film’s writer – to convince the townsfolk that his son is not the demon they fear but an angel who can help them.

“I come from a region that is very similar to the neighbourhood in the film,” Mr Dora says. “The characters are ones that I have in my memory, people I know.”

“The story talks about tolerance and accepting each other – especially coming from a country where you’ve got mixed religions.”

Mr Dora says he worked hard to develop the film as a universal story. “Wherever it’s been played, even in South Korea and Japan, it was super well received.”

Arab Film Festival co-director Mouna Zaylah says the aim of the festival is to “challenge misrepresentations and stereotypes that we often see in the media about Arab communities from all over the world.

“It gives us an opportunity to see people living the struggle but then overcoming it, as well. Stories that are not just about war… but those that are about the everyday life of people.”

The Arab Film Festival runs from August 13 to 30.