Strong and silent

In the survival thriller Europa, Adam Ali could draw heavily on his experiences as a refugee fleeing Libya. Now he’s able to communicate clearly his pride in being a gay Mancunian Muslim 

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Adam Ali is going places. For a start,  after he’s spoken to Big Issue North,  he’s catching the train down to London from his hometown of Manchester. But the 23 year old is also on the move career wise. Today, he has the day off from filming for the reboot of the BBC’s Waterloo Road, the school-based drama set in Rochdale, and he’s speaking to us hours before Europa, in which he plays the central role, is shown for the first time at Manchester’s Home cinema. And in London, his short film Baba is premiering at Flare, the BFI’s queer  film festival.

“There’s so much going on. I feel like the luckiest boy,” he says modestly, as if it’s luck and not talent that has got him where he is.

It’s been a whirlwind of a career thus far for Ali, who trained at the Television Workshop Salford, but Europa is an important milestone for the actor.

“It felt like my whole life has been leading up to this role,” he says.

“At school the reason I was bullied was because I didn’t sound like everyone else.”

The film is a gripping survival thriller based on the real experiences of migrants who use the dangerous Balkan Route to cross the Turkish border into Bulgaria.  Ali plays Kamal, a young lad from Iraq trying to make the journey who gets separated from his group. He ends up battling for survival as he navigates his way through a remote forest while evading terrifying local mercenaries  who are ruthlessly hunting down migrants. The film has already garnered  a handful of festival awards and been  met with critical acclaim.

Watching Europa is an immersive experience in which director Haider Rashid keeps the camera tightly on Ali for most of the film. “It felt like a masterclass in performance – the silence, the quiet, the peace of the forest but then observing the horror that we had to bring to life,” says the actor.

It was also a physically demanding role and Ali was put through his paces as he scrambled up rock faces and rolled down hillsides. For one scene, he spent a couple of days climbing up and down a tree with people underneath holding safety mats in case he fell.

“I grew up with dance and physical theatre, but I’d never learnt how to climb a tree,” he points out.

Ali distilled extensive research into the role, but also added a lot of himself into the character. Born in Libya, Ali left the country with his family because of the civil war. They moved to Manchester as asylum seekers where he struggled to fit in to his new life and a new school. In Europa there is little in the way of dialogue, a theme Ali says is about “communication and the ability to seek and ask for help. I saw so much of myself within Kamal. He wasn’t able to communicate, he wasn’t able to be understood, and so he was a threat, he was feared. Because he couldn’t speak that language, he couldn’t ask for help and that’s something that many people who are displaced experience. They are seen as this ‘other’. At school the reason I was bullied was because I didn’t sound like everyone else and I wasn’t familiar.”

One of the few pieces of dialogue that does appear in the film is in the form of a song that Kamal sings as he navigates his way to safety, a direct contribution that Ali made to the mostly improvised script. Filming took place during the summer of 2018 in a remote forest in Tuscany where there was no internet or mobile service. The then teenage Ali was asked by the director what he wanted to do during one particularly tense moment of the film.

“The song is a kind of a lullaby that my mum used to sing to me as a kid, and I think it was one her mum used to sing to her,” he explains. “I was feeling homesick at the time, and I just wanted to sing that lullaby because I missed my mum. And while it put me at ease as Adam, I also felt like Kamal would have done the same thing – being separated from your mum as a young teenager.”

Taking part in the film, he says, changed him as a person.

“It changed my outlook on life. It gave me so much inspiration and a sense of optimism that you can do something if you care enough.”

It’s a passion for the power of film that’s also apparent in his short film Baba, which tells the story of Brittania (played by Ali) who lives in Libya where it’s still illegal to be gay. Brittania lives with a group of friends underground but dreams of a life on Manchester’s Canal Street, and when he gets a letter from the British Embassy inviting him to attend an interview to gain asylum in the UK it looks like his chance to escape has come.

The development of the film followed on from Ali’s appearance in Apple TV’s anthology series Little America, where he plays a gay Muslim character in the final story, The Son. The reaction to the programme was “overwhelming”, he says. Other gay Muslims reached out to him, thankful to see their experiences in the film – although many struggled to see it as it was banned in 11 countries.

Working with his best friend Sam Arbor, Ali gathered stories from friends still living in Libya and beyond and “moulded them into Baba”. Although on the surface it’s a tale about a lad wanting to escape to a better life, there’s something more unsettling at work in the film. Brittania expresses the desire to move to the UK in order to be gay and comments about the way he feels he’s expected to behave in order to have a happier life.

“All the way through the film there is this sense that something doesn’t feel right,” says Ali.  “His references to what is considered cool  and attractive are  so distorted.”

It’s a theme that Ali has experienced first hand. Having moved to the UK, he says he tried hard to “assimilate”, developing a kind of “identity dysphoria and complex. I thought I had to put myself at a crossroads – that in order to be British I had to revoke my Arabness, my faith and my heritage, and that’s something I’ve been working through and dealing with growing up. It felt like I couldn’t  be proudly Arab, British and Muslim – all those things all at the same time.

“People soak in all this media and content that the West is pumping out. It’s making its way to the remotest  parts of the world. There will be a queer kid in some remote village  in Libya watching YouTube videos from someone who is unboxing some product or dyeing his hair a certain colour and so he thinks he needs to do the same in order to assimilate – that in order to be queer, he has to strip himself of who he is.”

These days, Ali has reconciled these different aspects of his life.

“I am such a proud Manc now and proud of being British and being Libyan and to be queer in all of that too, having worried for so long that my family weren’t going to accept me – but now my mum and I have an amazing relationship. I didn’t think acting would ever be a real career for me. I didn’t think I’d ever make any money but I’m now working, getting to do my own stuff and I’m in a show for BBC One. I just feel so so lucky. I feel like the universe is being so kind to me and I’m over the moon about everything.

“I mean, I’m 23 years old and I’m speaking to journalists about my career!” he adds, adding how excited he is to be appearing in Big Issue North, a magazine he says he grew up reading. “It’s a pretty cool moment for me. It’s definitely going on my mum’s fridge.”

Ali hopes that Baba will eventually be made into a full-length feature film, but in the meantime he’s got his role in Waterloo Road to concentrate on. The show, set mainly in a Rochdale school (for the last couple of series the setting moved to Glasgow) ran for nine years but was taken off air in 2015. Now it’s set to return to Rochdale and Ali will play Kai Sharif, a sixth former at the school.

“He’s openly queer and he fully accepts who he is and his identity,” says Ali, full of enthusiasm about the new character. “He’s Arab and he’s Muslim and he loves basketball. He’s a really cheeky fella and everyone loves him.”

Ali is glad that his is a “positive” character since “queer characters are often surrounded by tragedy but he’s not like that at all. He’s a beam of light and positivity and he’s comfortable in his skin. It’s a message of ‘just be you’.

“He’s what I would have wanted to be when I was at school. It’s like I get a chance to go back to high school and redo it all over again. I can’t wait for people to meet him – he’s such a cool guy.”

Europa is available to rent or buy online from providers including Curzon, Amazon and Sky Store. Waterloo Road returns to BBC One later this year

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