Writer-director Rolla Selbak pulls off a complex, interlocking, and moving trilogy of stories centered around three young Arab-American women with her feature film "Three Veils."
Leila (Mercedes Masöhn) is a bright, happy student engaged to be married to a rich, but insecure and controlling, man named Ali (Sammy Sheik). The marriage has been arranged in the traditional manner by Leila’s Saudi-born parents, who, though not overly religious, are conservative.
Leila’s best friend is Nikki (Sheetal Sheth), whose family came to America from Iran. Nikki’s home life is a mess, as is her grieving father, who has been reduced to heavy drinking and neglectfulness by unspeakable family tragedies. Nikki compensates by becoming a party girl and filching her father’s booze.
As Leila draws away from her old life in preparation for her marriage, Nikki finds a new friend in the socially awkward, religiously devout Amira (Angela Zahra), the daughter of Egyptian immigrants with ongoing business concerns in the old country. Amira’s parents are preparing to move their family back overseas, and her mother, concerned that American ways have corrupted her daughter, hatches a plan to marry her off to a suitable Arab man living in London.
Meantime, Amira’s brother, Jamal (Garen Boyajian), develops a crush on Leila. After the two meet in an inauspicious way at the restaurant owned by Leila’s family (while her parents interview prospective belly dancers), it seems for a while that the movie is about to veer into trite rom-com territory: Ali lurks just off screen, his villainous presence casting a shadow over Leila even as she begins to experience doubts about becoming his wife.
It’s with an abrupt turn, and something of a shock, that the film veers off this well-worn path and into more adventurous territory, revealing the secrets, and the unfolding selves, of each young woman in turn. In some respects, the three parts of "Three Veils" are like three separate, though interrelated, movies. But as a whole, this is a surprising and uplifting movie, and a serious work of cinema. Selbak has made other films ("Making Maya" and the short "Green Blue Sea") so this is not a case of a brand-new talent bursting onto the scene; rather, Selbak is poised to grow into a filmmaker whose talents include the gift of being able to communicate to a niche audience and to general viewers with equal ease and impact. Selbak has made a movie that could define what it means to be part of America’s contemporary culture in all its multiplicity.