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Australia’s ‘House Of Gods’ Started Out As “‘The Sopranos’ In A Mosque,” Channeled ‘Succession’ & Ended Up In A Category All Of Its Own

Welcome to Global Breakouts, Deadline’s fortnightly strand in which we shine a spotlight on the TV shows and films making noise in their local territories. The industry is as globalized as it’s ever been, but breakout hits are appearing in pockets of the world all the time and it can be hard to keep track. So we’re going to do the hard work for you.

This week we’re coming to you early, with our pick from Australia, House of Gods, playing in International Competition at Series Mania this coming week. The series follows an Australian-Iraqi family, whose progressive patriarch challenges a conservative rival to become head cleric at a mosque in the suburbs of Sydney.

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NameHouse of Gods
Country: Australia
Network: ABC
Producer: Matchbox Pictures
International sales: NBCUniversal Global TV Distribution
For fans of: The Sopranos, Succession, Ali’s Wedding

Osamah Sami took the idea for House of Gods to Sheila Jayadev on the last day of filming Ali’s Wedding, his rom-com that was picked up by Netflix. “Hey, I’ve got a new one for you,” Sami recalls telling his producer. “It’s going to be like The Sopranos but inside a mosque.”

Over almost seven years of development, the title remained but the narrative evolved and started to echo another HBO classic. Series exec producer Debbie Lee picks up the thread: “It became much more about the family, and moved from being ‘Sopranos in a mosque’ to being more like ‘Succession in a mosque.’”

Alastair McKinnon is MD of House of Gods producer Matchbox Pictures, which is part of Universal International Studios, in turn part of NBCUniversal’s Universal Studio Group. When House of Gods was pitched, he was in the drama department at Australian pubcaster the ABC, which greenlit the series. “I remember the head of the department, Sally Riley, was so emphatically excited about this pitch,” he recalls. “It was the fastest ‘yes’ I think I’ve ever seen.”

The series follows an Australian-Iraqi family. Its patriarch, played by Kamel El Basha, is Sheikh Mohammad, a religious leader keen on reform. At the the start of the six-part series, he is taking on a conservative rival to become the head cleric of a prominent mosque in western Sydney.

Sami stars as Isa, the ambitious and hot-headed adopted son who runs a truck-wash business. Safia Arain is Hind, who wants to move out of the family home, and Maia Abbas plays Batul, who has just returned from living in Baghdad and is the sheikh’s other daughter. The sibling rivalry is amped up as the children vie for their father’s affection and approval, as well as for positions of power in his administration.

The agency of the female characters is central to the story with **spoiler alert** Batul assuming a pivotal position in the mosque, to her brother’s chagrin. The team behind the show had several women at the helm. Lee and Jayadev were executive producers, most of the heads of department were female, Sarah Bassiuoni — who is penning Stan’s new crime drama Critical Incident — was a writer, and Lebanese-Australian Fadia Abboud directed.

Per the Succession reference, there is intrigue and double-dealing, there are power struggles and alliances are forged and broken. While the Roys’ infighting takes place in glass offices and lux country retreats, House of Gods plays out against the backdrop of suburban Sydney and the mosque, which is a place of worship and a hub where the community comes together.

Writer, actor and comedian Sami won an AACTA award for his Ali’s Wedding screenplay (which Matchbox also adapted) and a nom for Best Actor at Australia’s equivalent to the Academy Awards. He says he wanted to “do something a little more serious and get into the nitty gritty” after the rom-com.

Sami grew up in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war as a refugee and his own father was a cleric. House of Gods co-creator Shahin Shafaei fled Iran after a play he wrote was banned, and then spent two years in an Australian detention center. He also knew Sami’s father, which informed the Sheikh Mohammad character.

“I said that if we can make the person at the heart of the show a sheikh, slightly close to Sami’s dad’s character and have people sit with him, walk with him, go to mosque with him, sit at prayers and see his family, that would be a breakthrough,” says Shafaei. “How many shows do you get to have people sit in a mosque, listen to Islamic prayers, and see the nuances of running the mosque that even us as Muslims don’t really know?”

The team, Sami says, wanted to tell a story that rarely makes it into the mainstream. “People are sick of it, but the word is ‘representation’. I don’t know how I can frame it in a new way, but growing up as a Muslim post-9/11 in Australia we knew so many stories that were not part of the newspaper headlines, that were not part of the negative narrative that was being echoed around the media. I was just gagging to tell a story like this.”

About 30% of the dialogue is in Arabic and there are layers within that. “Not only were we shooting in Arabic, but we were also trying to capture the Iraqi dialect,” exec producer Jayadev says. “There were huge levels of complexity. If we had a Lebanese actor, we would make sure that part of the back story was that they spent time in Lebanon so that it made sense if they were speaking with a Lebanese dialect.”

In terms of international appeal, the show will play in competition at Series Mania, in an eclectic eight-strong line-up that includes Leonard Cohen biopic So Long, Marianne, chess-master drama Rematch, and Annette Bening-starrer Apples Never Fall.

“The whole team have created something that is unique and unlike anything that’s been made, certainly in Australia, but I think anywhere else,” says Matchbox’s Mackinnon. “We’re starting to experience that in the reactions that we’re getting around the world where people say, ‘we just have never seen something like this’.”

The references to other series when talking about House of Gods maybe miss the point. With a cast almost entirely of Arab characters and a rarely, if ever, seen lens on an Arab-Muslim story, critics have noted it is a step forward in terms of representation.

Treading new ground, however, is only meaningful if the series has an audience wanting to see how the family’s story unfolds over six hours, which means crafting a compelling drama. Sami grew up loving cinema, theater and those influences storytelling influences permeate House of Gods. “It’s not a documentary about religion, you know,” he says. “It’s hopefully an engrossing story that we haven’t seen before.”

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