GAZE 2015 – A Sinner In Mecca

It’s been over a year since my last post, and a couple of missed opportunities to write have flown on by – GAZE 2014, and the Irish Marriage Equality Referendum being the main ones of note. It has, however, also been a while since I have seen a film that made me want to get back here – this weekend, as part of GAZE 2015 (Dublin’s LGBT film festival), I went to see Parvez Sharma’s A Sinner in Mecca and I got the urge to share some thoughts…

To set the scene, I was really excited about going to see this film. I had seen the trailer posted online a couple of months ago, and for anyone who has read any of my previous posts, I have an interest in LGBT life in the Middle East. I was hoping to learn more about Mecca, hajj and Islam in a first hand documentary in Saudi Arabia – creating this film in itself was a huge step, particularly as filming is banned in Mecca. On top of that, films coming out of Saudi Arabia are rare at best, and I was hoping this would follow in the footsteps of the wonderful Wadjda.

Unfortunately, the trailer set this film up to be more of a documentary than it was in reality. The tension surrounding Sharma’s filming in Mecca was mentioned twice at best, and as he was using a smartphone to record, it must have been more than obvious to passers-by. After a powerful opening, showing the dialogue the director has with a gay man in Saudi Arabia online, the director’s sexuality plays almost no role in this film. As the film continues it becomes clear that there is no substance to this documentary shot on a smartphone – I would have hoped for more interviews away from Mecca to intersect the repeated shots of the Kaaba, and a discussion of the apparent topic of this film, i.e. being a member of the Muslim LGBT community. Of course, I understand this may not be easy to get on camera, but after such a strong opening, the documentary failed to keep up this momentum.

I was hoping to leave the screening with a greater understanding on homosexuality in the Muslim world, of faith and sexuality, and a struggle to combine these. To a greater extent I was also hoping for an increased understanding of life in Saudi Arabia.

While hajj was explained as Sharma completed the stages of his pilgrimage, it would have been interesting to hear from the non-LGBT community more about the significance of this journey. Unfortunately the film feels like Sharma set off on a personal journey to find a place for his sexuality and faith to be able to coexist, but in reality, it falls short of the expectations set out by the trailer and hype around the film.

I know I was not the only one to feel this way, my boyfriend and friend who came along to the screening felt the same, and despite the director being in attendance, the room emptied pretty quickly as soon as the final credits started to roll.

What had potential to be such an interesting subject matter, and a groundbreaking documentary, is unfortunately 80 minutes many of us will not get back.

Out in the Dark (2012)

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As The Bubble and The Invisible Men did before it, Out in the Dark considers the situation homosexual Palestinians find themselves constrained by, albeit with more mainstream media attention. This film, which was widely spoken about and generally well praised, centres around the story of Nimr and Roy. This feature film does indeed have many good points and I did, on the whole, enjoy it, but it does lack a certain something and can, perhaps, be accused of bias when the viewer bears in mind that its budget came from the Israel Film Fund. While this can be seen in places, it is unfair to completely suggest the film is biased. Israel is not shown in an explicitly ‘good’ light – turning away asylum seekers, dubious security forces and homophobia, are just a few negative points that come to mind. This does make the film more balanced than it could have turned out to be, but the film does still have, on the whole, a more biased view of the Palestinian Territories and plays to stereotypes.

It is difficult to tell what are stereotypes and what behaviours are based on elements of truth. It would seem that being homosexual is something less accepted in the largely Muslim Palestinian Territories, which is a trend we see across the rest of the Middle East. Considering that we see a negative reaction from Roy’s Israeli parents regarding this sexuality, the more extreme reaction from Nimr’s Palestinian family fits this trend. Here I would say the film isn’t biased and, in fact, highlights that homophobia, in varying degrees, is still a problem in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

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As mentioned above we do see negative aspects of Israeli society throughout too, which points in the general direction of a largely unbiased film. However, there are certainly points in the film when the desperate need for a bias clearly couldn’t be suppressed any longer. There are certainly points in the film when Roy treats Nimr to his own special brand of colonial snobbery. Roy can be seen to label Nimr’s family as terrorists from the second he sees the report from the Israeli news channel, to name just one example. There definitely seems to be the suggestion that Roy and his family are more developed socially than Nimr’s family, which opens up a whole separate debate – mainly, is it actually vicariously Roy’s family’s fault as Israel cuts off the Palestinian Territories from the luxuries of a rich and developed state.

Moving away from any political or social bias in the director’s or writer’s stance, and looking at the relationship between Roy and Nimr, we see yet another great portrayal of a homosexual couple on screen. The film is generally quite praiseworthy in this respect and I, for one, appreciated that Roy and Nimr didn’t sleep together the night they met and the fact that they weren’t portrayed as two men who were emotionally or psychologically damaged by their sexuality.

As the film progresses the two men realise that they can’t be together in Israel, not matter how many strings Roy tries to pull. With a solution in sight, the film closes with a close race to escape. One bugbear for me was that we will never find out if either of them made their separate ways successfully, to actually facilitate their new life abroad, but in reality, if it had ended in this ‘happily ever after’ fashion then I probably would have complained about that too.

Wadjda (2012)

03Last week Wadjda finally came to cinemas here in Germany. Ever since I first saw the trailer for Haifaa al-Mansour’s film, I knew this film was going to be worth going to see – not only in a historical sense, this being the first feature film to be filmed by a woman in Saudi Arabia, but also because the concept was so appealing. Recently I have been watching a couple of documentaries about Saudi Arabia and the film provided ever more insight into what is a relative unknown. Sure, we have vague images of what Saudi Arabian life is like, and the odd film snippet, but this was the first film to be shot entirely on the streets of Riyadh and therefore offers so much more.

I watched a couple of interviews with al-Mansour before going to the cinema and was really impressed by what she had to say – I was also particularly interested in what she had to say about her previous work and this is something I would love to see.

Wadjda is a heartwarming, humorous and, at times, deeply moving portrayal of so many aspects of life in Saudi Arabia today – despite the premise that the film is about a girl and her longing for a bike, the film is about so much more. Throughout we learn about her relationship with her mother, her father, other girls, boys, religion, and social values and pressures. Wadjda lives with her mother – we see how her mother struggles with the burden of socials pressures in a different way to her daughter. Here we begin to see a generational gap, further represented by Wadjda’s friendship with Abdullah (an unrelated boy, and thus a friendship that would be frowned upon). Wadjda’s mother is mostly very supportive of her daughter, occasionally pulling her back when she thinks she is on thin ice. Wadjda is a wonderfully confident and self aware character, but al-Mansour doesn’t allow her to become unrealistic or unconvincing. When two girls at school are caught up in what the headmistress believes to be a lesbian ‘scandal’, Wadjda doesn’t seize the opportunity to save the girls from ostracisation and punishment.

Throughout the film we learn of many the many restraints that Saudi women face, but we also learn of some chances that have started to bring around change – Wadjda’s mother has a friend who works at the hospital without a full veil, for example. Wadjda’s mother is, however, still very socially immobile. Wadjda’s grandmother is looking for a bride for her father as her mother almost died while giving birth to Wadjda and can no longer provide the son the family wants. When the father finally decides to marry someone else, she loses her much needed male guardian, which shows how reliant Saudi society makes women on the men who surround them. This is obviously also seen in the need for a driver – Wadjda’s mother has to take time off work because she can’t get herself there, so that even when women try to seek independence, something outside of their control still holds them back.

At school we see how the headmistress trains the girls to accept a second place in society, ushering them inside when they are in the eye line of a man, discouraging individuality and using veiling to bring troublesome pupils back into line.

This film covers so many different levels of Saudi society in such a beautiful, and interesting way. This film is easily one the best I have seen in a long time and is truly a masterpiece. – It is well balanced, believable and honest.

Laurence Anyways (2012)

When procrastinating one day at university, I stumbled across the trailer to Laurence Anyways, Xavier Dolan’s 2012 drama and Cannes debutant. I added it to my list of films to watch and continued to read about something dark and German related (most likely). Out of the blue I discovered that Laurence Anyways was screening at Kino International just around the corner from Alexanderplatz – perfect, or at least so I thought. Dolan taught me many things that evening, most importantly the importance of checking a films running time and then checking whether public transport will still be running – at 169 minutes this film is a long one, and an unnecessarily long one at that. I must be honest and say that my first impression was positive. 120 minutes plus in, and numerous unnecessarily long scenes later, my impression had somewhat changed. It had reached the point where I was desperately second guessing when (if?) this film was finally going to end. From the trailer I had discovered Moderat’s A New Error and fallen in love with this amazing track, and when this song finally played (I was waiting for it, as I knew it featured somewhere along the line) it was used in the Ile au Noir scene (see video above) – this, I believed, was a perfect ending. Visually and aurally this scene was sublime and was easily one of the films best; but everything continued.

By the time I came to leave, I quite honestly didn’t care what happened to Fred or Laurence. I didn’t care about artistic scenes, soundtracks and questions of sexuality and gender identity. I stupidly decided that as a result of my exhaustion, this film was ‘crap’. Yet something strange happened in the coming week. My boyfriend and I would discuss it more and more, we would rewatch scenes on Youtube and eventually we realised that actually we loved it after all, and so now I found myself back at square one – right back where I was when I saw the trailer. Intrigued and impressed.

So what I am trying to say is that this film is in fact great. It doesn’t make for a great ‘cinema experience’ (in the sense of sitting in a room with a crowd of strangers who can’t do anything quietly), but instead it is a brilliant piece of cinematography, and only if you give it the chance. Apart from the scene above, another stand out scene is the Scene du Bal (below) which again demonstrates Dolan’s aptitude for synching aural and visual elements perfectly. The soundtrack to this film was perfect and as you can see from the clip, costume and makeup were outstanding too. Melvil Poupaud and Suzanne Clément give strong and deeply emotional performances – particularly Clément’s portrayal of Fred – Laurence’s partner and soulmate. Clément’s character, in my eyes, stands out much more than Poupaud’s performance, which is reflected in her win at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard Best Actress category.

If you can spare the time, this film is a must see for so many different reasons. I haven’t even touched on the films exploration of (trans-)gender identity and sexuality here – there are so many different levels and layers to this film and it is difficult to take it all into account all at once and in one place.

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(2009) עיניים פקוחות

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Eyes Wide Open is a film I have wanted to write about for a long time, having watched it well over two years ago, I finally got around to getting my own copy and watching it again. As you may have already realised I have a penchant for Israeli queer cinema and have previous written about The Bubble, Yossi & Jagger and it’s sequel Yossi. Here we have a film directed by Haim Tabakman, not Eytan Fox. Moving away from the liberal metropolis of Tel Aviv, this film is set in deeply orthodox Jerusalem and it’s surroundings.

Aaron is recovering from mourning his father’s death and decides to reopen his father’s butchers. The young Ezri comes to Jerusalem to confront his boyfriend who is uncomfortable with his homosexuality and a conflict with his religion. Looking for an assistant Aaron takes on Ezri despite the rumours that are rife in this small community where everyone knows everyone else’s business. As a friendship develops between the two of them, it becomes clear that both men have feelings for each other. Ezri, despite his orthodox stance, is much more at ease with his sexuality than Aaron, who is married with children. Soon the tension becomes too much and they end up sleeping together. As rumours begin to spread (they do not spread on fact, but instead merely on the notion that Ezri has brought a bad reputation with him) trouble increases for the pair and for Aaron’s family. Aaron is warned, and later threatened as a result of his involvement. As everything escalates, Aaron fells alive for the first time in years but realises that he can’t live this double life.

The film is very touching and covers a wide range of issues. Aaron is also involved with the modesty police and his seen to threaten a man who is believed for be unsuitable for a friend’s daughter. Throughout the film the audience sees how patriarchal this society is and how much danger Ezri, and later Aaron, could be in if they are discovered. This film is in stark contrast to the liberal and privileged lives Fox’s characters live in Tel Aviv and as a result highlights the paradoxes so rife in Israeli society today – society, religion and politics all fight for the upper hand.

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Contracorriente (2009)

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Set in Peru this 2009 film, Undertow in the English speaking world, by Javier Fuentes-León tackles the love triangle between Miguel, Mariela and eventually Santiago. Miguel is married to Mariela and they are expecting their first child in this deeply traditional and religious village on the Peruvian coastline. I personally found the film quite difficult to judge and while I didn’t dislike it, I didn’t find it compelling at the same time.

Credit where credit is due though, this film is quite unique in the fact that the villages post-mortem rituals are central to the storyline. It was a fresh look at what can be a tired script. It was also nice to see some queer cinema from South America. Don’t expect to blown away, but I would still recommend this touching and emotional film.

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Brotherhood (2009)

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The most homophobic groups are often the most homoerotic – nothing could prove this more than the National Socialist regime. In fact, Lars even mentions Ernst Röhm, Hitler’s right hand man and close friend who, despite the official party line, survived as an openly homosexual man until he became too powerful. Lars (Thure Lindhardt) was a former Danish service man until rumours of his sexuality led to his removal from the forces. Already extremist to some extent, Lars becomes involved in the local Neo Nazi group – at first he resists, claiming he isn’t a violent man. As he becomes more involved he quickly rises in the ranks and is given full membership. Jimmy, another Neo Nazi renovating the groups ‘holiday’ cottage, takes him in (albeit begrudgingly) and they bond until the sexual tension becomes too much and the pair accept their sexuality that the others violently oppose. At first, Jimmy tries to brush this off as a mistake but eventually finds himself coming back to Lars for more. Secluded in the woods, no one can find them – or so they think. As events spiral out of control the group reacts to the news the only way they know how – with violence.

While this film is emotionally charged, it, like many Scandinavian art forms, tackles the darker issues that flow in the icy undercurrent throughout Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Just like Wallander and The Bridge, these productions highlight the societal issues these countries face when it comes to migration and integration. It is, as a result, an interesting and unusual look at queer issues alongside the threat of right wing extremism. It is also a pleasure to see Thure Lindhardt performing in his native tongue – he later stars in Keep the Lights On. Much like Eytan Fox’s films and Sally El Hosaini’s My Brother the Devil, this tackles wider issues in society with a queer subtext.

This, unlike Keep the Lights On, is a film I can really recommend if you are looking for something different.

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Yossi (2012)

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Yossi is Eytan Fox’s sequel to Yossi and Jagger, which I have never written about despite seeing it a few months ago – I will write about both here.

Like all of Eytan Fox’s famous films, this stars Ohad Knoller as the films lead. The film is quite slow, but this reflects the melancholia that Yossi is experiencing. Since leaving the army (and the death of his lover/boyfriend Jagger), Yossi has thrown himself at his career – training to become a heart surgeon. He works tirelessly, never takes holidays and returns to his dark apartment only to watch TV, porn, and to fall asleep, exhausted by life, on the sofa – or even in his car. One day Jagger’s mother comes to the hospital and this reawakens Yossi grief. He endeavours to tell the family that their son was gay and that he died in Yossi’s loving arms – he is unsure if Jagger heard him say ‘I love you’ as he drifted in and out of consciousness before his death and this has haunted him ever since. With the negative reaction from the mother, less so from the father, Yossi decides to take his first holiday. Giving a lift to a bunch of soldiers, who missed their bus, he notices Tom’s attraction to him. Now this sounds very predictable… however, this is not a predictable love story. They don’t make eyes at each other and wake up next to each other the next morning. Yossi is so emotionally damaged by his time in the army, the death of Jagger, the secret of his sexuality (he is yet to come out) and his body hang-ups that nothing happens for a painstaking hour.

Eytan Fox is always semi-political in his film, never really confronting the issue head on but instead hinting heavily. Here, he is clearly commenting on how Israel has changed in terms of it’s sexual liberalism – Tom serves as an openly gay man in the army (but his parents still do not know). This is very different from when Yossi was in the army, and those who have seen Yossi and Jagger, will remember how secretive the two had to be. It was only in the final moments of Jagger’s life that Yossi could even attempt to be loving to him in public and that was only because he had no choice – his time was limited before it was too late to declare his love.

This film handles a lot of issues very successfully. The older, closeted gay man haunted by his past is given a new lease of life by the ‘new’ Israeli gay man. Jagger and Tom’s family’s lack of knowledge/acceptance prevents the film from being too utopian, however. Fox also highlights the issues surrounding online hook-ups, with the cocky man who humiliates Yossi for using an older picture of himself online, but still asks for a blow job “before they call it a night”. It is unclear as to whether Yossi complies, in his cocoon of self-loathing, or whether he stands up for himself and leaves.

Having read a few professional and non-professional reviews, some were disappointed that Tom ‘forces himself’ on Yossi. I would say this is exactly what he needed to get him back on his feet. Yossi didn’t need someone to tell him he was fat and a shadow of his former self. He didn’t need someone who left the light off when they have sex. He needed brash and (over-)confident Tom to bring him back to modern day Israel and to finally help him out of the cycle of depression he found himself in.

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My Brother the Devil (2012)

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This film featured at the BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, which I unfortunately didn’t get to catch until I was back in the comfort of my own home. This film is widely regarded as a huge success, with many awards to its name and a very impressive 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. Directed by Sally El Hosaini – an Egyptian Welsh director – the story centres around Rashid (played by the striking James Floyd) and his brother Mo (Fady Elsayed) and their lives in the depths of East London. Older brother Rashid is deeply embroiled in gang culture but after a particularly harrowing innocent he takes a step back – partly influenced by Sayyid (Saïd Taghmaoui), an affluent photographer also originally from North Africa. Mo, however, becomes more and more embroiled in the gang culture his brother has tried to deter him from for so long. The queer dynamic of this film takes a backseat and doesn’t come to light until much later in the film – something that is actually very refreshing, if a little predictable in its execution. Rashid falls for Sayyad and Mo soon discovers. An earlier line haunts the audience – “live East, die young” – as Mo gets into the gang culture too deep and this mixes with his anger and confusion regarding his brother’s sexuality.

Much like Feo Aladag’s Die Fremde (When We Leave) (2010), this film focuses on immigrant families and their attitudes and behaviour towards family members that test the limits of their beliefs and traditions. Here Rashid is struggling with his sexuality and Mo with the temptations of following the crowd in East London. In Die Fremde, Umay leaves her abusive husband in Turkey and returns to her family in Berlin and then has an abortion. Her brother’s are also involved in the criminal underworld and the violence at the end of both films holds similarities – not only in the choice of weapon, but also the fact that the victims are not the ones intended. Despite the differences in themes and setting, these films have many parallels and consider the issues (positive and negative) behind immigration and integration.

My Brother the Devil is a film that is deeply powerful and emotional. The subject matter is handled at an appropriate level without being hyperbolic or biased. Sally El Hosaini has created a fantastic account of the issues above and deserves all the praise she receives. The only question that remains is which brother is the devil and from which perspective this comes from?

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White Night (2012)

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A couple of weeks ago the BFI Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (LLGFF) was on on London’s Southbank and due to a tight schedule the only film available to book was White Night, or Baek Ya in Korean. Really we wanted to see Petunia by Ash Christian but unfortunately it was fully booked. Maybe we should have taken this has a sign, but being interested in South Korea and world cinema we decided to give this a go. It turns out White Night was awful. Directed by Leesong Hee-il, one of South Korea’s foremost queer directors, this film is part of a trilogy. To be honest, I am not even sure where or how it went wrong. Yes, there were some beautiful shots of what I could only assume was Seoul. The main characters were attractive and in the background there was a tragic story of homophobia in South Korea, which is what has made Won-Gyu, the returning flight attendant and central protagonist, the cold and deeply unemotional person that he is. I have never seen a character that is so difficult to relate to or to empathise with. This could be where it went wrong – Won-Gyu was such a horrible character that often answered questions with silence and as a result it is difficult to watch and can be difficult to follow. I am intrigued as to the quality of the subtitles as I somehow feel that something was maybe lost in translation.

Attending the Festival really made me feel that it is high time something changes in queer cinema, it can be so predictable and stereotyped – the characters are always damaged, drug users who can’t let anyone in, and while I realise that this is sometimes necessary and an indictment of the homophobia in our society it would be nice to have something either hard hitting but interesting or something lighthearted – Loose Cannons comes to mind. I have seen some very good queer cinema over the last couple of years but unfortunately this falls into the same category as Coming Out and Keep the Lights On

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