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.

Equal Marriage?

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This weekend the ‘UK’ became the 8th state in Europe to legalise same-sex marriage, placing it in a small group alongside Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Spain. While this is a historic moment, and certainly one to celebrate no matter what your view point on marriage as an institution, it is also a moment to reflect on the progress that has been made, and most importantly, on the progress still to be made.

It is pretty striking that only 8 nations in Europe offer full marriage equality. These countries are more or less neighbours and form the Western section of Europe. It is, however, slightly misleading to consider the UK as a nation of full marriage equality, considering that the law passed only covers England and Wales. Scotland will allow same-sex marriages from Autumn this year onwards, and Northern Ireland does not foresee a discussion in the near future. This is not something unusual, and is in fact similar to the stalemate that Germany finds itself in today.

Marriage equality is, most importantly, not the only yardstick to measure equality by. Legislation counts for one half, but the other half must be counted against public attitude and day-to-day life. While it is great that same-sex couples can marry in a country where it was a crime to even be gay 47 years ago, it is crucial to remember that same-sex couples do not necessary feel safe to behave in public as a straight couple might. Homosexuals still have to consider coming out over and over again, and wonder if it will effect their life at work and other aspects of their daily routine.  Homosexuals are still beaten up and attacked in acts of homophobic violence. Of course, these are problems that affect different people in different areas on numerous levels, but even at a base level, homosexuals still have to endure name-calling, heckling and snide remarks. While marriage equality is a huge step in the right direction, until suicide rates, hate crimes levels and the above listed significantly drop, there is still a lot to fight for. Away from home, and around the world there are plenty of much larger issues and more dangerous circumstances that we must bear in mind. We have not reached a stage where we can rest on our laurels.

Various recent examples include:

On the topic of marriage equality: BBC – “Fifth of Britons would turn down invitation”

On whether ‘marriage equality’ is even a valid term: Buzzfeed – “6 ways the UK still doesn’t have marriage equality”

Perhaps the most powerful presentation of the reality of discrimination: Panti’s Noble Call 

(I do not own the rights to this image)

 

Please Like Me

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A post entitled Please Like Me may sound like a self indulgent plead for attention, but fortunately it is actually the title of Australia’s answer to… Girls (but I want to avoid this one word summation, because it is really so much more). Aired in Spring 2013, I learnt about the six part series in this month’s Attitude – where the series was compared to Lena Dunham’s Girls and Simon Amstell’s Grandma’s House – both of which I love and both of which are fair comparisons.

Enough about similarities though. This show is a little bit of a slow starter, but it picks up by the second episode.  Created by Josh Thomas, the series follows the awkward life (in the way that all 20-something have an awkward life) of 20 year old Josh (played by Thomas himself), and his group of friends. In the opening scene we learn that Josh is gay, something most of his friends and family have know for a long time, yet something that seems to be news to Josh. In the first of the surreal events in this series, Josh unwittingly meets his first boyfriend Geoffrey by chance, as Geoffrey throws himself on Josh at best friend Tom’s office. Thomas’ comedy is refreshing, dark and highly focused on awkward situations, comic juxtapositions and those moments that you always thought could only happen to you.

Without going into the plot too much, one scene that comes to mind is when Geoffrey and Josh first attempt sex. Josh’s ex-girlfriend (of only a couple of days ago) is sitting in the living room as the two head to Josh’s room. Worried that the others will hear them, Josh asks Geoffrey to put some music on. Perfectly, and somewhat appropriately (this is his first time after all), Geoffrey chooses music from the second act of Romeo & Juliet because “it’s romantic “.

The series is a great portrayal of life as a young 20-something, and a refreshing portrayal of life as a young 20-something gay man. Josh is an angst-y and awkward character with a dark sense of humour, that largely goes straight over Geoffrey’s head. The show doesn’t dwell on Josh’s coming out  and he doesn’t especially struggle with his sexuality, but instead with the difficulties that life throws us all and this is what makes the series a real hit. So much so, it has been recommissioned for a second series.

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.

The Velvet Rage

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Alan Downs’ The Velvet Rage was brought to my attention by Buzzfeed’s ’27 must have queer summer reads’ standing at number two. Intrigued I decided to buy a copy and see what the fuss was about, having done a little psychology at school made me wonder what Downs was going to discuss. I was slightly concerned about the ‘self help’-esque style, but as the Observer recommendation on the cover states The Velvet Rage is “[a] touchstone in gay culture just as Goodbye to Berlin was in the 30s…” I thought it would be worth a read.

Unfortunately, I could sense from the first page that this book was not aimed at me, and even less so, actually of interest to me. As I pushed through the first 130 pages, bemused, yet oddly willing to read on, I finally gave up, however, when I just couldn’t take any more. I finally put the book down on the commute to work as I read:

“It is rare that a gay man makes it from young adulthood into middle age without suffering at least moderate relationship trauma. The odds are stacked wildly against the possibility that even the most well-adjusted gay man would choose to be in a relationship with another well-adjusted gay man. It rarely happens. And so, two wounded men come together in what starts as a loving union and often ends in a traumatic and heart-wounding separation.”

For me, that was it. I had really tried to make it through this book, taking what was said with a pinch of salt and hoping it would somehow save itself from being hyperbolic and chronically reductive. From the very first pages, this book only talks of  gay stereotypes, focusing on ‘scene queens’, drug abuse and promiscuous sex.  The book is hugely sweeping, assuming that all gay men have a mother who ‘mothered’ too much and a father who didn’t care enough, which, for a start, reinforces gender stereotypes. It goes on to say all gay men have amazing jobs and houses and live a life of luxury. I felt as if the book was constantly trying to tell me I was damaged and could therefore never seek happiness, despite the fact that I live a perfectly happy life.

Of course, the book does lead up to a climax that I guess tells you how to live a happy/happier life, and that happiness is achievable, but this is a climax I never reached and frankly couldn’t be bothered too. After being constantly bombarded with reasons why I should feel shame and trauma, I realised the ‘happy ending’ wasn’t even worth reaching. It isn’t worth crawling through this book for a solitary chapter at the end that claims everything is going to be fine. Throughout Downs seems to be offloading his own shame and trauma onto the reader, like he has become tired of practising psychology and finally wants someone else to take on this burden.

This book isn’t only anything but enlightening, but it also risks being damaging. With campaigns like ‘It Gets Better’ striving hard to, quite rightly, tell teenagers that being gay is okay and that it does indeed get better, this book risks reversing this. I can’t imagine that a teenager struggling with his (or her, although Downs does open by explaining this book isn’t aimed anyone who identifies as a lesbian) sexuality would find much comfort in this book, unless he pushes through to the end, which if he is seriously doubting his sexuality seems unlikely. The first 130 pages (at least) would, if anything, almost reinforce the negative or confused feelings he might be having. This book doesn’t celebrate homosexuality, it promotes gay stereotypes. This book is very narrow in its target audience and doesn’t include the “entire generation of gay men” it sets out to.

(I do not own the rights to this image)

The Invisible Men (2012)

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Last night I watched The Invisible Men; Yariv Mozer’s polemic documentary about the situation of gay Palestinians inside Israel. The documentary follows the lives of three men, Louie, Abdu and Faris, who have escaped from the Palestinian territories across the border into Israel.

Tel Aviv is well known for its gay scene and relative equality compared to other Middle Eastern countries when it comes to homosexuality. Homosexuality is legal in Israel, and homosexuals enjoy much the same rights as in Europe. Equal marriage isn’t legal, however, and, of course Jerusalem is somewhat a special case when compared to Tel Aviv. Despite all this, this tolerance doesn’t extend to homosexual Palestinian refugees, and as a result they live their lives in fear of being sent back across the border into the Palestinian territories, where their families, friends and the police are often waiting to attack.

The documentary focuses on Louie, who has a noticeable scar on his face from when his father attacked him with a knife after finding out about his homosexuality. He has lived illegally in Israel for 10 years, mostly avoiding the police but occasionally being returned across the border. He meets with Abdu who has applied for humanitarian asylum in Europe. While this may seem like the logical option, this is a difficult decision to make. Applying for asylum in Europe is a long process with no guarantee. Furthermore, for these men, Europe is a world apart from the world they have grown up in. Obviously, they will be able to live openly as homosexuals in Europe in relative safety (the EU Fundamental Rights Agency survey has proved, however, that even Western Europe isn’t a utopia for gay rights and equality), but they will be alone and a long way from home. On top of this, they will experience a language barrier and it is unlikely they will return to Israel or the Palestinian territories any time in the near future. Louie doesn’t want to leave Israel. He was born there and has lived there this entire life, but a lack of an Israeli birth stamp and residency papers means that he cannot legally stay in Israel or apply for Israeli asylum.

This raises many, many questions. This film was only made possible because all three men ended up gaining asylum in Europe and as a result they are now safe from their families and the Israeli police force and the Magav (the border force). Politics is obviously a huge and contentious issue in this area of the world and it is something for which there is no clear and simple answer. Palestinian citizens need to be able to claim asylum in Israel on the basis of sexual discrimination in the Palestinian territories, however. Israel is progressive in terms of its policies concerning homosexuality, and as we see time and time again from Eytan Fox’s films (for example) gay Palestinians could live happy and safe lives in Israel just like homosexuals do from many other countries in the world. This would mean they would not have to leave the Middle East to find safety, and would solve a lot of the fundamental issues that face them everyday, or issues that they would face in Europe. Here Israel has the opportunity to become a safe-haven and model for rest of the Middle East on social reform and sexual equality. At the very least the police forces should be more understanding of the plight of these men, instead of simply seeing them as the Palestinian papers they hold.

This documentary is very moving, and can be difficult to watch at times. The stories these men tell, and the obvious fears they have are testaments to the inequalities of this world. There are many sub-issues that influence this particular problem (all of which are political) and it seems a crying injustice that these men should be returned to, what is essentially, their deaths on the grounds of their sexuality and their nationality. If we are to promote that all love is equal in the Western World then we need to think of our brothers and sisters all over the world that are discriminated against to the point of death on a daily basis.

Die Zeit newspaper in Germany recently ran a story on Palestinian gay men in Tel Aviv, which featured many heart-breaking stories of boys being pushed from pillar to post, back and forth across the border in a fight with the Israeli police and their families. One boy had been in Tel Aviv since he was a teenager; he was raped as a child but his father believed his rapist’s lies because of the position he held in their town. As a result, he punished his son, locked him up and physically and mentally abused him. When the boy finally managed to escape he crossed the border to Israel. Living in an abandoned bus station he was involved with drugs and lived in fear of the police. He once returned home, only to be attacked again by his family. The article, entitled Wir Kinder vom Busbahnhof (Us children from the bus station) is available here in full, if you speak German.

I can only assume there are only stories of male homosexuals in this situation in the press and on film because, as is often the case when homosexuals are persecuted, the (all too often) men in charge in these countries do not see lesbianism as a real threat for reasons that link back to misogynistic ideologies. Whereas male homosexuals are often seen, and portrayed in propaganda, as dangerous and ‘infectious’ bodies due to the penetrative nature of sex between men. There seems to be a belief that female sexuality is also not a threat because this is a ‘weak decision’ that can be changed by a man. Men are scared of other men that threaten their masculinity or patriarchy. For more information surrounding this, see research into the persecution of homosexuals in the Third Reich – particularly Richard Plant’s seminal text, The Pink Triangle. Ernst Röhm is a fine example of a gay man who became too powerful and was killed by the fears of his fellow party members.

Finally, the Israeli LGBT+ organisation can be reached here (in English and Hebrew) and they feature as helpers in the asylum process in Mozer’s documentary. More information about Mozer’s documentary can be found here.

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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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Coming Out (1989)

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I really wanted to like this film. Truly. I tried. Unfortunately I could only stand to watch half and that was, to be honest, only because I enjoyed the shots of Berlin back in the late 80s and noting how the Alexanderplatz/Weinmeisterstraße area still looks the same today.

I realise that perhaps I am being unfair comparing Coming Out, produced in East Germany in 1989, to Taxi zum Klo from the West in 1980. These are very different films, from very different places and from very different and turbulent times and the fact that this film was made at all is something that should be praised. However, this film has aged and died, much like the the Communist East and its one party politics, rapidly.

The film is essentially (without wanting to ruin the plot) about a man who struggles with his sexuality and forms a relationship with a woman. He is a teacher. He soon realises he is perhaps gay. He explores this and, from what I can tell from the Wikipedia page, in the part of the film that I skipped, he falls in love with a character who made an appearance earlier in the film. This is all very well but I found it uncomfortable and just another one of those stories about a gay-man-in-a-heterosexual-relationship-who-stuggles-with-his-sexuality-and-eventually-leaves-his-girlfriend.

This really wasn’t the groundbreaking queer cinema classic I was expecting and it seems to be riding off the back of its, albeit spectacular historical timing (it screened on the night the Berlin Wall fell), instead of off the back of its storyline, cinematography and passion.

(I do not own this image, nor this film (thankfully)).

Taxi zum Klo (1981)

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As one of the first, if not the first, explicitly queer themed film to come out of (West) Germany, Taxi zum Klo is a lost classic, which tells us much about society at the beginning of the 1980s. Followed by a string of, albeit less well known, queer films Taxi zum Klo is perhaps less famous than the East German offering, Coming Out (1989) – however this first screened on the night the Berlin Wall fell, which probably helped it secure it this place.

Mostly autobiographical and filmed non-professionally by a team of Frank Rippioh’s friends Frank tells the story of himself, a gay teacher in 1980s West Berlin. For Frank sex plays an all-encompassing role in his life and this is not shied away from on screen (hence the certificate ‘18’ rating).

Taxi zum Klo studies many different themes, mainly the concept of sexuality and the definition of sexuality. Frank struggles with the boxes people, including his partner Bernd, continue to put him in. He wants the relationship that Bernd offers him, but he also wants to explore himself sexually and not live in a routine – at one point he becomes enraged when Bernd calls him home for his dinner. The film is (in)famous for its risqué sex scenes, even by today’s standards. At times the film slips into pornography (Interior Leather Bar?), perhaps most famously the watersports scene. In this respect, this may not be a first step into queer cinema, certainly if it is your parents you are introducing to queer classics.

Despite the amateur nature of this film, the camera work has a certain beauty to it. One scene sees Frank cruising in the depths of winter, and in the background you see Berlin’s famous Siegessäule, or Victory Column. Not only is this an interesting image, juxtaposing the city to Frank’s sexuality, but also Siegessäule is now actually the name of one of Berlin’s queer publications. On another level this could be cryptic innuendo, or juxtaposition to Imperial Germany and its suppression of anything that wasn’t ‘manly’ in the early 1900s.

The film is often quite intense to watch, but there is something deeply interesting about the film; maybe it’s the risqué nature, maybe it is the characters, or maybe it is the production work. Honestly, I think it is the way it handles the topic of sexuality so openly and freely – something that Berlin has continued to do to this day. There are interesting juxtapositions to his school life and the lives of his fellow teachers, but also to the prostitute in the STI clinic. These juxtapositions continue throughout and are often layered over other scenes to juxtapose them further. Most important though are the scenes when Frank drives through the city while we hear his stream of consciousness – these scenes reveal Frank’s desires, thoughts and concerns at a most intimate level. Overall this seems to be an unsung hero of queer cinema and a relic from a time when in many countries in Europe homosexuality was only just legal. (Homosexuality was decriminalised in West Germany in 1969, and in 1968 in the East).

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HaBuah (The Bubble) – 2006

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Recently I have been really into Eytan Fox’s films, having watched Yossi & Jagger and reading about Yossi, his most recent film. This is when I came across The Bubble. As I have mentioned before I am huge fan of world cinema and I have a special place in my heart for films set in Israel or other Middle Eastern countries (including Waltz with Bashir (Israel) and Persepolis (Iran) and Eyes Wide Open (Israel)). Apart from the fact that these are all wonderful films, I also have a desire to travel to Israel, so this probably plays a part too. The Bubble is a refreshing film based in modern Tel Aviv and follows a group of liberal and hedonistic friends as they fight the system and open people’s eyes to the wrongs in society. Furthermore it is also a film about the tensions between Israel and Palestine with Noam being Israeli and his love interest, Ashraf, being Palestinian. Alongside this political tension we see a tension between cultures and religions. Ashraf’s family are muslim and disapprove of his homosexuality. As the above image shows, Ashraf always feels like an outsider compared to the liberated original friendship group. This film manages to tackle so many issues and it does so while being entertaining and emotional. My only issue with the film is what Noam is played by Ohad Knoller, who also plays Yossi in Yossi & Jagger. This, of course, isn’t really a fair criticism but it was something that confused me at first and made me wonder if there was a link between the films (there wasn’t). I won’t give away the ending but it is a powerful, memorable, surprising and poignant ending to the film which is still as relevant in todays Israel as it was 7 years ago.

(I do not own this image).