Arab Queer Cinema Emerges to Break Taboos
Said Mrini (left) as a young Abdellah Taïa in Salvation Army

One of the most revealing moments of the recently concluded Ramadan TV season occurred in the new Egyptian series, Don’t Turn Off the Sun. A newly-wedded young wife finds out that her husband is having an affair with his male friend; a liaison that ultimately leads to the dissolution of their marriage. The most telling aspect of what was potentially perceived as a provocative move from the series’ makers was the fact that it didn’t stir any controversy at all.

This was not the first time a gay character made an appearance in an Arab TV series. In fact, plotlines involving homosexuals have become a staple feature on Arab screens. But what’s remarkable about Don’t Turn Off the Sun is its progressive, sympathetic treatment of its gay characters. The orientation of the husband as gay or bisexual is kept ambiguous, and his behavior is seen as a naturally confused reaction to a society that continues to punish any non-heteronormative conduct.

Still under the firm control of politicized religious institutions, and devoid of a counterculture movement, the road to a pacified representation of L.G.B.T. on the Arab screen has been long and turbulent. Valiant attempts by a small number of filmmakers such as Youssef Chahine and Yousry Nasrallah stood out in the long history of misrepresentation, marginalization, and vilification of gays, beginning from the 1980s onwards. It’s these attempts that bore fruit to an emerging wave of gay-themed films confronting the social structures of Arab nations head on.

As the oldest film industry in the region, Egyptian cinema was the first to tackle homosexuality in various films from as early as the 1950s, such as Salah Abou Seif’s Dead End Road (1957). Treated with an erratic mixture of subtlety and manic exaggeration, the gay supporting player in those films always fell into hackneyed ascribed categories: sexual predators, psychologically deranged, or westernized liberals.

As Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism became more dominant in the region, the representation of L.G.B.T. in cinema remained stagnant in its one-dimensionality. A notable number of films such as Marwan Hamed’s The Yacoubian Building (2006) endeavored to flesh out their sympathetic gay protagonists, but were obliged to find psychological validations, such as childhood sexual molestation, to justify the sexuality of their characters. The same goes for Hany Fawzy’s ludicrous Family Secrets (2013), whose central character eventually undergoes therapy and is miraculously cured from his gay “disease.” In The Yacoubian Building and copious other Egyptian commercial movies that followed, gays were ultimately deemed as rotten catalysts for the disintegration of society, and thus handed cruel punishment at the end.

Disparate post-millennial efforts from different filmmakers working outside the mainstream have tussled to present atypical, multi-dimensional gay characters. Examples include the diffident, enigmatic hairdresser in Nadine Labaki’s Lebanese smash Caramel (2007), and the second-generation Arab-European lovers at the center of Welsh-Egyptian Sally El Hosaini’s U.K.-set crime drama, My Brother the Devil (2012).

Lebanon has always been the most liberal and tolerant Arab country when it comes to L.G.B.T. issues—a recent court order conceding that homosexuality is not illegal is the first of its kind in the Arab world. And it’s in Lebanon where the first wave of Arab queer cinema is surfacing. It is a movement ushered by openly gay Arab filmmakers whose pictures explore the full spectrum of the modern Arab L.G.B.T. experience using a myriad of narrative and aesthetic devices.

The first film to announce the movement was Samer Daboul’s Out Loud (2001), a multi-character drama at the center of which is a persecuted young gay couple who take refuge in a hippie commune. The production of the film was infamously disrupted by anti-gay protests, which forced Daboul to finish editing in the United States.

No fewer than four films delivered by openly gay Lebanese filmmakers have been released over the past 12 months: Raed Rafei’s Eccomi... Eccoti; Selim Mourad’s The Emperor of Austria; Anthony Chidiac’s Room for a Man; and Mohamed Sabbah’s Chronic. Chidiac and Sabbah’s films are the more ambitious of the bunch. Queerness is front and center in both stories, but by integrating sexual politics within a larger socio-political framework, both films demonstrate the limitless possibilities Arab queer cinema can reach.

Contrary to Daboul, these filmmakers did not face tangible obstacles making their films. “Things are changing. Read more films tackling homosexuality are being produced now, and we’re no longer afraid of making our films,” Sabbah told me. Chronic premiered at the Beirut Cinema Days Festival in March to a largely warm reception. The film is an experimental non-fiction drama that uses a film audition as a springboard to explore sexuality, the Syrian War and the lingering legacy of colonization.

“I think people are ready for these stories now. I realize there’s more resistance in the rest of the Arab world, but this resistance is rooted in stereotypes and clichéd representations, and that’s why we need to present an alternative narrative that shows the reality of things. We need to break these stereotypes.”Sabbah added.

Queerness is not the main motif behind these stories, as Sabbah asserts. “I don’t have a message I want to promote. I am, however, a gay person and this identity will always be an integral, if not, the central competent of my films.”

Sabbah believes Lebanon’s religious diversity, and lack of an overarching religious authority as in other Sunni-dominant Arab states, allows space for a level of social and cultural expression, particularly when it comes to L.G.B.T. In much of the Arab world, homosexuality remains illegal with severe punishment. Degrees of tolerance vary from one state to the other, but L.G.B.T. communities often face regular harassment and crackdowns from state authorities, with religion and morality often evoked to arouse public sentiment.

The erratic witch hunt largely prompted award-winning Moroccan author and director Abdellah Taïa—the first openly gay Moroccan writer—to leave his hometown Salé in 1998 and move to Paris where he embarked on a highly successful literary career. His deeply felt, beautifully lensed 2013 film adaptation of his memoir, The Salvation Army, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, is a major stepping stone in the young course of the Arab queer movement.

“I didn’t want to tell my story as a gay person; I wanted to tell the story of what was happening in my childhood house,” Taïa told me. “And there was a lot of things happening in this house: poverty, love, transgression. I wanted to deal with the poor reality of Morocco, and the enforced rules of politics, religion, and society.”

Like Sabbah’s, Taïa’s film didn’t have problems obtaining the local censorship approval to shoot in Morocco, although it was ruthlessly attacked at various stages of production. After its premiere at the Tangier Film Festival in 2014, “the audience felt embarrassed,” he said. “It was the first time they had a gay hero. They were laughing. The press conference was like a battlefield. It was extremely aggressive.”

For Taïa, he credits Egyptian cinema for inspiring him, thus stressing in the importance of images and narratives generated from within Arab culture. “I saw those images as a continuation of me and my stories,” Taïa said. “Those were the images that helped me to deal with my Moroccan reality.”

Despite the substantial change in perception among various groups toward L.G.B.T. in the Arab world, widespread acceptance remains an elusive, farfetched end. State crackdowns and mob attacks on suspected gay men remain frequent in many parts of the region.

“It’s a fact that gay people are not loved on this earth, and that’s why we need to have our stories told,” Taïa said, adding that his future projects will continue to focus on gay Arab lives. “After decolonization, Arab leaders tried to convince their citizens they’re nothing. But now, and after the Arab Spring, and despite what happened afterwards, people are finally standing up to their governments to prove they’re not nothing,” he added.

The Arab queer cinema movement is one new emergent reality contributing to an ever-changing Arab society, and forcing it to question the rules and structures that have maintained social and state order in the region for decades.

“Things are changing in Arab societies, even if they’re on a minor scale. The use of religion to criminalize homosexuality is purely political. I am a Muslim, and there’s nothing in the Qur’an against homosexuality. There’s lots of ambiguity about it.”

Image: Strand Releasing