Soura film festival's quest to normalise Mideastern queer stories
"They want trauma porn!" says British-Iraqi filmmaker Amrou Al-Kadhi, the drag performer and author behind the short film "Run[a]way Arab" (2018) which portrays the relationship between an Arab mother and her son as she discovers him dressing up in her clothes. "'Wouldn't the mother be more violent to the kid when he tries on make-up?' or 'I was expecting more conflict'" Al-Kadhi recounts reactions to their film in the UK.
The 30-year-old says they find it enraging that queer Middle Eastern filmmakers are often not allowed to tell their stories on their own terms.
"In the UK, people have assumptions that queer Arab work probably has a lot of trauma, and so when you pitch comedy or something, it often doesn't fit the white commissioner's idea of what a queer Arab work should look like".
But in the Middle East, queer work is even harder to finance, and even when it does find support, is frequently censored. Frustrations like these have inspired the emergence of a handful of film festivals dedicated to Middle-Eastern LGBTQ+ storytelling. The newest of which is Berlin's Soura Film Festival.
The festival will take place this week in the Neukölln district – a stone's throw away from Sonnenallee, which after two waves of Arab immigration has been dubbed 'Arab Street'.
|In the Middle East, queer work is hard to finance
and often censored [Run[a]way Arab]
The festival is a first of its kind in Europe focusing on queer cinema coming from the Middle East and North Africa. Now in its second year, the festival joins Beirut's Aflumnah festival and the Mawjoudin ("We Exist") Queer Film Festival in Tunis. But for a conservative region that is not traditionally accepting of LGBTQ+ people; how do the queer films that screen at these festivals get made?
A large chunk of the funding for Middle Eastern LGBTQ+ films comes from western institutions or production companies, which leaves queer Middle Eastern filmmakers, caught between a rock and a hard place.
For Jordanian filmmaker and educator Saleem Salameh, there is "a question mark on the policy and the agenda of those funders". But the same problem also exists with Middle Eastern institutional funding, which will often pass up on films that are perceived as 'too queer'.
Salameh is in the early stages of pre-production for his film about Nour –an amateur male belly dancer. The film opens with a slender, slight man in a peach-coloured sirwal; his eyes are doused in eyeliner. With long hair down to his shoulders; he does a shimmy, then a belly roll. We hear rapturous whistling and clapping. A plume of blue smoke rises off a stage, he keeps on dancing but the audience is never seen.
|For many queer Middle-eastern filmmakers the only way to maintain their artistic vision is by bypassing the traditional gatekeepers.|
For many queer Middle Eastern filmmakers the only way to maintain their artistic vision is by bypassing the traditional gatekeepers, as was the case with the 2019 short film 'Marco'. The production team behind Marco opted to crowdfund, while also accepting private donations from LGBTQ+ funders. The film was recently uploaded to YouTube skirting censorship and has since garnered over 56,000 views "especially from places like Saudi Arabia".
It's a shrewd move considering distribution is another area where most of the problems come up for queer content.
Another major hurdle is censorship in a region that is sensitive to controversial content -- and not only LGBTQ+ stories.
"If producers put money in, they want to see a return on their investment through distribution – at least regionally. But censorship in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, in fact, much of the Middle East, means most of those movies cannot get a theatrical release" says Soura's head programmer Louise Malherbe.
But increasingly filmmakers are reaching audiences on many platforms outside of a traditional theatrical release.
"There has been an explosion in the ways to bypass censorship in terms of the Internet…which can reach audiences," says Marco director Saleem Haddad. For him the problem with the internet is that audiences can find themselves stuck in an echo chamber. "It will reach audiences who are seeking [the film] out, rather than say people don't".
The future of Middle Eastern LGBTQ+ cinema
In the Middle East, cinema with queer themes has broken taboos for decades (though rarely overtly). Whether its revered Egyptian film director Youssef Chahine telling the story of two men falling in love as a subplot to his 1979 drama 'Alexandria... Why?' or Nadine Labaki's inclusion of a lesbian hairdresser who falls for a glamorous client in 2007's 'Caramel'.
This year's Soura Film festival will introduce a new retrospective section that cast a spotlight on older Middle Eastern queer films, in the hope; it might inspire how these kinds of stories are told in the future.
|When you're at a stage where you make movies for the masses, it means your ideas have been embraced by the general public; diversity no longer needs to be promoted when it becomes normal|
For a post-millennial generation of storytellers, the times are different. Attitudes towards queer stories coming from the Middle East are slowly changing – both inside the Middle East and outside. And again, the Internet has played a pivotal role in connecting and providing platforms for LGBTQ+ storytellers.
For Al-Kadhi it's a "generational revolution" happening in some Middle Eastern countries.
"I get countless positive responses from younger Arabs all around the MENA region who watch my work and resonate with it," he says. But the structural barriers in terms of government intervention and censorship still exist, meaning that receiving support to make and distribute these films remains difficult.
Read also: Riyadh allowed raunchy Netflix shows in exchange for removal of Hasan Minhaj's anti-Saudi satire show
For the director of Soura Film Festival, Robert Moussa, we're still far away from having a commercial queer blockbuster from the Middle East like 'Call Me By Your Name' or 'Tangerine'. "When you're at a stage where you make movies for the masses, it means your ideas have been embraced by the general public; diversity no longer needs to be promoted when it becomes normal".
For Moussa, rather, we're still in a transitory phase and its not just a matter of laws but also educating the public by increasing visibility of LGBTQ+ stories to normalise them.
Festivals like Soura hopes to change perspectives by bringing queer films that are overlooked at mainstream cinemas, festivals, and platforms to new audiences. "The way we see it, queerness in film is only going to grow bolder, more political, and festivals and initiatives like Soura should ensure visibility for such projects and advocate for change. Queer film should stop being treated as a genre, and have a more normalised presence in the bigger picture."
The Soura Film Festival is taking place between 1-4 October in Berlin.
Jad Salfiti is a British-Palestinian culture and politics journalist.
Follow him on Twitter: @JadSalfiti