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Arab Queer Cinema: Panelists Talk Breaking The Law, Filmmaking, And Appropriation

New Bwogger Donna Qi attended a Columbia Global Center event hosting queer Arab filmmakers to discuss the challenges they face in exploring LGBTQ identities within their films and other work.

In a panel moderated by Samar Habib, a scholar on gender and sexuality in the Arab world, four queer Arab filmmakers discussed their motivations behind engaging in filmmaking, the challenges they face in creating art surrounding a stigmatized issue, and the inspirations and explanations behind their films. The panelists included Anthony Chidiac, an independent filmmaker whose film Room For a Man won the grand prize for international competition at the Montreal International Documentary Festival; Cyrine Hammemi, a coordinator of Mawjoudin (We Exist), the only queer Arab film festival in the Middle East; Sam Abbas, an Egyptian filmmaker who created the first Arab-based LGBTQ-focused production company ArabQ films; and Rolla Selbak, a writer/director who has served on the Board of Directors of Outfest, the largest LGBT international film festival in the world, and whose most recent film Choke just finished its festival run. 

Samar Habib introduced the talk by placing queer Arab cinema within the global context and remarking that it “is virtually as old as the Arab filming industry itself” and that “the homoerotic and the genderqueer in film became instruments for social critique. They acted as gateways to discussions about secular pluralism, individual choice, and personal freedom.” By going through a brief history of queerness within Arab films, Habib gave the audience a chance to understand the circumstances in the rise of queer Arab film and also the direction it is in today, considering the restrictions it later faced as the Egyptian film industry adopted censorship codes in 1971. Habib then gave the panelists a chance to introduce themselves and to place their work in their own words. This related to the later sentiments espoused by the panelists that denounced queer-baiting and empowered Arab filmmakers to make films that represent their experiences, even when it plays into stereotypes that are often portrayed in the mainstream media. 

Over the course of the talk, the panelists discussed ideas ranging from the role of the media in publicizing queer Arab films and festivals and how language is used within their filmmaking while showing brief snippets of their own work. In trying to show their individual work and the work of others, Hammemi emphasized that “the existence of Mawjoudin as an NGO and Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival is by itself a crime” because Tunisia criminalizes homosexuality. This led to an exchange between Abbas and Hammemi on how they handled the stress of organizing festivals in the Middle East where homosexuality is particularly stigmatized and criminalized. While Hammemi noted that only alternative media outlets that are considered allies to the cause and international media were invited to cover Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival, Abbas described how he did not allow for any press and thought of the press as the enemy. Those who were invited to the screenings of these films were also only those who were considered allies and a part of the LGBTQIA community, with venues being covert and no photos allowed under any circumstances. The stakes in coordinating queer festivals in the Middle East became very clear as they discussed their personal challenges and anxieties. It served as a reminder that even as Arab filmmakers are making films in the diaspora, their hopes are still to be able to challenge the traditional status quo within the Middle East and also provide representation to those who are Middle Eastern and queer.

Following this discussion, Habib questioned the filmmakers on their use of multiple languages within their films, starting with Anthony Chidiac’s Room For a Man. Habib remarked that she “really [does not] think it’s a coincidence that the first Arabic words in the film are ‘Go away,’” inciting laughter from the audience. This joke speaks to a larger theme of Arabic being what Habib describes as “a language of prohibition,” with Hammemi remarking that the terms used to identify the LGBTQIA community do not exist in Arabic as a whole. Chidiac personally found that Arabic is a language of violence, whereas art is spoken in other languages, so the incorporation of French and English into Room For a Man was “really organic.” Abbas shared he was “forced, growing up, to speak Arabic only in the household” and at 19 he became “anti-Arabic, anti-Middle East… and after a few years finding the beauty in it.” This can be attributed to why his character in his film The Wedding speaks to his mother in English even as she uses Arabic, as Arabic became synonymous in his youth with repression. Selbak, on the other hand, characterizes the first language you learn as the one “in which you learn about the world” and about yourself. In a funny moment in her most recent film Choke, the girlfriend of the protagonist reveals that she got a tattoo of an Arabic word that she thought meant ‘meat’ but actually meant ‘penis’ to honor the protagonist, who is Syrian. To Selbak, this moment represented “ the appropriation” of Arabic, even in the best of intentions, and harkened back to a larger issue of misrepresentation in media and an issue in which Americans might feel entitled to the language of other cultures. This scene definitely evoked memories of Mandarin, Japanese, and Arabic characters being the untasteful tattoo of choice for certain Americans. 

Ultimately, this event felt like a distinct call to action for those who are Middle Eastern to find the freedom to explore their identities outside the cultural realms in which they were taught to think of themselves. In having the opportunity to observe a two-hour conversation between panelists, it became clear that their work is special because of how they have tried to make these avenues of exploring one’s own personal identity available to those in the Middle East, whether that is breaking the law to host a film festival or making their films free on the internet for consumption. Ultimately, Selbak summed up her own work and the ideas explored throughout the entire talk succinctly as she remarked that she “want[s] to tell a story that is real and is true to [her].” Here’s to the rise of more Middle Eastern media representation, more areas of intersection within the LGBTQIA community, and more queer Arab filmmaking, period.

queer Arab filmmakers panel via bwog staff

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