Queer Arab film is far from a well-known area in cinema, despite this, the new Chair of the Arab and Islamic Studies Department at the University of Sydney, Sahar Amer, has been spearheading Australia’s first festival in the field. With the response to the festival being overwhelmingly positive, we caught up with Sahar to discuss the role that cinema can have in legitimising identities and allowing people to make statements with a broad and palpable appeal.
I wanted to start by asking what the key idea behind the Queer Arab Film Festival was for you?
Well, for me, I have often dreamt about having a Queer Arab Film Festival and the reason for that is that basically there is no such festival. I think this is the very first Queer Arab Film Festival in the world that I’m aware of – that is outside of a Queer Community. So there are films and there are lots of Queer film festivals but they are geared specifically towards a gay community and I wanted to bring out in the open this very silenced and forgotten and neglected topic. Most people assume there are no gays in the Muslim worldsand that is believed by non-Arabs and non-Muslims.
Was it Ahmadinejad at Columbia who made that statement… “there are no gays in Iran”? Was that a sort of public posturing or does something like that have its roots in an actual belief system?
Some people have actually argued that Ahmadinejad’s words have been taken out of context but nevertheless he seems to have said something along the lines of that and I think that this idea is actually extremely common among Arabs and non-Muslims. I’m actually teaching a class at the moment on Arab and Muslim societies and the Queer Arab Film Festival was actually originally organised to be parallel to my class and I have several Arab students and Muslim students as well as broader group of students and all of them – maybe only except one – had never heard about homosexuality in Arab and Muslim societies and a lot of the Arabs and Muslims had never talked about it; they didn’t have the words to express it they don’t know anything about it.
Even though the festival is screening weekly within an academic context, do you feel like this festival is promulgating something that isn’t even normally discussed or acknowledged, even within a university sphere?
Yes, I feel that it really crucial and as an academic I feel a moral responsibility to bring to the open some of my research. This is an area of research and expertise for me – I wrote a book on the topic, several articles and I lecture about it a lot. Especially as something that affects so many people in today’s world – personally, politically and socially – I need to bring that into the open because there is so much academic research that can help a lot of individuals deal with what some perceive as an impossible identity.
One of the things the festival does is legitimise an identity that is denied by a lot of nations and mindsets and –
And a lot of communities, a lot of family members will deny their child’s sexuality or identity. I feel like by having it in an academic setting first it provides a safe space for a lot of the Arab Gay Muslims and non-Arab Gay Muslims to come and watch films talk about talk about this topic and feel a sense of community – so I think it’s helpful for that, to be safe. But also it provides an academic setting because each film is introduced by a faculty expert and a discussion occurs after and I think that really helps give it an academic and scholarly focus. I’ve had people, really random people, email me telling me how relieved and comforted they are to have this film festival.
I noticed when I was looking at the schedule, most of the people introducing the films are from different faculties at the University – it seems to have a wide academic scope. I think that’s a very interesting way to broaden the festival before its even had its first run. Did you envision this from the start or did it just sort of come together?
Basically, I was looking for professors at the university who either had an interest in the Arab World and the Middle East or who had an interest in film studies. I really feel that those films speak to everybody. You don’t have to be a specialist in Islam and the Middle East to understand and lead an intelligent discussion on this topic. Any film scholar who has any cultural sensitivity or a gender sensitivity would be capable of leading a discussion – and I’m always there anywhere if there’s any background that needs to be contextualised where I can give my perspective.
The festival has screened 8 films already. How has the festival been received so far?
Really well. I mean, I think this film festival has taken a life of its own, which I had not envisioned at all. I had envisioned a film festival for my class and opening it to the community and by engaging other scholars in the university. I didn’t expect that so many people outside of the university would actually be as interested as they were in it. A couple of people actually asked if I had any intention to bring this festival to Melbourne – which I take as a positive sign. I mean it would be a dream, it would be amazing, quite a miracle actually – to have a film festival like that travel around the country and around the world. I think that it’s this kind of alternative view of Muslims and of Arabs that is crucial for Australians, for the world to hear and experience and to see that what we’re always hearing on TV about the violence and extremism in the Arab world is not the only thing that is happening.
The festival feels like it’s very relevant to kind of have something pushing back against the negative discourse that’s being perpetuated on a popular scale and I was wondering if you have any plans to move the festival to a more contemporary setting to, I guess, bring this to a more popular sphere?
I’d love to, again, as I said, I’m not a film specialist. I’m an academic who works on gender issues. I have interests in cultural productions so I’m interested in films and I teach about films, but to me this is really new territory and I would need some kind of guidance about how one really takes it outside but I think it would be brilliant to have that. I think it’s needed, this is a topic that is very much needed with or without an academic focus because it’s just a topic that’s so taboo and so unknown that having it go into more contemporary venues or more official cinema venues would lend legitimacy to the project.
On making a more contemporary festival, I know most of the films are quite recent but with some that are even a decade old – do you feel like there is still a thriving emergent scene of Queer Arab films?
Yes. Absolutely, because it’s one of the areas where people feel safest to express themselves – through film and through art; through painting, through literature, through the internet. I mean, there are a variety of media that are very important and I’m aware there are a lot of films that Gay Arabs have shared with me that one could do for the Queer Arab Film Festival. In fact, I chose these because they were the most easily accessible ones, but I can envision another film festival with a different set of films; lesser known films, and particularly films that have never circulated outside of gay settings.
I guess saying they are the most accessible ones feels like the most appropriate way to start the conversation – but I guess also the fact there are two intersecting landscapes, the Arab and the queer means you’re able to move beyond the geographical Arab world and you’ve shown quite a globalised, international Queer Arab scene – I think one of the films was from Australia. When you were picking all these films were you trying to egress these boundaries?
I wanted to get as much diversity in the films as possible. So I was interested in genre and stylistic diversity but also regional diversity. So among the Arab world, among the non-Arab society, but Muslim majority societies – but then also Muslim minority societies, in Australia it makes a lot of sense to include films from Arab Australia. Especially if it’s there, we have the filmmakers right in Sydney who are going to be joining us on the 15th of October. Today is a Tunisian-French film, there was a Moroccan-French film, there’s an Israel-Palestine film, we’re going to do an Egyptian film – we did one at the beginning of semester, a contemporary one, but the one we’re doing in two weeks is from the 1950s. So to show already in the 1950s there was a way of speaking about homosexuality that people might not have realised, so this is giving historical depth to our topic.
To wrap things up, out of all the things you’ve chosen, is there a film or filmmaker that’s served as a catalyst for your interest – and sustained interest – in Queer Arab Cinema specifically.
I have a very weak heart for a documentary called A Jihad For Love, because I love the title – the word Jihad used in a very unusual phrase – and it’s a documentary about Muslim gays and a story about the very first Gay Imam in the world, who is an Imam from South Africa. So to me, the whole story is so amazing that that’s the one I would mention. I love every film for different reasons, but I think this is always the one that blows people’s minds away because it just breaks down every stereotype you can think of.
8th October – Ahmad Badrakhan’s Akher Kedba (The Last Lie), 1950.
15th October – Fadia Abboud’s I LUV U But… 2013-2014.
22nd October – Shamim Sarif’s I Can’t Think Straight, 2008.