Emi­rati film­maker un­set­tles tra­di­tions, ex­poses hid­den lives

Sun.Star Pampanga - - WORLD! -

DUBAI, United Arab Emi­rates (AP) -- An Emi­rati film­maker is push­ing bound­aries and by­pass­ing state cen­sors by del­i­cately un­rav­el­ing a story about a tra­di­tional Arab fam­ily grap­pling with is­sues of ho­mo­sex­ual love, gen­der iden­tity, sec­tar­i­an­ism and women's rights.

The movie fo­cuses on a con­ser­va­tive Iraqi fam­ily who be­gin see­ing and un­earthing one another's se­crets af­ter the fam­ily ma­tri­arch goes blind and dies.

What makes the film "Only Men Go To the Grave" par­tic­u­larly avant­garde is that the ho­mo­sex­ual char­ac­ters are not sim­ply sup­port­ing char­ac­ters or por­trayed as West­ern­ized or glob­al­ized elites, like past char­ac­ters in other fa­mous Ara­bic films. Rather, the film's stars are ho­mo­sex­ual lovers who are also tra­di­tional Arab moth­ers, wives and caret aker s.

The movie, by film­maker Ab­dal­lah Al Kaabi, also re­veals its cen­tral male char­ac­ter to be strug­gling with his mas­culin­ity and gen­der. In pos­si­bly the movie's bold­est scene, the char­ac­ter dresses in full makeup, a wig, jew­elry and a dress.

Most sur­pris­ingly, the Ara­bic film passed state cen­sors to screen at ma­jor movie the­aters across Dubai this month. The United Arab Emi­rates, and Dubai specif­i­cally, are more lib­eral and seen as more tol­er­ant than other parts of the Gulf, such as Saudi Ara­bia, where there are no movie the­aters.

Al Kaabi says he be­lieves the film's han­dling of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and gen­der iden­tity helped pro­pel it to the big screen.

"A movie in the end is a story and peo­ple don't re­ally have a prob­lem with what you talk about in the story, but they have a prob­lem with how you ex­pose it," he told The As­so­ci­ated Press af­ter a screen­ing of the film. "I think you need to show good taste when you talk about con­tro­ver­sial and taboo is­sues," he said.

The lovers in his film are never shown be­ing phys­i­cally in­ti­mate.

Egyp­tian cinema - the old­est and most revered film in­dus­try in the Arab world - has tack­led ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in film since the 1950s, though of­ten por­tray­ing it as some­thing that ex­ists among a pro­gres­sive mi­nor­ity. Gay char­ac­ters have also been por­trayed in some films as psy­cho­log­i­cally ill or are pun­ished in some way.

Tu­nisian cinema has also de­picted ho­mo­sex­u­als in movies since the 1970s, while a genre of so-called queer cinema is cur­rently sur­fac­ing among Le­banese film­maker s.

Egyp­tian film critic Joseph Fahim said Al Kaabi's film ap­pears to be the first made by an Arab Gulf film­maker to tackle the is­sue of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in such a can­did man­ner.

"It shows that this is com­ing from within, es­pe­cially that the direc­tor casts no judg­men­tal eye on it ... he treated it in a mat­ter-of-fact way, not as a dis­ease. That is also a ma­jor step­ping stone," Fahim said.

It took Al Kaabi six years to com­plete the am­bi­tious project, which was awarded best Emi­rati film at the Dubai In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val in 2016 - the year it was pro­duced.

Al Kaabi grew up in the smaller emi­rate of Fu­jairah along the Gulf of Oman. With lit­tle en­ter­tain­ment around him, he would ven­ture out to the emi­rate's only video store and rent VHS tapes. It sparked in him a love for cinema.

"My pas­time was to travel and dream through movies so I was watch­ing a lot of Hol­ly­wood movies, Egyp­tian movies and Bol­ly­wood movies," he said.

Af­ter va­ca­tion­ing in Iran, Al Kaabi was awed with the coun­try's vi­brant film scene in the south­ern city Ah­vaz, known for its eth­nic di­ver­sity. He de­cided to shoot his de­but fea­ture film there us­ing Ira­nian ac­tors of Arab her­itage and ac­tors from Iraq.

Across the Gulf, there are vary­ing de­grees of cen­sor­ship and sup­port for in­de­pen­dent film­mak­ers like Al Kaabi .

De­spite there be­ing no the­aters in Saudi Ara­bia, a hand­ful of films have been shot there in re­cent years. In Kuwait, which once held the man­tle for Gulf the­atri­cal pro­duc­tions, cen­sors pulled Dis­ney's new Beauty and the Beast from the­aters this year af­ter the pub­lic's re­ac­tion to what Dis­ney called its first "gay mo­ment" for a char­ac­ter.

Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and cross-dress­ing are for­bid­den in the pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim Gulf. A pop­u­lar trans­gen­der so­cial me­dia star said she was de­nied en­try to Dubai by air­port of­fi­cials last year be­cause her pass­port still listed her as "male."

In Saudi Ara­bia, ho­mo­sex­u­als and cross­dressers can be im­pris­oned, fined and lashed. Ear­lier this year, Saudi po­lice raided a gath­er­ing of men dressed in women's cloth­ing out­side the cap­i­tal, Riyadh. A Pak­istani ar­rested in the raid later died in po­lice cus­tody un­der un­clear cir­cum­stances.

Though rare, judges in Saudi Ara­bia, Iran, Iraq and a hand­ful of other coun­tries can is­sue the death penalty in cases of same-sex re­la­tions. Pos­si­bly for this rea­son, Al Kaabi prefers to de­scribe the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the women in his film as "al­ter­na­tive love."

Still, through­out most of the Mid­dle East, there is a nar­row mar­gin of ac­cep­tance for trans­gen­der in­di­vid­u­als and ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity so long as it isn't vis­i­ble to the pub­lic. More re­cently, some Gulf coun­tries have be­gun con­sid­er­ing laws that would per­mit gen­der re­as­sign­ment.

In the UAE, two Emi­rati women are pe­ti­tion­ing the courts to be rec­og­nized as males. Last year, the UAE ap­proved a law that would al­low gen­der re­as­sign­ment surgery for those who psy­cho­log­i­cally iden­tify as the op­po­site sex.

The scene of the male char­ac­ter dressed as a woman, shock­ing for its raw and rare por­trayal of a trans­gen­der char­ac­ter, left one young Emi­rati col­lege stu­dent per pl exed.

"There are things I re­ally didn't un­der­stand in the movie, like the man. Why was he wear­ing these kinds of clothes like woman clothes?," Mahra AlNuaimi said af­ter watch­ing the movie.

Her cousin, Moza AlHam­rani, ap­peared less con­fused by the film­maker's mo­tives. As a stu­dent of film, she said she hoped to one day have the chance to pro­duce sim­i­larly ground­break­ing work.

"The is­sues to do with gen­der iden­tity and sex­u­al­ity - I thought like 'Whoa, did he re­ally do that?'" But I was also proud that some­one fi­nally spoke out about it, be­cause these is­sues ex­ist but ev­ery­body turns a blind eye," she said.

(AP Photo/Razan Alza­yani)

In this Aug. 18, 2017 photo, Emi­rati film­maker Ab­dulla Al Kaabi speaks to The As­so­ci­ated Press in Dubai af­ter screen­ing his film Only Men Go To The Grave. In his de­but fea­ture film, Al Kaabi re­veals tra­di­tional Arab char­ac­ters grap­pling with is­sues of...

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