Mr Gay Syria
Dzenana Vucic | 26/03/2018
We tend to think of refugees in broad strokes, allowing their refugee status to overshadow any other identity they may claim. Syrian refugees are thought of in bulk, distinguishing characteristics washed way along with any critical thought as to the complex ways that the civil war may affect different groups. Mr Gay Syria, showing at the 2018 Melbourne Queer Film Festival, demands that we take another look at the crisis in Syria, and that we look to see individual struggles.
The documentary follows a group of gay Syrian refugees in Istanbul. Mahmoud, a Syrian gay rights activist given asylum in Germany, is trying to organise a Syrian candidate for Mr Gay World and must find an appropriate candidate. The winner will have the opportunity to travel to Malta and compete and, more importantly, will be able to apply for asylum. In Turkey, unlike in Syria, homosexuality is not illegal, but neither is it safe to be openly gay – gay and transgender people are frequently killed or beaten. Despite this danger, a competition for Mr Gay Syria goes ahead and Husein, a 24-year old barber from a very conservative family wins the title of Mr Gay Syria. The documentary loosely follows Mahmoud and Husein as they attempt to secure Maltese visas and attend the competition. It is far less narrative than expected, and filmmaker Ayse Toprak pays close attention to relationships rather than plot.
The camera watches Husein’s struggle to come out – his fear of his parents’ reaction (indeed, his father threatens to kill him), his worry for his wife and young child – without judgement, and with little explanation. So too, it follows young couple Omar and Nader. In one touching scene, the two watch a movie and eat popcorn on their couch, each secretly crying because only Nader has been granted asylum. Without going into the specifics of why and how, we watch Nader leave and, eventually, the outcome of Omar’s own asylum application.
The situation in Syria and Turkey’s growing intolerance (poignantly underscored by a scene in which a small contingent of gay pride protestors are met with tear gas, rubber bullets and a small army of police) form a menacing backdrop to the characters, highlighting both the danger that they are in and the strength of spirit required to live every day in this state of uncertainty and fear. Images of ISIS throwing gay men and boys from buildings are commonplace, but the defiant resilience these men exhibit is a far rarer image. Husein, the heart of the story, captures this resilience beautifully when he says, ‘Through despair, we come to courage.’
Cinematographer Hajo Schomerus gives viewers a sense of bustling life, and captures some beautiful moments of intimacy, while keeping the images relatively unpolished, a little rough, and therefore increasing their human impact; their honesty. Zeid Hadman’s music is more upbeat than you’d expect for a refugee story, and this works to underscore the hopeful message underlying what is, ultimately, not a happy-ending kind of story.
Ayse Toprak offers visibility as a means of fighting against oppression, and as a way of regaining one’s humanity. Her work is heartfelt and Mr Gay Syria is a moving, honest and unapologetic documentary.