For the last three weeks, the Twin Cities have seen one of the largest film festivals in the country, the 35th MSPIFF Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival showcasing more than 200 new films from around the world.
Over the years I have seen this festival develop from a small venue at the U of M Film Society with the legendary Al Milgrom who was the the brainchild of the film festival. Now under a new leadership of Susan Smoluchowski, Executive Director, Film Society of Mpls. St. Paul who is doing a splendid job to make this festival a landmark for Twin Cities art community. But what I want to talk about here is a different film festival that I was invited to a few years back, the OUT Twin Cities Film Festival, that according to their website has a mission “… to connect and celebrate the diversity of the community through the art of cinema by producing a provocative annual festival showcasing Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer filmmakers”.
The reason I was invited … they were showing the film ‘I Am Gay And Muslim‘ by filmmaker Chris Belloni. The screening was at Crooked Pint Ale House; near downtown Minneapolis, so a film about a gay Muslim screening in a Ale house, I didn’t expect the place would be swarming with Muslims there, however, research shows that the majority of Americans (62%) would rather have a gay neighbor than a Muslim, so having a gay Muslim as a neighbor would be troubling for most Americans.
“This festival should be the safest place for a Muslim,” explained Chris Durant the festival organizer. And he was right, at least you aren’t going to find any Islamophobe there. This is not the first time I went to a gay place, in the 80’s I used to live across from the Gay 90’s bar in downtown and I went there once by mistake. The festival was full of people from the LGBT community. Mostly men, not an overly gayish looking place, not really different than any Hookah places in the Twin Cities, where Arab men go to drink tea and smoke Hookah all night. So I fitted right in. As I was looking for a place to sit, a gracious man who was sitting alone in the far corner invited me to his table. “You can sit here.… I wont bite” he said with a smile. So I did. “I saw your interview with Chris, I recognized you,” he said. I thanked him and we chatted for a while.
The program started with a short entry by Mrs. Smith, she/he (not sure) was engaging and entertaining. And finally the screening of the film started. I came to see the film with an open mind, believing that Islam has a place for everyone, even for those who deny it ever even existed; we call them the people of the book, let the judeo/christian folks try that for inclusiveness. I also know that contrary to what most people think, Islamic history is long enough for anyone to have a monopoly on its attitude on homosexuality. Slate magazine reported that; the French thinker “Foucault argued that many Western languages had words for homosexual acts, but not for homosexuality, until very recently. If these theorists are correct, then the Islamic world was about 1,000 years ahead of the West on this issue. Classical Arabic texts have several words for homosexuals and homosexuality dating back to the ninth century”.
The film started with a panorama shot of the gorgeous Morocco city, as the call for prayer blasted from a far distant mosque. I don’t know why western moviemakers, when making films about Islam or Muslims, insist on shooting during the call for prayers, it only takes 3-5 minutes. A few years back, I was with an American crew shooting a documentary about the relationship between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, and the call for prayer actually blasted through the window of novelist Dr. Alaa Al-Aswani’s office where we were shooting. The producer asked to take a short break, “Now I can take a smoke” said Dr. Al Aswani. As he was relieved, I jokingly asked him was that a call for praying or for smoking. We both laughed.
The ‘I’m Gay and Muslim’ film is a documentary where Mr. Belloni, focuses on three Moroccan gay men, who spoke fairly good English and seemed to live comfortably in an upper middle class area. The film never got into the culture, the people, history, experts, or any context in which those young gay men live. Just three Muslim gay men talking to a sympathetic westerner about how they feel being gay living in Morocco, without hearing anything about Morocco, or the culture of Moroccans. So the story might as well be happening in Beirut, Cairo, or even Texas. The dramatization of the film was troubling, the silhouette profile picture of a hooded gay man on the beach whispering, the phone conversation under the danger of police eavesdropping, Mr. Belloni acted as a gay detective with artificial chase and suspense.
I know how hard it is to make a film in a foreign country, let alone with such a topic, but Morocco is the most liberal of Arab countries, with a huge gay community and gay friendly culture; where gay men come from all over the world celebrate and have fun. Arab men in general are socially gay, where they hold hands and hug excessively, unapologetically showing intimacy to each other in public, even when they address their female lover as male. Dr. Ramzi Salti, professor at Stanford university explained to me their way of elevating woman to a male status, so it is easier to blend in an Arab country as a gay men if you just keep your sexuality from getting political. Why a westerner cares about Arab Muslim gays and their lives, Joseph Massad, associate professor of modern Arab politics at Columbia University, states in his book “Desiring Arabs” of a “missionary” crusade orchestrated by what he calls the “Gay International”, which, he says, came partly from “the white western women’s movement, which had sought to universalise its issues through imposing its own colonial feminism on the women’s movements in the non-western world”.
I asked My friend Enas Ahmed, a French teacher who lives in Egypt, about this film: “ He seems to have opened a closet and looked in, then quickly closed the door and never came up with a new insight or a solution. I didn’t learn anything from this film!”
I don’t want to give the movie away, Mr. Belloni’s film raised a very important question, a question that the director himself asked over and over again to those Arab gay men, a question that should be dazzling all Arab Muslim men at one point or another in their life, “Would you rather to go to pilgrimage or have a love relationship with another man?”. In Arab culture, every Arab man is basically having a relationship with another man, the real question is, should it be a sexual one?