Arab Film Festival's diverse LGBTQ stories

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Friday November 11, 2022
Share this Post:
'Habib & The Thief'
'Habib & The Thief'

Allowing the Bay Area to gain an appreciation for the richness, complexity, and nuances of (queer) film production in the Middle East, the 26th edition of the Arab Film Festival will run November 11-20 in-person at the Castro Theatre, Roxie Theater, and Oakland's New Parkway Theater. It will also offer a virtual online track open nationally.

The festival's mission is "to present the best of contemporary films that illuminate the richness of Arab culture through authentic narratives and images, proving insight into the beauty and complexity of the Arab world...The festival offers unprecedented access to the diversity and range of authentic Arab experiences that reflects the lives of under-represented and provocative themes and groups on a cultural and societal level."

'Miguel's War'  

This under-represented and provocative diversity includes several LGBTQ movies, which are now a regular part of the film festival. "Miguel's War" (Nov. 12, Parkway) is billed as a hybrid documentary, focusing on a gay man who grew up oppressed and shamed during the Lebanese civil war.

He was raised by a conservative Catholic father and an authoritarian Syrian mother. As a deeply sensitive boy, he wanted to prove he could be a "real man" and joined the fighting as part of an armed faction. Ultimately it was a failure and he immigrates to Spain.

In post-Franco Madrid, Miguel attempts to liberate himself through debauchery with a succession of destructive relationships culminating in a failed suicide attempt. Recovering he becomes a conference interpreter in Barcelona. Finally, 37 years after leaving Lebanon, he's willing to return there to face his trauma and the ghosts of the past, looking for emotional healing from a form of PTSD and perhaps love.

Filmed on location in Lebanon and Spain while drawing on a blend of cinematic techniques, "Miguel's War" melds documentary, animation, theater, and archive with him talking to people in his past acted out by current actors, confronting himself in an act of catharsis. Through this character study of one individual trauma, the concealed lives of gay Arabs in the 1970s are at last revealed. It was last year's winner of the TEDDY Award for Best Feature Length film at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Summer time
"Shall I Compare You to a Summer's Day?" (Nov. 18, Roxie) is a contemporary queer musical taking Arab folk tales as its formal reference, and Egyptian pop music as its primary sonic material.

'Shall I Compare You to a Summer's Day?'  

It is based on this Egyptian filmmaker's personal love diary and told in the form of a "One Thousand and One Nights" tale, where stories playfully unfold through conversations between Scheherazade, a narrator we never see and ghost of former lovers. Through poetry and performance, this one- hour film functions as an inventive challenge to societal heteronormativity.

The theme of this year's "Queer Lens" program (Nov. 12, Parkway) is Diaspora & Displacement, featuring five award-winning short films with the characters all finding themselves at the intersection of their identities.

"Habib & The Thief," concerns Habib and his new lover brought together by a stolen cape. "The Window," features two women, a year after Beirut's port explosion, reunited in their old bedroom. "Faraway" observes a young Arab man over four seasons navigating his solitude after being estranged from his family for his homosexuality. "Dress Up" follows Karina, on the eve of her sister's wedding, bringing her "best friend" home to meet the family, resulting in queer anxieties. "Warsha" chronicles Mohammad, a crane operator working in Beirut, who volunteers to take on one of the tallest and most dangerous cranes in Lebanon, enabling him to live out his secret passion to find freedom.

Caftans and conversation
A panel discussion entitled "Arab + Queer + Film: Between here and there," will follow, asking how does queerness as a lens engage with everyday precarity in the Middle East? How does queerness make sense of the alienating experience of displacement in the West? It discusses queer films as spaces of reflection and contestation and as frameworks for alternative world-making. Panelists include filmmakers of the Queer Lens shorts program, moderated by Raed Rafei, a PhD candidate in Film and Digital Media at UC Santa Cruz.

'The Blue Caftan'  

The opening night star attraction is Morocco's "The Blue Caftan," zeroing in on quiet Halim and stern Mina, a married couple running a traditional caftan (the national garment) store at one of the country's oldest medinas located in the town of Sale.

In order to keep up with more orders from their demanding customers, they hire talented hottie 25-year-old apprentice Youssef, who seems dedicated to learning embroidery and tailoring from Halim. Mina notices the erotic looks Halim is giving to Youssef, making her initially distrustful of him, even accusing him falsely of stealing some pink satin cloth.

Halim is a closeted homosexual who retreats to the local steambath where he cruises for anonymous sex hook-ups. Mina is aware of his secret life, but they have a close enduring reciprocal relationship in spite of their conflicting desires and religious/cultural norms. He's the artisan hiding from the world while she's the shrewd businesswoman dealing with temperamental customers.

Morocco, despite being a liberal Muslim country from a Western perspective, is very homophobic, as same-sex sexual activity is considered a criminal offense, punishable by a six-month to three-year jail sentence. Halim must repress his true identity, though his awakening attraction to Youssef puts him in peril if anyone outside their shop discovers the truth about him.

Halim's and Youssef's relationship gradually unfolds through the breathtaking petroleum blue silk wedding caftan they are creating for a client. The camera reveals the intricate embroidery almost sewn hypnotically, serving as a tool of seduction between the two men. There's a kind of sensuality as we watch the precision needlework done on these gorgeously textured fabrics, which reminded us of scenes from Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Threads" (2017) about a compulsive fashion designer. The pace of the movie is slow but contemplative, allowing the audience patiently to get a sense of their daily world.

Mina experiences a life crisis, forcing her to redefine her love for her husband and reevaluate her attitude towards Youssef, who is slowly becoming a member of their family. She tells Halim not to be afraid to love, regardless of the form it might take or the dictates of society. The film brilliantly draws a parallel between Halim's love of his traditional role as maalem (dressmaker) and pride in his work with a plea for tolerance vis-à-vis queer people.

One impatient customer says you can barely tell the difference between machine and handmade caftans and Halim recognizes his craft is being abandoned. Yet the film surprises us in its clever subversions, arguing that while there is a place for maalems in this seemingly outdated field, society can also evolve and modernize, especially in its attitude toward LGBTQ folk while respecting traditional mores.

The acting of the couple is sublime with their characters constantly observing each other. The actor playing Halim uses his eyes to convey suppression and passion. The movie weaves a warm, elegant, poignant tapestry with a tinge of sadness, as we wait to see if Halim will be able to break free of his repression.

"The Blue Caftan" is really about unconditional love, never judging its very human characters, willing to forgive their flaws. The film garnered rave reviews at the Toronto Film Festival, and is Morocco's entry to the 2023 Oscars for Best International Film.

Well-deserved applause for filmmaker Maryam Touzani in crafting probably the best LGBTQ film of the year. If you miss the Nov. 11 premiere at the Castro Theater, it is worth a BART ride or car trip to the Parkway, Nov. 19 to catch this stunning feature.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.