The Gulf states recently banned Disney’s Toy Story movie light years because of a lesbian kiss. Saudi Arabia also demanded that Disney remove 12 seconds from the latest one Doctor Strangemovie because the character America Chavez talks about her “two mothers”. And last year in Egypt, an ultra-conservative parliamentarian wanted to ban Netflix for ‘promoting immorality’ in the Arabic version of the Netflix movie. Perfect Strangers, partly because one of the characters comes out for his homosexuality. In the meantime Perfect Strangers Netflix’s most watched film in the Arab world.
This week is coming Love, magic and all that in the Netherlands, by Ümit Ünal from 2019. A beautiful, naturally acted film about two women who meet again twenty years after their first relationship and fall in love again. Is it possible in Erdogan’s religiously conservative Turkey?
Surprisingly, Middle Eastern cinema has never had much trouble with queer characters and themes historically. Queer is just visible in movies. In the films of the Egyptian pioneer Togo Mizrahi, who worked with the biggest movie stars of his time, comic entanglements regularly ended up in bed with people of the same sex or kissing each other more than amicably. Crossdressing scenes were the order of the day.
In the following decades, star Egyptian director Youssef Chahine paid close attention to serious character interpretation in his films with queer characters, for example in the partially autobiographical Alexandria Trilogy. In the part Alexandria Why? we see a love affair with an erotic scene between an Egyptian nationalist and a British soldier. These films are constantly shown on Arab TV channels.
Only in 1964 did Chahine go too far The people of the Nile, a film about the construction of the Aswan Dam, in which a Russian engineer has an affair with an Egyptian worker. He takes him to Russia and then makes him walk a few meters behind him on the street. These references to racism, according to the censors, could upset Egypt’s Russian allies. Chahine had to redo these street shots, but the love affair was no problem.
Salah Abu Saif Malatily Bathhouse (1973) went even further in the production of the erotic. The film takes place in a bathhouse in Cairo, where a wealthy artist falls in love with a working student from a poor family who works there as a masseuse. Although the boy is in love with a prostitute who also works in the bath house, there is an erotic tension between artist and student.
The artist refers to the Middle East’s historical tolerance of homosexuality. Meanwhile, he explains his homosexuality as Freudian with an unhappy relationship with his parents. But the film is a plea for acceptance. The fact that he can no longer be seen on television can be linked to the almost nude scenes. On the street, you can find it everywhere on pirated DVD.
The plot of the transvestite comedy Only for men (Mahmud Zul-Fiqar, 1964) does Billy Wilders Some like it hot of six years before, with the famous gay twist at the end. Cross-dressing comedies were common in Egypt, but Only for men was also a serious argument for equal treatment of women. Two educated female oil engineers (star actresses Suad Hosni and Nadia Lutfi) cannot find work until they show up dressed as men at an oil platform in the desert. There are the requisite gender-conversion complications, such as during the weekly dance, where the men dance close to each other in the absence of women – according to some, a reference to a gay nightclub.
The Yacoubian Building (Marwan Hamed, Egypt 2006) is the most commercially successful Arab cinema of all time. In this film, homosexuality is portrayed as ‘natural’; a gay journalist is one of the more likable characters.
Turkish queer star
It is no different in Turkey. The Turkish singer/film star Zeki Muren, who often appeared in transvestism and was known to be gay, was a folk hero in the middle of the last century. The next Turkish queer star was trans singer/film star Bülent Ersoy. In 1981, just after she underwent gender reassignment, a military junta came to power that banned “social deviance”. Ersoy emigrated. After the junta disappeared, it returned, unabashedly popular. Her queerness does not stand in the way of ties to the current religiously conservative regime: In 2016, she caused a stir when she hosted religiously conservative President Erdogan and his wife for a Ramadan meal.
Homosexuality actually appeared in movies half a century ago, but the theme gained little depth. It was typically in Turkish at the time Kocek (1975). In this, a boy dreams of becoming a woman. He is forced by gangsters to act like köçek prostitute, a traditional young male nightclub dancer dressed as a woman. When a rival gang wants to rape him, the criminals discover his gender and stab him. When he wakes up in the hospital, the doctor has performed a gender reassignment operation. Then a childhood friend falls in love with her, not knowing that she was once his best friend. All this in the form of a cheerful musical.
The rather farcical handling of queer themes gave way to more serious characterization in recent decades. In Fatih Akins The edge of the sky (2007), a lesbian relationship was also central, just like in Lebanese caramel by Nadine Labaki about a group of women and their relationship problems. One of them is attracted to women, which is not a problem for anyone.
In terms of openness and understanding, Middle Eastern cinema does not fare badly compared to Hollywood, where in the past queer characters were often twisted villains, such as Rope, Midnight Express, Silence of the Lambs or Primal instinct. Why does a film become like light years now banned? The Gulf states talk about Western influences that go against local values. But don’t they seem to be importing Western Christian conservatism themselves? They would do better to study their own film history.