Gulf States Recently Banned Disney’s Toy Story Movie light year because of a lesbian kiss. Saudi Arabia also demanded that Disney remove 12 seconds from the latest 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 film. Perfect Strangers, partly because one of the characters comes out for his homosexuality. Meanwhile, Perfect Strangers Netflix’s most watched movie in the Arab world.
This week is coming Love, Spells 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 that 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 decades that followed, Egyptian star director Youssef Chahine paid a lot of attention to serious character interpretation in his films featuring 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 television channels.
Only in 1964 did Chahine go too far Those 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 has him walk a few meters behind him on the street. These references to racism could upset Egypt’s Russian allies, according to the censors. Chahine had to redo these street scenes, but the love affair was no problem.
Salah Abu-Saifs The Malatily Bathhouse (1973) went even further in the portrayal of eroticism. The film is set 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 masseur. Even though the boy is in love with a prostitute who also works in the bathhouse, there is an erotic tension between artist and student.
The artist refers to the historical tolerance of the Middle East towards homosexuality. In the meantime, he explains his homosexuality as Freudian by 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 may be related to the near-nude scenes. On the street you can find it everywhere on pirated DVD.
The plot of the transvestite comedy For Men Only (Mahmud Zul-Fiqar, 1964) does Billy Wilders Some Like it Hot of six years before, with the famous gay twist at the end. Crossdressing comedies were common in Egypt, but For Men Only was also a serious plea for equal treatment of women. Two graduate female oil engineers (star actresses Suad Hosni and Nadia Lutfi) can’t find work until they show up dressed as men at an oil rig in the desert. There are the necessary gender-conversion complications, such as during the weekly dance where the men dance close to each other for lack 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 film ever. In this film, homosexuality is portrayed as ‘natural’; a gay journalist is one of the more likeable characters.
Turkish queer star
It is no different in Turkey. The Turkish singer/film star Zeki Muren, who often performed in transvestism and who was known to be homosexual, was a folk hero in the middle of the last century. The next Turkish queer star was trans singer/movie star Bülent Ersoy. In 1981, just after she had undergone a gender correction, a military junta came to power that banned “social deviance.” Ersoy emigrated. After the junta disappeared, it returned, unabatedly popular. Her queerness does not stand in the way of ties with the current religiously conservative regime: in 2016 she caused a stir when she hosted the religiously conservative President Erdogan and his wife during a Ramadan meal.
Homosexuality did appear in films half a century ago, but the theme was given little depth. It was typical for the time in Turkish 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 sex and stab him. When he wakes up in the hospital, the doctor has performed a sex change operation. Then a childhood friend falls in love with her, without knowing that she was once his best friend. All this in the form of a cheerful musical.
That rather farcical handling of queer themes gave way to more serious character drawing in recent decades. In Fatih Akins The Edge of Heaven (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 doesn’t fare badly compared to Hollywood, where in the past queer characters were often twisted bad guys, as in Rope, Midnight Express, Silence of the Lambs or Basic Instinct. Why does a movie become like light year now banned? The Gulf states talk about western influences that go against local values. But doesn’t it look like they are importing Western, Christian conservatism themselves? They would do better to study their own film history.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of September 28, 2022