Mr. Gay Syria (2017)

Director: Ayşe Toprak

2017 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Your country is in the middle of a ruinous civil war. One of the combatant groups is villifying and murdering those who do not conform to its orthodoxy, especially homosexuals. You and many of your countrymen and women who have fled the war are refugees looking for somewhere to call home. Sounds like the perfect time to hold a Mr. Gay Syria contest!

Mr. Gay Syria is director Ayşe Toprak’s first feature documentary, but she is no stranger to the form or to Istanbul, where this film largely takes place. This Turkish documentarian has been working with Al Jazeera in Istanbul making television documentaries on a range of issues, including Turkey’s 30-year conflict with its Kurdish inhabitants, the relationship between religion and fashion, and the education of Syrian refugee children. This interest in marginalized groups and marginalizing attitudes surely must have led her to look at Istanbul’s gay Syrian refugees and their struggle to find a place for themselves.

The film opens on a man learning from someone on the other end of his cellphone that they crossed the border safely. We don’t know who he is or to whom he is speaking. The man is dejected, but says that everything he has gone through is better than being in jail or imprisoning himself. Then, the title card, Mr. Gay Syria, appears on screen. We will soon learn that this man, Husein Sabat, is Mr. Gay Syria as the film flashes back six months.

Husein is living a double life. Six days a week, he lives an out life and works as a barber in Istanbul; on the seventh day, he goes to the suburbs, where his parents, wife, and daughter live, and pretends to be straight. The strain of living a lie is getting to him, and he starts attending “Tea and Talk” meetings with other Syrian homosexuals. It is there that Mahmoud Hassino, a gay activist who lives in Berlin, announces his plans to hold a Mr. Gay Syria competition in hopes of sending the winner to the 2016 Mr. Gay World competition in Malta. Hassino wants to draw attention to the Syrian refugee crisis and help normalize the Syrian gay experience for those in and outside of Syria.

Hassino and co-organizer, Ayman Menem, interview the five men who have bravely come forward to be contestants. They ask Husein whether he is entering the contest out of despair or courage. He says he came through despair to courage. His honesty and eloquence impress Hassino and Menem. His talent, a monologue in which he reads an imaginary letter to his mother about his life as a gay man, moves the audience to tears. Despite the crowd-pleasing belly dance of irrepressible contestant Omar, Husein is the hands-down winner. The only hurdle now is to get him to Malta for the international competition.

Toprak has excellent instincts regarding where to point her camera. Husein is an intelligent, articulate person with an enormous heart and hope for the future in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Despite the danger he faces in coming out in such a public way—his boyfriend, Wissam, wonders whether Husein’s father will poison him—he refuses to betray himself any longer, hopes that his young daughter will accept him when she grows older, and feels worst about the damage done to his wife, who chooses to return to Syria rather than stay with him or his family. I don’t know who ultimately won Mr. Gay World, but for anyone watching this documentary, Husein is the spiritual winner and an excellent central “character” for this subject.

The “supporting characters” are equally interesting. We watch one of the great onscreen love affairs, between Omar and Nader, who snuggle and feed each other popcorn while watching a movie at home. The men walk down a side street that reminds Omar of old Damascus, right down to the mosque at the bottom of the hill. He wonders whether they can find a place to live there, and then is reminded that Nader is moving to Norway through the auspices of the United Nations. Their parting is sad, their Skype meetings sweet and moving, and their eventual reunion as beautiful as any you can imagine.

Hassino provides inspiration as a man who could live a relatively easy life in Germany, but who works constantly to make the world care about Syria and the LGBT community. At this point, he has been working for five years on the cause, which has become urgent in Turkey. He says, “Until someone recognizes the Syrian LGBTs, this is my case.” His courage and determination are helping men like Husein, but the uphill battle they all face cannot be glossed over.

Toprak’s use of music underscores the highs and lows of the community she is filming. I found the film visually interesting as it explores the scrubby Syrian landscape and the time-worn city of Istanbul and its attractive harbor, which beckons the desperate to try an overseas crossing to Europe proper. Mr. Gay Syria is a compassionate, often entertaining, always thought-provoking look at LGBT rights around the world and the specific plight of refugees the world would like to pretend don’t exist. This is vital viewing for our time.

Mr. Gay Syria screens Sunday, October 15 at 8 p.m., Thursday, October 19 at 5:45 p.m., and Friday, October 20 at 12:15 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Scary Mother: A repressed housewife and mother unleashes her creative writing skills, but her family’s rejection of her sexually imaginative work drives her to the brink of a madness. (Georgia/Estonia)

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