Queer Oscar Candidates from the Middle East and Asia Could Challenge Their Countries’ Taboos

·7 min read

While the fall festivals continue to launch several high-profile Oscar hopefuls from the U.S., many international contenders are at the mercy of their countries. The Academy requires films to be submitted for the Best International Feature Film category by October 3, but outside of requiring a theatrical release and that the language is at least 50% non-English, the countries can make their own decisions. For some countries known for censoring artists, such as Russia and Iran, that means films critical of their governments or societies don’t stand a chance at making the cut.

Yet this year, several films about sexuality and queerness from the Middle East are on the cusp of overcoming legal and cultural barriers to become their country’s submissions, and they’re all traveling to the Toronto International Film Festival this week. In the past, films with LGBTQ characters in countries that outlaw homosexuality have faced a tough road in Oscar season, with the most notorious recent case being the 2018 lesbian romance “Rafiki,” from Kenya. Though director Wanuri Kahiu sued the government to gain permission to qualify the film in her country, it wasn’t ultimately selected.

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This year, the Pakistani drama “Joyland” stands a better shot. Arriving in Toronto for its North American premiere this week, director Saim Sadiq’s first feature became the first Pakistani film to play in the Official Selection of Cannes, where it won the Queer Palme and became one of the crowdpleasing hits of the Un Certain Regard section. The movie stars Ali Junejo as a married Lahore man who falls in love with a trans performer (Alina Khan) after getting a job as her backup dancer. A sensitive and often sad portrait of repressed feelings, “Joyland” ultimately builds to an emotional catharsis as the character comes to terms with his desire. While homosexuality is illegal in Pakstan, the festival acclaim for “Joyland” has given it an elevated profile in the country and it is expected to be submitted within the next week.

While the subject may seem radical given the setting, Columbia film school graduate Sadiq told IndieWire that he approached his story with an eye towards inviting more conservative viewers in. “We wanted to talk about all these things without pointing a figure directly at anyone,” he said. “We had to be respectful to find a way to do what we wanted to do and not cause an unnecessary riffraff.”

Still, the production came with its fair share of anxiety and caution. One scene involving a sexual encounter in an alleyway was originally supposed to be shot on location until the actors admitted they felt unsafe and it was finished on a set instead. “Thematically of course what the film tries to talk about was always a concern, but I had no interest in approaching the topic with a sensationalist tone,” Sadiq said. “I hoped the film had enough compassion and art in it to balance out the critical elements of it and the elements that are meant to make you feel uncomfortable.”

The movie secured a theatrical release in Pakistan over the summer in order to qualify as an Oscar submission, though it remained unclear whether the government would censor any aspects of it. “Even if we’re able to show it to people even in a slightly mangled form, to me, that’s better than not showing it to them,” he said. He felt that his cautious approach enabled the government to celebrate the movie without endorsing its characters’ lifestyle. “Queerness exists so openly within the same quarters as very right-wing morality in Pakistan, and that always fascinated me,” he said. “As long as you don’t try to mingle the two worlds, everybody’s OK with it.”

“The Blue Caftan” - Credit: Cannes
“The Blue Caftan” - Credit: Cannes

Cannes

A similar situation appears to be in the cards for “The Blue Caftan,” the frontrunner for Morocco’s Oscar submission. Another Cannes entry heading to TIFF for its international premiere, the movie is the sophomore effort from director Maryam Touzani, whose debut “Adam” was the country’s submission in 2019. “The Blue Caftan” revolves around the experiences of a closeted, middle-aged tailor (Saleh Bakri) who hides his true feelings from his wife while developing a romantic bond with his young new apprentice (Ayoub Missioui).

As with Pakistan, Morocco maintains a firm ban on all LGBTQ activity; however, the movie received financial support from the Moroccan Cinematographic Centre and its festival acclaim has positioned it as the most likely submission when the country settles on its choice later this month. “I believe as a filmmaker it’s important to be able to make a statement like this one, because it’s going to be able to contribute opening a debate at least,” Touzani said in an interview with Variety earlier this year. “I think there’s a big desire to move forward in our society and talk about certain things, but there are different forces in play.”

Both Pakistan and Morocco rely on small committees comprised of industry figures and government officials to vote on their selections. In the case of “The Blue Caftan,” the committee narrows down the list to five possibilities with a secret ballot before choosing one finalist. “I can’t speak for the committee,” said Strand Releasing’s Marcus Hu, the distributor of “The Blue Caftan” in the U.S. “The subject matter could be a bit sensitive for them. But I certainly hope — based on all the critical acclaim the film has gotten on the circuit around the globe, and all the upcoming demand at domestic festivals — that it resonates for them in a way that makes them see it’s a real contender.”

Hu, whose company has been at the forefront of distributing queer cinema for over 30 years, added that “The Blue Caftan” and “Joyland” could establish major precedents if their countries choose to submit them. “It’s not about challenging the culture so much as bringing those kinds of sensitive stories to their parts of the world,” he said, “and illuminating the culture that’s there about these issues.”

“Holy Spider”
“Holy Spider”

Other countries in the Middle East won’t even allow the production of movies that break their taboos, much less consider them as Oscar submissions. While “Holy Spider” doesn’t have any queer characters, the Iran-set story also contains sexual content that would never have been allowed in the country where it takes place. The movie revolves around the real-life killing spree of a religious man intent on murdering prostitutes in the holy city of Mashhad, and the ensuing court case in which he was nearly exonerated. It doubles as a scathing look at the misogyny and repression of women that continues to dominate the country.

In order to avoid pushback, director Ali Abbasi shot the movie in Jordan. The result, which premiered in Cannes competition and made its way to Telluride last weekend ahead of TIFF, provides a shocking contrast to sanitized views of sexuality found in Iranian cinema. Abbasi maintains Swedish citizenship, but the movie stands a good shot at becoming the Danish Oscar submission due to the nationality of its producers. (It’s currently on a shortlist of possibilities with “Forever” and “As in Heaven”; the finalist will be announced on September 27.)

Early on, Abbasi decided to make the movie under conditions that would allow him to avoid censorship. He said an interview with IndieWire earlier this year that he saw no path forward in “tricking” the Iranian government into letting him make his movie. “I don’t believe in fooling them into something,” he said. “That also legitimizes censorship in a strange way.”

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