The Syrian Civil War and ensuing refugee crisis hasn’t lacked for coverage, though a certain numbness seems to have set in. This is one of the things Turkish documentary filmmaker Ayse Toprak was trying to address with her film Mr. Gay Syria.
Presenting a side of the Syrian refugee crisis we don’t often see, Toprak followed a group a gay Syrian men living in Istanbul as they worked to put on a beauty pageant. (Homosexuality is illegal in Syria.) The winner of Mr. Gay Syria would go onto to the Mr. Gay World contest in the hopes of shedding light on the plight of Syrian LGBTQ+ communities and, ideally, finding asylum somewhere long term.
We spend much of our time with Husein, who has lived most of his life in secret. The pageant gives him the chance to explore who he is, eventually winning Mr. Gay Syria with his one-man play, a dramatic reading of an exchange with his mother.
The film offers a moving portrait of Hussein and several other men as they fight to affirm their identities and carve out a place for themselves in a world that have been remarkably hostile to Syrian refugees.
VICE caught up with Toprak over Skype soon after Mr. Gay Syria’s Canadian premiere at Vancouver’s DOXA documentary film festival—the doc has its final Canadian screening Thursday. You can also follow Mr. Gay Syria on Facebook, where Toprak hopes to launch an impact campaign to help other LGBTQ+ refugees find support.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
VICE: What initially attracted you to Husein's story?
Ayse Toprak: I initially didn't know Husein. Mahmoud, one of the main characters in the film, he was a friend of mine. I used to make documentaries for Al Jazeera, and one of the films that I did was at the beginning of the war in Syria in 2011. I don't speak Arabic, so I needed a fixer, and I met Mahmoud. He was doing fixing work at the time at the border, and we eventually became friends. Right at the beginning, he told me that he's gay. He presumed that somebody from Al Jazeera would be more conservative, I suppose, so he wanted to double check that I'm OK with working with a gay person.
From the start, he told me he wanted to attend this international beauty contest with the first Syrian delegates, so as to draw attention. Husein was one of the candidates that wanted to attend Mr. Gay Syria, and that's how I met him. Initially the story was all about Mr. Gay World, and I was going to follow Mahmoud and Husein to Mr. Gay World, and it would revolve around that story, but then later on, as I got to know Husein better, I realized that the layers of his story are much more important than a beauty contest in itself. So the beauty contest, as you saw in the film, became 10 seconds or something. We focus more on Husein.
This really isn't a side of the Syrian refugee crisis that we often see. Why was it important to you to shed light on the experiences of queer Syrian refugees specifically?
It's a topic that's very close to home. While I'm doing a story on Syrian LGBTI, it's also about any Muslim LGBTI in the region, including the LGBTI community in Turkey, as we are a very conservative society as well. I think that people forget that there's war, as it seems to be never ending these days, and it gets worse and worse, and the media forgets as well. I thought that this was an interesting, unique perspective to look from, especially because it had a lighter tone, and people are fed up with watching tragedy.
As a filmmaker, how do you balance this lighter tone—celebration, solidarity, pride—with the horrors of homophobia and of the Syrian war more broadly.
That was one of the biggest criticisms that we got all along.
Not criticism when the film was finished, but throughout the making of the film, everybody questioned whether I would be able to balance that, and whether the film would become something too cheap, in a way. Especially because there's a beauty contest involved, and the representation of beauty is already being questioned.
When you look at Husein, the reason that he becomes Mr. Gay Syria isn't because he's beautiful. It's because of the causes that he wants to fight for. That's the way that I managed to balance it, because the contest that Mahmoud put on wasn't about beauty itself. One of the reasons that we didn't have too much of Mr. Gay World in it is because initially Mahmoud thought that it's an organization that deals with human rights. But Mahmoud realized that it actually is more of a money-making machine, and that there isn't really that ideal of human rights behind it. I wouldn't have managed to give that balance if I had given it more space.
Can you tell me a bit about what the stakes are for these men who are coming out so publicly, in the film and in the competition itself?
In Syria, being gay is prosecuted. Whereas in Turkey, it's not. So Turkey compared to Syria and other Arab and Middle-Eastern countries is more free in that sense. Istanbul is kind of heaven for them, in the sense that there are lots of gay bars, and there's an underground scene. Homsexuality is legal, but Syrians usually get together as communities, based on their ethnicity in Turkey, based on religion or family roots. All of these sections sort of reject the LGBTI, hence the reason they are outcasts within their own communities.
Refugees usually, throughout the world these days, are seen as outcasts. Especially Syrian refugees. Nobody seems to really want them. And of course Turkey is becoming more and more conservative. When these guys arrived in Turkey, we had one of the biggest gay parades. It was a very celebratory event in Istanbul's biggest pedestrian street, whereas it's been banned for the last two years. But of course, compared to where they come from, it's still a more free environment.
That was quite striking in the film. It feels like they're caught in between things. They're still looking for a more permanent home. They're still looking for some kind of freedom, but it does seem like they've found a certain degree of freedom already.
Yeah, definitely. I think it was important for me to reflect Istanbul that way as well. It's not the Istanbul that tourists know. It's not the Istanbul that we know as Istanbulites, but it's an Istanbul that belongs to them, which is the world that you see in the film.
Was it at all hard to get access, considering the kinds of risks that these men already face by living so publicly?
For Mahmoud, he was already out in the open, but for Husein, for a while it was very problematic. In the film, you see that [his family] discovers that he's gay. And he got really worried that, if they figure out that I'm Mr. Gay Syria, and I'm in a movie, what are the implications of that? We had to postpone our national premiere in Turkey for another whole year. Definitely, for him it was a big challenge. I think it was a big challenge to be in the film, but he appreciated it, because he came to terms with who he is, in a way, throughout this process, and he really believed in what the film stands for.
The film itself felt like it was his coming out, in a way.
Exactly. I think the whole process—Mr. Gay Syria, the film—that was a way for him to accept himself as well. In the course of filming, he used the camera, in a way, to come to terms with himself. I didn't have my director of photography with me, because he's German and lives in Germany, and he would come to Turkey every three weeks. Husein would call me up and say, I want to get my ears pierced, why aren’t you ready with your camera? He was almost using the film not only to come to terms with his LGBT identity, but I think to come to terms with what he's living through as a refugee in Turkey as well, because, as you see in the film, it's not just about being gay.
Obviously the film is a very particular story. It's a very Syrian narrative, I suppose. What do you hope that audiences in Canada or other international film markets get from seeing Mr. Gay Syria?
I hope that people want to do something. In many screenings, all over the world...the one question that kept coming up is, How can we help? I suppose that's something that I would want people to get out of it. I really believe in the power of documentaries, and sometimes people really do take it upon themselves to do something about issues that they see in documentaries. That would be the dream, basically.
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