Mr. Gay Syria
(Germany/France/Turkey, 88 min.)
Dir. Ayse Toprak
Ayse Toprak’s Mr. Gay Syria, which screens at this year’s Inside Out Film Festival, opens at the bustling Turkish Syrian border. Husein, a 24-year-old Syrian LGBTQ refugee, is sitting on the sidewalk, looking crushed and dismayed. “Everything went wrong,” says Husein, narrating over his own video image. At this point, the documentary can be almost involuntarily perceived as yet another docutragedy on the Syrian refugee crisis. But Toprak’s emotional rollercoaster offers a far more bracing and personal insight into the region’s problems.
In Mr. Gay Syria, Toprak documents several gay Syrian refugees as they take part in the Mr. Gay Syria pageant, a preliminary step to Mr. Gay World. The documentary excels at stirring emotions. It’s not surprising as Toprak keenly follows her enthralling characters, juxtaposing their happiest moments with the bitter reality of the queer Syrian refugee experience.
Take Husein, for instance. Having fled war-torn Syria, he now lives in Istanbul and works as a barber. Openly gay with his friends, Husein still has to hide his identity from his wife, daughter and his conservative parents. The Mr. Gay Syria pageant is his opportunity to break free. It’s also his chance to visit Europe and apply for asylum. If he wins, he will get to represent the Syrian Queer community and fight for visibility. The question is: will a Syrian citizen be able to get a European visa?
Mahmoud, the organizer of the Mr. Gay Syria pageant in Istanbul, guides Husein through the intricacies of the competition and pressing visa issues. Having been granted asylum in Germany, Mahmoud still travels back and forth between Turkey and Germany, seeking justice for the Syrian LGBTQ community. For him, the pageant is vital in shifting the world’s perception of queer Syrians.
Amidst Husein’s and Mahmoud’s fight for visibility, Toprak inserts heartfelt and often humorous abstracts from the lives of her subjects. Husein’s friend Omar and his boyfriend Nader are especially striking. Toprak films the couple in their daily activities, such as cuddling and watching TV, or joking around about each other’s weight. Their routine takes on a new critical meaning as it turns out that Nader has been granted asylum in Norway and has to leave Omar behind.
Mr. Gay Syria pushes back the toxic patterns in cinematic portraitures of the Syrian refugee crisis. The film doesn’t attempt to meticulously reconstruct people’s traumas, turning its subjects into walking museum exhibits. It also doesn’t romanticize the region’s devastation through fancy cinematography, maintaining its stylistic simplicity. Without dramatizing her subjects’ experiences, Toprak manages to capture their versatility while staying truthful to their identities.
An unpretentious documentary, Mr. Gay Syria offers a subtle critique of bigoted authorities and bureaucracies that contribute to further marginalization of its subjects. Most notably, the film conveys the joys and struggles of a highly misrepresented community and does so with humour, heart and compassion.