I had the pleasure of seeing Rolla Selbak’s Three Veils at its San Francisco premiere at the Roxie theatre in 2011, and while I missed Cherien Dabis’ May in the Summer at the Sydney Arab Film Festival, I caught it a few months later at the Castro theatre in 2014. I’ve chosen to couple these two films together, because they are both predominantly in English and written and directed by Arab-American filmmakers. I also wanted to broaden the Arab-Diaspora filmic experience, to include the short works of the Lebanese-Australian filmmaker, Fadia Abboud.
You might remember Cherien Dabis’ debut feature, Amreeka (2009), or know her through her directorial work on Showtime’s The L Word. I recall that Dabis had once said that although she loved to explore themes of Arab migrancy, and the experiences those entail, and also loved to work on issues of women’s sexuality, to do both at the same time was somehow still elusive for her. In May in the Summer she seems to have made the attempt to bridge that divide. While the film is enjoyable and valuable on many levels, exploring the diasporic Arab’s relationship to family and homeland, it’s not exactly profound in its portrayal of a same-sex attracted sibling of the main character, May, who is returning to Jordan for her wedding.
I think, and I hope Dabis will forgive me if I’m wrong, there was a concentrated effort to make this film appeal to as mainstream an audience as possible. Therefore, having a same-sex attracted sibling is just enough to draw in a lesbian (and specifically Arab) crowd, expecting something of the sort from the L-Word director, while it is not enough to marginalize the film as a lesbian one. Nadine Labaki does this in Caramel too, but Labaki’s film was produced in a context where depicting female homosexuality is far more contentious. So, in a way, even though Caramel’s character, Rima, is never explicitly signified as lesbian, while Dabis’ is, Labaki’s Rima is far more audacious. But, it’s not a filmmaker’s job to please everybody (or even anyone), let alone me, and as long as queer Arab filmmaking is happening in a politically engaged way then we should support it.
I contrast Dabis’ Jordanian setting and active silence about Middle East politics, with the ridiculous caricature of Palestinian attitudes toward Israel in Shamim Sarif’s I Can’t Think Straight. Dabis fails to name the plane that interrupts an argument between May and her two sisters (while they luxuriate at a 5 star resort) as an Israeli fighter jet in Jordanian airspace. Instead, she is relying on the “Arab” portion of her audience to “get it.” So, while we are no longer in need of subtext and allusion to talk about homosexuality, we are now in need of those to talk about Israeli militarism. An Arab audience is now the counterpart of a queer audience that had once watched Calamity Jane and read between the lines.
It is a sad reflection of a pervasive reality that anyone (especially an Arab who wants to raise a critical view of Jordan’s facilitatory role in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict) needs to be very careful about what they say, if they dare say anything at all, about the Israeli state.
On the other hand, Three Veils by Rolla Selbak is set in the US and does not venture into this complicated political territory. The film is really three films working synergistically to produce a singular narrative progression. It explores the relationship and interconnection between three women – one of whom, Amira, does not seem to be able to fully express her lesbian sexuality, largely due to the dominance of religious reservation. She has the misfortune of befriending Nikki, played by Sheetal Sheth (from Sarif’s lesbian-themed films, The World Unseen and I Can’t Think Straight), who is depicted as sexually fluid. I can’t get enough of films written, produced and directed by Arab (and sometimes) queer filmmakers. And interestingly, we have ourselves yet another safe depiction of an Arab lesbian character. It seems to be a requirement that our celluloid Arab lesbians of the twenty-first century be sexless and non-confrontational.
This makes sense in context of the difficulty surrounding the initiation of discussion of sexuality in general, women’s sexuality in particular, and women’s homosexuality even more specifically. And we have seen this sanitization and de-sexualization of the homosexual in parallel with Hollywood (and American TV) narrative progression. For example, before Queer As Folk exploded what is an acceptable depiction of gayness on the small (and big) screen, it seemed necessary to produce assimilated, sexless angels who do not offend, like Will in Will & Grace for example, or the figure of the sissy in many a Hollywood classic (for more reading on this, I highly recommend Rebecca Beirne’s Lesbians in Television and Text after the Millenium).
My favourite exception to this Arab lesbian celluloid rule is Fadia Abboud’s 12 minute short, In The Ladies’ Lounge (which you can watch here). Abboud is a Lebanese-Australia independent filmmaker and In The Ladies’ Lounge moves seamlessly between a Lebanese homoerotic past and a Lebanese-Australian homoerotic present. The film is unapologetically sexy. It was followed by Abboud’s hilarious web series (with very short webisodes that you can watch here) I Luv You But… which centers around the lives of a gay man and his lesbian friend, who are engaged in a sham marriage to appease their extremely homophobic families. Since you are able to watch these shorts online, I’m not going to spoil them for you with a review!
Are you still here? How great were those shorts? I hope Abboud gets some big investors behind her to be able to make her own feature film. As apolitical as her work can be (sexual politics of representation notwithstanding), her shorts communicate in a language that international queer, lesbian and bisexual women can relate to, especially those living in collectivist cultures and societies where familial ties can be all consuming. She tells the story of an entire generation of gay Arab youth in diaspora; it’s not everyone’s story, not all Arab gay youth don’t have the option to come out to their parents or subsequently enter into false marriages, but these false marriages do happen and the stories in her work are inspired by that strange reality. But Abboud normalizes this reality and even makes it funny and fashionable. There is great humor in her writing style that is distinctly her own and her directorial subtleties are able to express so much in so little time and with so little effort. Abboud’s problem is that she is in Australia, a country steeped in cultural provincialism when it comes to filmmaking and sadly suffers a monochrome queer counter culture. Had she been in the U.S., I suspect that she would have made several features by now. It’s never too late, and I hope to see this from her soon.