A film called “Mr Gay Syria” might sound like a spoof or a tasteless publicity stunt at a time when Islamic State propaganda shows gay men being thrown from buildings. But a new documentary, which premieres next week at Sheffield Doc/Fest in the north of England, covers a real competition that took place in Istanbul in 2015, which aimed to find a representative from the Syrian LGBT community to attend the Mr Gay World competition.
The documentary, by Ayşe Toprak, a Turkish director, follows three gay Syrian refugees living in Turkey. The first is Mahmoud Hassino, who organised the competition. Near the beginning of the film he gives a talk at a local charity for Istanbul’s LGBT community to explain his idea. There he finds Hussein and Omar, a hairdresser and a chef, both in their early twenties. For Hussein, who has kept his sexuality a secret from his parents and his daughter, the competition represents a chance to stop hiding. When Hassino asks him if it’s courage or despair that makes him want to take part, he responds, “Despair turned into courage.” “They are in a situation where if they do nothing they won’t be moving forward,” says Toprak, “and I think both the competition and the film were a way of trying to make sure their situations changed. It’s a big risk for them but I think they thought that taking this risk is important for who they want to be and how they want to live.”
Even for those who are Turkish, life for LGBT people in Turkey is difficult. A survey in 2013 by the Pew Research Centre found that 9% of Turks think homosexuality is acceptable, compared to 14% in 2007. Toprak’s film opens in a hail of rubber bullets and clouds of tear gas at Gay Pride 2016, as those defying a government ban on the parade are dispersed by police. LGBT refugees from Syria are especially vulnerable. They have little access to work, housing or legal protection. “Three of the members of our group have been killed in the last six months,” says Ayman Menem, a refugee who runs Tea and Talk, a local support group at a charity featured in Toprak’s film. A gay man named Muhammed Sankari was found mutilated and beheaded in the city last August, and two trans women have since been murdered. “If you die,” Menem says, “nobody cares.”
As Toprak’s film makes clear, the dangers are often domestic. At one point, Hussein’s mother calls up to tell him that his father is angry with him: his parents have discovered his secret. “If you don’t go back to the way you were,” she says, “he will kill you.” Toprak captures the naked fear on his face. When he visits his family, he worries that his father might poison his tea. Hussein tries to placate his father, promising that he isn’t gay. “We were just joking,” he says.
The competition in Istanbul brings a fleeting feeling of joy and liberation to the contestants as they dance in high heels, shake their hips and beam at the audience. After Hussein delivers a dramatic monologue, based on his own story, about a gay man whose mother is pressuring him to marry, he is declared the winner. But while it’s the premise for this documentary, the competition is only a small part of it. When Hussein applies for a visa to Malta, where Mr Gay World is taking place, it is refused. At this point Toprak’s film becomes less about their cause and more about their lives, focusing on the ambitions and relationships of Hussein and Omar.
What begins as a documentary about the dangers they face ends as a positive picture of their emotional resilience. Toprak films Omar and his boyfriend Nader curled up together on the sofa at home and Hussein playing with his daughter in a park. She shows the men laughing and swapping fashion tips as they shop together for outfits and belts covered with jingling coins. Both hope to be resettled in Europe where they can live without fear. But their chances are slim. Even though LGBT refugees are prioritised for resettlement globally, because of their vulnerability, there are currently 2.9m Syrian refugees in Turkey and a resettlement target for 2017 of just 30,000 – 1% of the total population.
Nader gets lucky. He is resettled in Norway by the UN, while Omar stays on alone in Istanbul. They spend months apart as they wait to see if Omar will be given permission to join him. In one scene Nader gives him a Skype tour of his new flat. In another Omar holds a slice of cake with one candle up to his webcam and tells Nader to blow out the flame. When Omar tells Hussein that he has been approved to join Nader in Norway, the two hug with genuine warmth, but Toprak captures the sadness in Hussein’s eyes too. He has already received death threats and fears for his life if the film is shown in Turkey. “I imagine myself with my lover and my daughter, having a house, a job, a good life,” he says. “This is my only dream.”