The whole concept of anybody being brave/foolhardy enough to publicly come out as a gay Syrian is tough enough to get one’s head around, but the very idea that there is such a thing as a Mr Gay Syria competition is beyond belief, but something we felt compelled to look into further.
It is the subject of the Turkish filmmaker Ayşe Toprak’s first feature documentary, and most of the action takes place in Istanbul as this is where a small group of gay Syrians refugees have escaped too. Life is still not easy for as illegal immigrants they have no rights and cannot legally work, but this is a better risk than returning home and facing the ISIS death squads.
The competition is the brainchild of Mahmoud Hassino who now lives in Berlin working with LGBT refugees and he wants to highlight their plight by getting an official Syrian entrant into Mr Gay World 2016. He wants the world to know about living gay Syrians and, not just the dead ones.
The film starts with the handful of contestants as they prepare for the event. There is a wonderful sense of camaraderie as they bond, and despite the occasional bout of hesitation, they are all remarkably upbeat and confident. Omar, a slightly tubby chef, has an infectious sense of humor and is always jolly even though his live-in boyfriend is about to legally emigrate to Norway having been awarded precious United Nations refugee status which is so tough to come by.
Just as a reminder that although Turkey is a haven for them, it is still a repressive homophobic regime, as witnessed when the Police use brutal violence to break up a peaceful Gay Pride march.
23 year old Hussein another of the contestants has one of the saddest stories. During the week he lives as an out-gay man working as a barber in Istanbul, but at the weekend he takes the bus to the suburbs where he lives with his wife and child and his conservative parents. For his ‘talent’ part of the competition he performs a monologue about how he would ‘come out’ to his mother if he could. It brings the teary-eyed crowd up on their feet applauding wildly and clinches the winner’s tiara for him.
That turns out to be the easy part as the Mr Gay World competition is being held in Malta, and they refuse to grant Hussein a travel visa. It is extremely disappointing but not nearly as bad or dangerous as the summons he suddenly gets from his father to go home one day. Accompanied by Mahmoud who hangs by close at hand in case the confrontation gets out of hand . His parents demand that he deny the rumors he is gay, and Hussein is lucky this time and escapes with his life.
Mahmoud therefore decides to go to Malta and represent Hussein as Mr Gay Syria, but he is soon very disappointed. What he had hoped would be a perfect arena to promote the plight of gay Syrians on an international stage, turned out to be no more than a harmless beefcake competition without a single member of the media in sight.
But whereas the competition failed to provide Mahmoud and his small group the exposure their cause so rightly deserved, this compelling documentary should be a useful tool if it can reach the global audiences it deserves.
Finally Toprak leaves us on a high note for at least a couple of the guys. Hussein’s wife decides to up sticks and go back to live with her own family, assumably freeing Hussein of the obligation for him to visit his parents that often. Otto gets good news too as he is finally accepted into the United Nations Refugee scheme and can legally go live with his boyfriend safely in Norway.
As long as there are still places on earth where just being LGBT can get you killed, we need to continually share their stories. There is no better place to start than with this one here.
(check out https://www.facebook.com/mrgaysyriafilm/ to find out where their screenings are.