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SARAJEVO 2017 Documentary Competition

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Mr Gay Syria: Defending minorities in a hostile environment

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- Turkish journalist and director Ayşe Toprak deals with the sensitive and obscure subject of Syrian refugees’ marginalised LGBTQI communities

Mr Gay Syria: Defending minorities in a hostile environment

After working for many years in the USA, journalist Ayşe Toprak returned to her homeland, Turkey, in 2011. Despite the tense situation that her country is going through, she opts to create documentaries that raise awareness of issues for discussion and focus on marginalised communities. In collaboration with Al Jazeera, Toprak has directed short documentaries such as Don’t Tell Us Fairytales (2013) and The Fashion Issue (2013). Her debut feature-length doc, Mr Gay Syria, has just participated in the Documentary Competition of the 23rd Sarajevo Film Festival, where it won the Human Rights Award (see the news).

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Hussein is a barber living in Istanbul. He is 24 years old, homosexual, married with a child, and is a Syrian refugee. He has been pretending to be straight for virtually his entire life, as homosexuality is outlawed in Syria, but Turkey is currently more tolerant, so Hussein has been able to be more open. Mahmoud Hassino is also a refugee from Syria, living in Berlin, who is openly gay and an LGBTQI activist. Along with the small Syrian LGBTQI community that resides in Istanbul, he decides to organise the Mr Gay Syria beauty contest. The winner will have a chance to travel to Malta to represent their country in the international Mr Gay World “pageant” and raise awareness among the international community. Hussein decides to participate.

At first glance, Mr Gay Syria may seem like just another documentary on the refugee crisis. Fortunately, it is more than that. Toprak uses as a premise the concept of the Syrian refugee minority to talk about something bigger than current issues. By following the personal stories of her two main characters and the people that surround them, the director delves into the real-life struggles involved in actually being a member of more than one marginalised community at the same time. A story like Mr Gay Syria could theoretically be considered trivial, as homophobia seems to take on less importance during an ongoing six-year civil war. Nevertheless, the reality of the situation is more horrifying for the gay community of refugees, as they can never actually be safe. Those who fled their homes are still in danger in their host countries, even from their own families and relatives, as now their “secret” has been revealed to the world.

Despite the harshness of its subject matter, Mr Gay Syria manages to take a breather from the sheer drama with some touches of humour. Both Hussein and Mahmoud make every effort to play down their fears by trying to be more casual towards the exposure that could potentially ruin their new lives. Despite its tolerance, Turkey is not the best place to shoot a film on gay rights, and this is a truly courageous achievement by Toprak and her crew. It’s quite understandable that under these circumstances, the narrative sometimes becomes more factual and less cinematic, but there are moments when the real emotions shine through and surpass all of the issues, offering a much-needed ray of hope to the characters and the viewers. Ultimately, Mr Gay Syria is not just another bleak story of despair, as love can transcend every tragedy.

Mr Gay Syria is a French-German-Turkish co-production by Antoine Simkine (Les Films d'Antoine), Christine KiaukHerbert Schwering (Coin Film) and Ekin Çalışır (Toprak Film), and was supported by the NRW Film Fund, the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, the Antalya Film ForumThe New Film FundMeetings on the Bridge and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. The world sales are handled by British company Taskovski Films Ltd.

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