DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — An Emirati filmmaker is pushing boundaries and bypassing state censors by delicately unraveling a story about a traditional Arab family grappling with issues of homosexual love, gender identity, sectarianism and women’s rights.
The movie focuses on a conservative Iraqi family who begin seeing and unearthing one another’s secrets after the family matriarch goes blind and dies.
What makes the film “Only Men Go To the Grave” particularly avant-garde is that the homosexual characters are not simply supporting characters or portrayed as Westernized or globalized elites, like past characters in other famous Arabic films. Rather, the film’s stars are homosexual lovers who are also traditional Arab mothers, wives and caretakers.
The movie, by filmmaker Abdallah Al Kaabi, also reveals its central male character to be struggling with his masculinity and gender. In possibly the movie’s boldest scene, the character dresses in full makeup, a wig, jewelry and a dress.
Most surprisingly, the Arabic film passed state censors to screen at major movie theaters across Dubai this month. The United Arab Emirates, and Dubai specifically, are more liberal and seen as more tolerant than other parts of the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia, where there are no movie theaters.
Al Kaabi says he believes the film’s handling of homosexuality and gender identity helped propel it to the big screen.
“A movie in the end is a story and people don’t really have a problem with what you talk about in the story, but they have a problem with how you expose it,” he told The Associated Press after a screening of the film. “I think you need to show good taste when you talk about controversial and taboo issues,” he said.
The lovers in his film are never shown being physically intimate.
Egyptian cinema — the oldest and most revered film industry in the Arab world — has tackled homosexuality in film since the 1950s, though often portraying it as something that exists among a progressive minority. Gay characters have also been portrayed in some films as psychologically ill or are punished in some way.
Tunisian cinema has also depicted homosexuals in movies since the 1970s, while a genre of so-called queer cinema is currently surfacing among Lebanese filmmakers.
Egyptian film critic Joseph Fahim said Al Kaabi’s film appears to be the first made by an Arab Gulf filmmaker to tackle the issue of homosexuality in such a candid manner.
“It shows that this is coming from within, especially that the director casts no judgmental eye on it … he treated it in a matter-of-fact way, not as a disease. That is also a major stepping stone,” Fahim said.
It took Al Kaabi six years to complete the ambitious project, which was awarded best Emirati film at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2016 — the year it was produced.
Al Kaabi grew up in the smaller emirate of Fujairah along the Gulf of Oman. With little entertainment around him, he would venture out to the emirate’s only video store and rent VHS tapes. It sparked in him a love for cinema.
“My pastime was to travel and dream through movies so I was watching a lot of Hollywood movies, Egyptian movies and Bollywood movies,” he said.
After vacationing in Iran, Al Kaabi was awed with the country’s vibrant film scene in the southern city Ahvaz, known for its ethnic diversity. He decided to shoot his debut feature film there using Iranian actors of Arab heritage and actors from Iraq.
Across the Gulf, there are varying degrees of censorship and support for independent filmmakers like Al Kaabi.
Despite there being no theaters in Saudi Arabia, a handful of films have been shot there in recent years. In Kuwait, which once held the mantle for Gulf theatrical productions, censors pulled Disney’s new Beauty and the Beast from theaters this year after the public’s reaction to what Disney called its first “gay moment” for a character.
Homosexuality and cross-dressing are forbidden in the predominantly Muslim Gulf. A popular transgender social media star said she was denied entry to Dubai by airport officials last year because her passport still listed her as “male.”
In Saudi Arabia, homosexuals and cross-dressers can be imprisoned, fined and lashed. Earlier this year, Saudi police raided a gathering of men dressed in women’s clothing outside the capital, Riyadh. A Pakistani arrested in the raid later died in police custody under unclear circumstances.
Though rare, judges in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and a handful of other countries can issue the death penalty in cases of same-sex relations.
Possibly for this reason, Al Kaabi prefers to describe the relationship between the women in his film as “alternative love.”
Still, throughout most of the Middle East, there is a narrow margin of acceptance for transgender individuals and homosexuality so long as it isn’t visible to the public. More recently, some Gulf countries have begun considering laws that would permit gender reassignment.
In the UAE, two Emirati women are petitioning the courts to be recognized as males. Last year, the UAE approved a law that would allow gender reassignment surgery for those who psychologically identify as the opposite sex.
The scene of the male character dressed as a woman, shocking for its raw and rare portrayal of a transgender character, left one young Emirati college student perplexed.
“There are things I really didn’t understand in the movie, like the man. Why was he wearing these kinds of clothes like woman clothes?,” Mahra Al-Nuaimi said after watching the movie.
Her cousin, Moza Al-Hamrani, appeared less confused by the filmmaker’s motives. As a student of film, she said she hoped to one day have the chance to produce similarly groundbreaking work.
“The issues to do with gender identity and sexuality — I thought like ‘Whoa, did he really do that?'” But I was also proud that someone finally spoke out about it, because these issues exist but everybody turns a blind eye,” she said.
Follow Aya Batrawy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ayaelb