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Talking Back. Arabs in the Celluloid Closet

1 November 1996 (MAHA)

PARIS, 1 November 1996 (MAHA)

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Separate and unequal visions of gay male identities in lands of exile

By Ali Ellatay, Guest Columnist

The film Celluloid Closet dissects gay and lesbian struggles for onscreen representation by juxtaposing fast-paced editing, deciphering historical anecdotes, and inserting pertinent interviews as commentary. It is a skillful piece of work about censorship and the art of circumventing it, the nerve of suggesting an almost explicit gay subtext, alternating with the "shame" of revealing, preceding the final leap out of the closet.

A sharp scalpel slices through the wide array of tricks in the Hollywoodian book of making a show out of gay life. No image is left unchallenged, except perhaps that most forbidden image, so inadmissible they have rarely if ever been shown onscreen: the phrase in France is "mixed" or inter-racial relationships, and the question is how to film a white man who loves a man of color.

In the United States, I wonder if gay folks are still waiting for their adaptation of Guess who’s coming to dinner. Meanwhile, the tolerated gay couples seem to be at least as all-white as they are all-American. It is as if Hollywood were incapable of dealing with more than one "misfortune" at a time.

Here in the proper and civilized Old Continent, mindsets may be slightly less bigotted, but the result - on film - contains its own set of lessons about race and sexuality. For some political filmmakers, gay identity has been a theme of predilection, as they have been adamant about exploding every taboo, including the taboos around class strugle, around racism, and of the powerful synthesis of the two: the relations between former colonizer and former colonized.

When it comes to dealing with that, there is not doubt that there are two "European" schools which appear to be diametrically opposed. And that there is a vanguard, the multiracial British school, and a rear guard, composed of white French filmmakers.

Across the Channel, there are brown and black men who make films about gays, and that is significant in and of itself. Although we may critique Isaac Julien’s work, for example, it is still worth noting that in other European countries there is no equivalent to either the filmmaker or to his films. There is no Turkish Isaac Julien in Berlin, no Comorean Isaac Julien in Marseille, no Arab Isaac Julien in Paris. The same can be said for Hanif Koreichi.

When the Irish Stephen Frears adapts My Beautiful Laundrette for the screen, we got a film with no excuses: two men love each other, two cultures confront each other in a racist society.

At about the same time in France, André Téchiné (Les Innocents, J’embrasse pas), Patrice Cherreau (L’homme blessé) and Cyril Collard (Alger la Blanche and les Nuits fauves) - an otherwise diverse group of white, gay and male directors - produced disturbingly similar images of Arabs, manifesting a brand of paternalism so overt as to approach ridicule. All five of these films show a young Arab man who is beautiful, physically plastic to the point of being decorative. Overtly or not, he is the white man’s object of desire. Albeit with one additional function: to reassure the liberal viewer that Arabs can integrate to French society (yes, "they" can even be gay just like "we" are) and to satisfy an extremely questionable white gay fuck fantasy masquerading as cultural difference. In any case, the Arab comes in second, as a foil to the white hero. For the white hero is of course antiracist, and that is essentially why his brown lover needs to be there.

Collard’s Les Nuits Fauves was hailed as ground-breaking work in terms of representing the "real" lives of gay men in Paris, and also of unabashedly portraying the inner struggles of a man (Collard himself) living with AIDS. Collard’s token Arab friend, Samir, doesn’t get to do or say much in the film, except for one scene in which he gets to be "saved" from a racist attack by Collard, who cuts open his hand and threatens to "infect" the skinhead attackers...

Since these films were made in the 1980s, little has changed. From the UK arrived recently in France Hettie MacDonald’s love story, Beautiful Thing, which deals with the emergent gay identity of two teenage boys. Both are white and working-class. Their young black neighbor next door, for her part, provides the comic relief, but the film still manages to met out equal dignity to each of the protagonists.

Nothing much to talk about in France, except for 22-year-old Gaël Morel’s new A toute vitesse who shows obvious delight in showing the uncovered bodies of young, atheletic Beurs (Parisian slang for young Arabs) from the estates of Paris who are beautiful to look at, a good fuck and, unsurprisingly, turn out to be most useful in developing Morel’s antiracist conscience as the film’s hero arrives just in time to rescue the film’s token Beur from a skinhead attack.

The French gay monthly Têtu noted with a little irony that A Toute Vitesse is certain to become a cult film for "boys who believe in Prince Charming" given the obvious love which Morel puts into filming his characters. Yet even Têtu’s critics take Morel to task for the shallow characterization of the film’s Arab character, reducing the scenes and the character to a "sociological alibi."

Is Beur still beautiful? Film-makers like Morel are still stuck in the early 1980s when France was "heartstruck" for its Beurs, as the Paris daily Libération headlined in 1983 ("Coup de Coeur pour les Beurs"). Being a young, sexy, upwardly mobile Arab was (very briefly) fashionable, at least at selected Parisian cocktail parties.

These directors may love filming Brown or Black men, but they still have no clue of how to narrate the lives of these characters, making them hollow figments of their imagination. In fact, they know nothing about the culture of others, yet talk about "shared values..."

How long until we see a film with a gay Arab man who is not necessarily beautiful, who is menacing instead of being sexy, sympathetic and reassuring? Such a character might find a way to impose his perspective instead of playing the passive victim awaiting the white hero.

Ali Ellatay is a 29-year-old Algerian journalist living in Paris.

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