Emerati filmmaker defies convention, avoids censorship

Aya Batrawy
Associated Press

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 “Only Men Go To the Grave” particularly avant-garde is that the homosexual characters are not 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 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.

Homosexuality and cross-dressing are forbidden in the predominantly Muslim Gulf. Though rare, judges in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq can issue the death penalty in cases of same-sex relations.

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.

Her cousin, Moza Al-Hamrani, appeared less confused. 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.”