Reviews //

SWANA Film Festival: “If you deny homosexuality, it becomes political.”

Questions of fate versus free will are intrinsic to who we are as humans. Do individuals have the power to overcome their beliefs? Or are they bound by an eternally pervasive script to which the universe or supernatural powers precede their every breath?

Do you love exploring heart wrenching and radical narratives of BIPOC experiences from different parts of the world? Want to groove to some beats from Southwest Asia and North Africa by Nelya while indulging in the delicacies of the region? We have just the place for you.

SWANA Festival will be running from 28-30 April with an array of film screenings focused on resistance and decolonising the ideas around the Middle East, Near Eastern, Arab World or Islamic World, that have colonial, Eurocentric, and Orientalist origins.

Unabashed camaraderie has the potential to surmount grief and helps people reconnect with the lands that they’re away from. Not in the neoliberal diasporic sense, but in a way that reminds us of the politics of our actions at every step along the way.

Samir’s Baghdad in my shadow was a poetic platter; my gut hasn’t felt this combination of fear, hope and disgust in a long time. The brilliance of the narration lies in the curation of its uniquely headstrong and imperfect voice, laying down the clash of ideologies that people experience in their communities. 

“Abu Nawas” cafe in London is a gathering place for Iraqi exiles and a place where the lives of Amal (an architect back home), Muhanad (a queer IT expert) and Taufiq (a staunch communist and poet) unfold in slow, mysterious ways. They bond in their comrade’s cafe but are caught in tumult when Taufiq’s fanatic nephew incites an attack on Abu Nawas, and Amal’s ex-husband, who worked for Saddam Hussein, resurfaces in her life in London.

While all of them are away from the regime in Iraq, fascism penetrates their lives Muhanad faces homophobia from his own community with the local mosque targeting him and his partner under the guise of protecting their religion. “If you deny homosexuality, it becomes political,” rightly says Samira, when Zeiki keeps denying Muhanad’s sexuality. The movie makes us think about freedom in contorted ways: will we ever be free from our past?

That is a difficult question to answer as the women find themselves questioning their faith and affection at every juncture. Amal changes her religion in the UK and falls in love with a non-Iraqi man, only to face criticism from Taufiq and others. In the same vein, Saha (Myriam Abbas), retains her choice to wear the hijab and endures criticism from men on her choice to do so. Identities are so intricately intertwined, a new layer is unravelled in every dialogue and action of the characters. 

The cinematography is an exhibit of the keen eye and intrinsic passion of the story, as the faint yellow lights of Abu Nawas cafe and red exhibition backgrounds envelop Amal’s newfound love, making the characters’ most mundane actions shine through. Iraq escapes the shadow and unfurls slowly on the landscapes of London, through Taufiq’s poetry and the communist flag shining bright on the Christmas tree.

The Fall (2020)

Questions of fate versus free will are intrinsic to who we are as humans. Do individuals have the power to overcome their beliefs? Or are they bound by an eternally pervasive script to which the universe or supernatural powers precede their every breath?

Written and directed by Mert Berdilek, The Fall (2020) contemplates this very question; can we surpass what we’ve been told is right or wrong to preserve rightness, or reject wrongness, in the present? Beginning with a prologue, glimpses of foreshadowing (that are too good set viewers up for the sombre portrayal of a newly widowed Syrian refugee (Taj Adleeb) in plight when her husband passes. 

The cinematography of Alper Kasap captures the aura of Australian suburbia and distorts it, further (dis)placing Adleeb’s character in a terrain she is unaccustomed to. Elements common across many SWANA cultures – doily-like curtains, ornately patterned 2000s sofas, slim-waisted teacups – are in direct contrast with the otherwise sensitive subject matter of the short film. It was unsettling for me to be forced to see such homely objects, staples, in fact, evoke images of isolation and foreignness. Rather, Berdilek puppeteers his viewers into seeing the grey area in a space that is neither welcoming nor foreign.  

And Majid Shokor makes this grey area no easier. As an imam with great respect for convention, Shokor’s performance treads the tightrope between breaking religious law and offering comfort in the peaceful send-off of Adleeb’s on-screen husband.

As a two-hander, Shokor and Adleeb hold a palpable, tenuous dynamic through which the story of The Fall manifests in their chemistry. The imam has his faith, both personal and spiritual, shaken by a widow’s insistence on turning a blind eye to her circumstances. And Adleeb, desperate for eternal peace for her husband, challenges the imam with stories from the Koran, testing his patience in ways one usually doesn’t with religious leaders. 

“I came here just like you have now. I decided to start my life again. And forget… forget”. 

Back and forth, push and pull, Robert John Sedky frames this greater narrative with his simple yet auspicious score, further heightening the subtext that simmers between the two characters. In the end, no matter how bitter or sweet, the audience is left to reconsider that very question of fate versus free will, and if they themselves can escape it. 

The SWANA Film Festival runs from Friday 28th to Sunday 30th April at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, in the heart of Western Sydney. The three-day onscreen celebration showcases talent in over twenty films from many countries and in the languages of the region.