To fully understand how the Sarajevo Film Festival works – be it questionable program choices or trends in awarding prizes – it is crucial to know that the festival started as a means of helping Sarajevo re-establish itself after the war left the former Olympics host city in ruins. As such, numerous films about various aspects of the Balkan war are screened every year, while the festival presents a Human Rights Prize to the films in the documentary competition. This year’s winner was Ayse Toprak’s Mr. Gay Syria, a documentary on LGBT activism among Syrian refugees.
This victory highlights another side of Sarajevo and its film festival. A couple of years ago, an unexpected gay sex scene in a Greek film called A Blast prompted dozens of walkouts. One would not expect this to happen when a film presents its topic in the title, but several did walk out of the sold-out screening when they realised that Mr. Gay Syria indeed is about gay people. LGBT cinema is not absent in Sarajevo, but it did strike me that I saw twice as many films featuring casually homophobic characters as I did films with homosexual characters. For a country badly hurt by ignoring human rights, acceptance is still very far away.
But Mr. Gay Syria did screen with great success and it is an essential film. While following the efforts of activists in Turkey to illuminate the issue of LGBT refugees by organising a pageant to select a Syrian representative for the Mr. Gay World contest, the film is at its best when it observes and understands the people involved. One individual story is particularly emphasized, but the director doesn’t let other men be forgotten once the pageant is over. It is also clear to everyone that the pageant is a drop in the ocean when it comes to gay rights. The individuals involved in it, however, are not. They are people in peculiar situations, questioning how hard they should fight for their personal lives when mere survival itself is far from granted.
This film came at a perfect time with a combination of two issues that the Western world is especially keen on exploring and fighting for. But that should take nothing away from the film itself. It is a well-made, tightly constructed and emotionally charged work, absolutely crucial and admirable in its quest to shed light on a subject that seems secondary to the geopolitics of the refugee crisis. Its message might be somewhat heavy-handed and repetitive, but that is to be understood, just as its individual stories are to be cherished.