Birds Of The Borderlands


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Birds Of The Borderlands
"It's a film that works as much by accident as by design, but the result is powerful."

At the time of writing, during the 2019 Scottish Queer International Film Festival where this documentary screened, a fundraising drive is underway for the UK's first ever Muslim LGBTQ Pride march. The existence of sexual and gender minorities within the Muslim population is such a strong taboo that even in the West it has taken decades of effort and community-building for such events to become possible. It's much more difficult to be an LGBTQ person in the Middle East, as young Australian filmmaker Jordan Bryon discovered when they moved to Amman on a whim and began to reach out to those living undercover.

Birds Of The Borderlands is a film that was still changing and developing throughout the period when it was shot. Byron is very honest about this and their journey, which includes falling in love with one of their participants, provides interesting subject matter in itself. The story also follows young local woman Rasha, whose brand of feminism is almost as contentious as her lesbianism; gay Iraqi refugee Youssef, who is hiding out in the city and struggling to cope with the trauma of losing his boyfriend in a violent assault; outcast gay imam Khalaf; and local teenager Hiba, a trans girl who has managed to access hormone treatment is secret but has to use make-up to hide the changes she has longed for because there's a very real chance that her Bedouin tribe will kill her if they find out. Everybody is dreaming of a better life but for some the question is whether they should prioritise their own safety and flee, or stay and fight for a better world.

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Byron is extremely naive at the outset, as are some of their subjects - a fact readily admitted to later on. It's not just their age. Many Western viewers will find themselves similarly confounded by just how difficult it can be to leave places where one is told one is not wanted. Something Westerners frequently fail to understand about the challenges facing LGBTQ people in the region is how much more regulated life generally is and how many layers of control are involved, beginning with the much stricter family relationships which, tough not universal, are very much the norm across most areas. This film will help audiences to understand the complex realities facing people who are too often assumed to have the option of just getting on a plane and leaving if they don't like life where they are.

A few bright moments illuminate the tragedies made visible here. At times help comes from unexpected sources and family members try to be supportive even when they don't understand. There are moments of joy that emerge from the simple freedom of having somebody to talk to about it all, and from knowing that people elsewhere in the world will hear these stories - that these lives lived in secret are not lived in vain. Byron's loss of objectivity changes but doesn't devalue the narrative, instead giving it a rawness that makes it more affecting. It's a film that works as much by accident as by design, but the result is powerful. LGBTQ voices, like feminist voices, are growing louder in the Middle East and Western acknowledgement is vital to ensuring that thy are not silenced. Birds Of The Borderlands serves this purpose whilst taking its audience on a fascinating journey inside a hidden world.

Reviewed on: 04 Oct 2019
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Four different real life stories about queer experiences in the Arab world.

Director: Jordan Bryon

Year: 2019

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: Jordan, Australia


SQIFF 2019

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