On Saturday, June 11, 2016, Omar Mateen killed 49 people and injured 53 more in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. It’s reportedly one of the biggest mass shootings on record and one of the biggest mass killings in the United States since September 11. The victims were mostly LGBT and/or Latino, so for the past week, the news and the country have been dealing with the loss and the murder of gay people of color. The motives of Mateen, whose family immigrated to America from the Middle East, are confusing at best, but he did swear his allegiance at one point to ISIS, a terrorist group that has publicized its extreme homophobia. In fact, ISIS has put out pictures and videos of gay men getting killed, most notably by pushing them off tall roofs.
On Monday, June 13, the network LOGO-TV aired this documentary, which opens and closes on those pictures and videos from ISIS. The network couldn’t have anticipated this, but this TV movie stands, at least for me, as a counter-point or perhaps catharsis to the horrible acts of Mateen in Orlando and those ISIS terrorists. This movie stands as a testament of love, love between two men who both hail from the Middle East and have to suffer a lot in order to achieve that love, but in a week of sadness from the LGBT community, this movie also represents a beacon of hope.
Back in February, KUOW-FM, a radio station in Seattle, first reported the story about Nayyef Hrebid and Btoo Allami, how they met and how the two Iraqis arrived in Emerald City. This movie then had its world premiere in April at the Los Angeles Film Festival where audiences got to see that story realized with interviews and a myriad of home videos and pictures, probably shot on cell phone, as well as with documentary footage by directors Eva Orner and Chris McKim who probably began filming in 2010 or 2011. However, the story starts over a decade prior to that.
The movie is told from two perspectives. The first is Nayyef Hrebid (pictured above) who graduated from Baghdad University as a Fine Arts student in 2003. It just so happened that 2003 is when the Iraq War started and the U.S. invasion began. After which, the best work he could find was as a translator. He spoke English very well and could serve under the command of the U.S. Marines. A year later, Nayyef was transferred to Camp Ramadi where he met Btoo Allami, a soldier in the Iraqi Army who also worked under U.S. forces.
From that point, the movie is concurrently told from Btoo’s perspective. Btoo Allami (pictured below) says that when he first laid eyes on Nayyef in December 2004 that it was pretty much love at first sight. Despite being shorter and lighter-skinned, what separates Btoo from Nayyef is Btoo’s romanticism. Nayyef might be the art student, but Btoo is the one that speaks with flowery language and in very emotionally and sometimes poetic ways.
The filmmakers, Orner and McKim, certainly play up those flowery and poetic moments. They highlight them visually. All of a sudden colors and effects appear on screen to underline the romance and the love, love that drips if not pours off this movie, which is an achievement given what does bookend the movie and is pervasive throughout, and that’s homophobia.
The ISIS pictures of the killing of gay men are just the beginning. Nayyef testifies to the actions of the Mahdi Army, a kind of murder squad of gay people. Btoo testifies to the attitudes of his conservative and very religious family who have no problem making their threats against gay people known. Btoo says that to them “homosexuality is a disease.” They paint a very grim picture of Iraq and its homophobia. They never say explicitly, but it’s assumed that the homophobia is rooted in religious fundamentalism. Yet, calling being gay a disease might speak to a different cause.
As you watch the movie though, you feel the danger, not only the homophobia, but also the danger from the Iraq War itself, as in one scene, Nayyef recounts a story that’s as harrowing as the bomb scenes in The Hurt Locker (2009). The rest of the movie really is about how the two escape that danger. It doesn’t employ the same action, but at times it’s just as an intense or thrilling as action films about people escaping something.
We learn that escape from danger doesn’t always mean Kurt Russell or Jason Statham with a gun. Often times, it’s dealing with bureaucracy and red tape, as well as conflicting politics. It’s also about waiting and absolute patience. That’s why a comparable, Hollywood film to this is probably Argo (2012). However, the Ben Affleck of this movie isn’t some handsome, hirsute beefcake, it’s instead a bald-headed, tech nerd and refugee activist named Michael Failla.
For me, the shine of this movie isn’t as bright because last year, I saw a similar documentary called Alex & Ali by Malachi Leopold. I saw the doc shortly before its premiere at Frameline39, the gay and lesbian film festival in San Francisco. Alex & Ali tells practically the same story, except the gay men in question are trying to escape from Iran. The span of time is greater and the ending is a bit of a twist. All this makes Alex & Ali a better or more intriguing film, but Alex & Ali won’t be released nationwide online and on DVD until later in the year.
Right now, this movie hits the spot. It’s a bit of a roller-coaster with quite an uplifting ending. Some might think it too sentimental, but, in the wake of tragedy, it’s a perfect thing to embrace. It’s a bit of a shake, but it’s also a warm hug and kiss.
Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but for 14 and Up.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 21 mins.
Available on LOGOtv.com.