In most Arabic-speaking countries, state censorship and pervasive social stigma around lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues often compel talented queer Arab filmmakers to show their films abroad, and not at home. Additionally, wherever in the world LGBT identities are portrayed in the media, these depictions often risk being one dimensional. Seldom are queer and trans people able to portray their lives and experiences, free of stereotypes.  

But one regional queer film festival is defying these simplistic narratives.

During  Pride Month last year, Cinema Al Fouad, named after the first queer film produced in Lebanon, launched the first ever queer film festival in Beirut. The well attended and groundbreaking festival presented a range of work by queer Arab filmmakers, which challenged normative ideas of gender and sexuality and made queer identities visible throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Human Rights Watch partnered with Cinema Al Fouad for the festival and at the same time launched our own campaign “Facing the Myths: LGBT Voices in the Middle East and North Africa”.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, for Pride Month this year Cinema Al Fouad, along with the “Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival” in Tunis, and the gender and sexuality production platform “Jeem,” have curated a free, online-only program called “Love and Identity in Arab Cinema”. It airs on Beirut DC’s streaming platform “Aflamuna” (our films) and features  six films by queer Arab artists which tackle stigma, injustice, exile, representation, migration, heartbreak, and love. Organizers have dedicated the program to Sarah Hegazy, the courageous Egyptian queer activist who died this month, after suffering abuse and torture in Egypt’s prisons.

The films offer a nuanced glimpse into the daily realities of people who reject conformity and protest attempts to silence their voices and artistic expression. In a region where the criminalization of same-sex relations and non-normative gender expression is detrimental to both art and activism, the work of queer artists from Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia who challenge the status quo is a defiant response to governments that claim that LGBT identities do not exist and are “imported from the West.”

While we continue to challenge the oppressive systems that render issues around gender and sexuality taboo, “Aflamuna” is providing an accessible, much-needed exposure of truths rarely seen in Arab media, and reminds LGBT people that their stories are not effaced, despite all odds.