In the opening scenes of Danish animated documentary Flee (2021), director Jonas Poher Rasmussen asks his subject Amin Nawabi, “What is home for you?” His reply is simply “It’s someplace safe, somewhere you can stay and don’t have to move on.” The documentary recounts Nawabi’s ordeal of fleeing war-torn Afghanistan as a boy and ending up in Denmark as a teenage asylum seeker. The adult Nawabi is seen to have forged a life as a gay man with a successful career in academia, yet remains burdened by the weight of his past.
Unlike Nawabi I was not forced to move to London from Cyprus to seek asylum, but I came to study, and I was privileged enough to remain and find employment, hassle-free. I held tightly to my idealized version of London, which one day I would make my home, a dream that comforted me greatly, growing up gay in a conservative, Greek orthodox society. Even if homosexuality was legal in Cyprus, I was fully aware that I would never be able to lead the life I wanted if I returned.
The Brexit referendum in 2016 shocked me in revealing the anti-immigrant sentiment shared by a large portion of the British public. It was always the homophobic (if rare) incidents that scared me rather than casual remarks about my foreignness. Since Brexit I have started to question whether I had experienced some form of discrimination based on my ethnicity and question how liberal London, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and the West are after all.
These questions have become a fertile ground for factual and fictional narratives which have been proliferating within European cinema the past two decades. This rapidly expanding genre saw a further upsurge since 2015, echoing the humanitarian crisis of a rising number of refugees entering the European Union. Films ranging from emotive dramas, bittersweet comedies, high-brow indies to moving documentaries about grassroots activism all bid to visualize the queer migrant experience.
Research conducted by the University of Sussex found that across Europe one in three LGBTQI+ asylum seekers is rejected either due to lack of evidence or because decision makers did not deem the individual to be at risk of persecution. Fremde Haut (2005) visualizes this quagmire. Director Angelina Maccarone sets out to critique German attitudes towards foreigners and asylum policies by examining the situation of the lead character, Fariba Tabrizi, who flees Teheran for Frankfurt to seek asylum after being caught having a lesbian affair. Her asylum application is declined (she finds it pointless to divulge her sexuality) and in a queer twist assumes the identity of a dead, male political activist. Tabrizi is forced to go to a predominantly White, German small town where even passing as a man her “otherness” remains a constant source of friction. The idea of Germany she had acquired through beloved literature completely evaporates, replaced with an circumstance, while not as dangerous as Iran, is equally as fractious.
As accomplished and polished as Francis Lee’s debut feature God’s Own Country (2017) is, it does subconsciously play on well-worn migrant tropes. A romantic drama about a thuggish British farmer (Johnny Saxby) and an Eastern European migrant worker (Gheorghe Ionescu), is emblematic of the UK’s polarized political environment. Lee exoticizes Ioenscu, choosing to cast an actor with striking Balkan looks to contrast with the West Yorkshire natives and along with his calm demeanour positions him as the foreign saviour who’s come to educate the local brutes about manners, while also relegating him to the role of victim with little volition. The film’s point of view is often that of Saxby who looks down at Ioenescu, as a lord might treat a servant. Lee’s stylistic direction and comforting narrative conclusion come at the cost of problematic characterizations.
Mikko Makela’s A Moment In The Reeds (2017) does a better job in giving his Syrian protagonist Tareq more agency. Like Flee’s Nawabi, he utilizes what’s on offer by an affluent and forward-thinking society, while ignoring the undercurrent of racist attitudes of his older, White employers. His low-paid work as a manual labourer is a means to an end for his long-term goals to become an architect and, more importantly, to live freely as a gay man. Makela cleverly addresses the differing levels of privilege, by showing Tareq’s listening with trepidation to his love interest, the local Leevi, complaining about his conservative Finnish father disapproving of his homosexuality and bookish leanings — a situation that hardly compares to fleeing war-torn Syria where homosexuality is punishable by law.
A more harrowing illustration of immigration is seen in the documentary Welcome To Chechnya (2020). Director David France’s assemblage of talking heads, fly-on-the-wall filming and mobile phone footage of beatings and degradation offer a gut-wrenching account of what LGBTQI+ Chechens face at the hands of tyrannical leader Ramzan Kadyrov whose LGBTQI+ crackdown appears to have the full support of the Russian president Vladimir Putin. With absolutely no police protection or government aid, it’s left to activists to risk their own lives helping them escape. One by one, we see individuals lucky enough to make it to Europe or Canada. (The Trump administration did not grant asylum to any LGBTQI+ Chechens.)
Together, these innovative narratives sketch a more reflective, if complex picture of queer migrants in Europe. Whether it’s a remote, rural community, unwelcoming asylum procedures or a rigid father figure, they all signal the pervasively conservative, heteronormative values that still underpin European liberal society. Yet despite its flaws, Europe is still a safer place for many queer individuals facing persecution and oppression elsewhere.
There is a scene in Flee, where a teenage Nawabi asks his bemused case worker about medication to cure his attraction to men. It’s an innocent request but one that reverberates loudly. He explains to her there isn’t even a word for the “gay” in Afghani. This circumstance is indicative of the many places across the globe where the existence of LGBTQI+ lives is persistently refused recognition and why these films are needed.