By COLLEEN BARRY
Writer and director Abdellah Taia believes he has given Arab cinema its first gay protagonist in his debut film “Salvation Army.”
Taia already created a sensation in his native Morocco when he became the first Moroccan to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality in 2006 and a year later appeared on the cover of a newsmagazine under the headline “Homosexual, Against All Odds.”
Taia, who lives in Paris where he has published novels including “Salvation Army,” on which the film was based, took a calculated risk coming out in a country where gays can face jail.
“I am totally aware of how this subject is taboo in the Arab world,” Taia said Tuesday in a phone interview from Venice, where his film premiered in the Venice Film Festival.
But he said his literary success gives him some legitimacy to discuss the role of gays and lesbians in society. The movie was filmed on location in Morocco, despite some tensions.
“I do go to Morocco and they do allow me to enter,” Taia said. “If they do something to me, it is a risk for them, too.”
“Salvation Army” is based on Taia’s own life growing up poor and gay in Morocco. The protagonist, Abdellah, is aware of his homosexuality from an early age and must negotiate life in a country where his sexual orientation is not accepted but where homosexuality is practiced. Older men hit on him frequently.
The young Abdellah idolizes his older brother, who is favored among his family’s nine children and gets a room of his own even as their mother sleeps in one room with the other eight siblings. Only when his brother abandons the family for a seaside waitress does Abdellah break free, eventually leaving Morocco.
The second part of the movie takes place in Geneva, where Abdellah is introduced to Europe, where Taia himself went to achieve his dream of being a writer and a filmmaker.
“In Morocco, I would never have been able to try to publish or say I wanted to be a filmmaker,” Taia said. “Everyone would laugh at me. In fact, my sisters did laugh at me a lot, and I was angry.”
Taia believes the Arab Spring revolutions and the push for greater individual rights in the region is helping to create a climate of change in the Arab world, even for homosexuals. He cites the existence of an Arabic language website for homosexuals in Morocco and the fact that a neutral word for homosexuals has been invented in the Arabic language: mithly.
He hopes his film, with its gay Arab protagonist, will be another catalyst.
“Maybe this film will help some gay and lesbian Arab people face reality and have some support,” Taia said. “I think this is the right time as well to free homosexuals in the Arab world and not forget that they are Arabs as well.”