Growing up gay in Morocco
by Bradley Donalson
Salvation Army shows us the life of a gay boy growing up in Morocco and his journey to accept himself and find freedom. According to the New York Times, Abdellah Taïa’s film has given the Arab world “its first on-screen gay protagonist,” and he unapologetically reveals a world that is unknown to many Westerners. Taïa came out in a 2007 interview with a French-Arab journal, and as of 2014, he remains the only openly gay Moroccan intellectual.
The film begins abruptly, in the sense that it drops you headfirst into the world of protagonist Abdellah with very little introductory information. After the audience is shown a boy who breaks into his brother’s room with an obvious sense of longing, the next scene shows him being taken by a predatory older man into a construction site and being told to “get hard” and “open your ass”—all before Abdellah even utters his first line.
Taïa has chosen raw simplicity for his film. The cinematography often lingers on the drab and mundane elements of a setting before cutting to the next scene. It is as if he is trying to highlight the commonality of the settings, which could have been filmed in any city on any day.
Throughout the course of the film, Abdellah must come to terms with his feelings for men. We see him going from being picked up off the street to being the instigator of an encounter. But one of the interesting things about this is that there is very little dialogue during these incidents, and nobody talks about their sexuality. Abdellah’s father catches him in the standard childhood “he loves me, he loves me not” game, and sends him to bed without commenting on it.
The entire film is filled with moments like this, where it almost appears as if homosexuality is tacitly accepted as long as it is never discussed. The one scene where this isn’t true comes when Abdellah is older. He is living with an older Swiss professor and they go on a boat ride. The boat’s oarsman comments on Abdellah being “kept” by the older man and congratulates him on finding a rich one before blackmailing him for triple his normal fee—all done in Arabic, so the Swiss man remains blithely unaware.
The film seems to lack a consistent driving force, making it different from the standard American movie. Instead, Taïa chooses strained silences and gritty realism in order to show a world in which a young gay man must navigate dangerous territory to come to terms with who he is. While making himself “hard” and staying silent to survive, his longing for home still shows even after he’s gotten his freedom.
Director Abdellah Taïa made his debut with Salvation Army, a film based on his somewhat-autobiographical novel of the same title. Salvation Army debuted in 2013 at film festivals in Venice and Toronto, made its way to other festivals in 2014, and is now out on DVD from Strand Releasing (strandreleasing.com).