“And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonor, and emulating one another in honor; and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world.” – Phaedrus, in Plato’s Symposium.
Sometimes it seems like staying together with the one you love means overcoming the world. In other cases, like the love story shown in Out of Iraq, a film about love in time of war and the fight of one couple to stay together across international borders and bureaucracies, that idea starts to take on a literal meaning.
Out of Iraq showed at the Los Angeles Film Festival last week, and will be broadcast on LOGO on Monday, June 13. The film is by World of Wonder productions, the Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato company responsible for RuPaul’s Drag Race, as well as multiple LGBTQ-themed films like The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Although W.O.W. is often known for campier content, Out of Iraq is a serious documentary, and is directed by Academy Award-winner Eva Orner (a producer of Taxi to the Dark Side) and Chris McKim.
The film is the story of Nayyef Hrebid and Btoo Allami, two soldiers who fall in love in the midst of the Iraq War. Nayyef is a translator for the allied forces in Iraq. This is a highly dangerous position, as he must patrol with the U.S soldiers and marines looking for insurgents, translating between the troops and the terrified families they pull out of their houses for interrogation. Many Iraqis see him as a traitor. For his own protection, the Americans dress him in U.S. army gear and give him the pseudonym David.
Nayyef is sent to Ramadi, one of the most dangerous spots in the war. (If the city name sounds familiar, it was re-taken by Iraqi forces from ISIS earlier this year.) In the midst of the continuing danger of his mission, Nayyef meets an Iraqi soldier named Btoo, and it seems to be love at first sight. By chance, they are assigned to the same unit. They talk. They spend time off together. They even have a friend who helps Btoo get into the American camp so he can rendezvous with Nayyef. In the midst of the hell of war, a paradise of love blooms between them.
If two gay men falling in love in a fundamentalist Islamic country in the midst of war sounds complicated, things only get worse once Nayyef’s mission is over. As a translator for the U.S. military, he is granted a visa and has to opportunity to leave Iraq and immigrate to America. As a lowly Iraqi soldier, Btoo must stay behind. Meanwhile, “order” is imposed in parts of the country by vicious Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, who are known to hang suspected homosexuals from bridges. Nayyef and Btoo stay in touch by Skype. In one frightening scene, Btoo is speaking to Nayyef on a cell phone video, telling him he loves him as he passes Mahdi militia in the street.
Nayyef, now settled in Seattle, desperately tries to get Btoo out of Iraq. Btoo is at risk not only as an Iraqi soldier but also from the reaction of his strict, Shi’ite family as they begin to suspect he is having a long-distance relationship with a man. Honor killings are a real risk for Iraqi gays, as their families turn them over to the local militia for execution in order to keep the shame of homosexuality from tainting the reputation of their clan.
After a threat from his brother, Btoo begins to fear for his life. He deserts the Iraqi army and escapes to Beirut with the help of a wealthy Seattle benefactor who has taken an interest in the couple. As Btoo waits to be declared a refugee by the UN High Command, he continues to be at risk of capture and return to Iraq (and almost certain death) as he is in Beirut illegally. The wait for the two is interminable, as each new scene shows a counter of the number of days Btoo and Nayyef have been apart. After the days reach into the thousands, you wonder whether these two lovers will ever be reunited.
The story is gripping. Anyone who has dealt with international bureaucracy knows that if the slightest thing goes wrong—a missing piece of paper, a surly employee, a mistranslation—you can be stranded away from home or deported out of country. Now imagine if that underpaid bureaucrat or wrong stroke of the pen is what stands between you reuniting with the one you love the most in the world, or returning to a war-shattered homeland and certain torture and death.
The film has a lot of moving pieces, and the filmmakers mostly do an excellent job drawing a beautiful love story out of the chaos of the Iraq quagmire.
One choice that remains a bit questionable is the use of colorful visual effects at various points in the story. For instance, Nayyef’s first glimpse at Btoo is a portrayed in a still shot of Btoo shirtless in fatigue pants; suddenly a pink sunburst explodes from Btoo’s chest, signaling Nayyef’s “love at first sight.” In another scene describing their first intimate meeting at night behind the Humvees, you hear random gunfire and dogs barking—the sounds of a restless city at war—but we see the image of a full moon sprinkled with purple fairy dust.
The color effects move the love story along and give the film a hint of camp that may help a gay audience identify with the two characters. On the other hand, the film is telling a very serious story of a refugee living on the brink of exposure and death, and raising consciousness about the horrifying treatment of gay people in Middle Eastern Islamic societies. It’s jarring to see “camp effects” juxtaposed with real images of gay people being thrown off buildings and stoned and beheaded in the streets. The story is probably compelling enough, even in its slower sections, without the added visual effects.
For LGBT people brought up in religiously conservative societies, Out of Iraq will spark some recognition, albeit in much more extreme circumstances. Family rejection and attempts at changing sexuality and gender identity are sadly all too common across cultures. It would be tempting to associate the cruel treatment of gay people in certain parts of the Middle East—mob justice and honor killings—with Islam. But these things are happening in supposedly Christian nations as well, often with the tacit approval of Western evangelical missionaries. Oppression of LGBT people happens wherever there are fiercely patriarchal societies combined with failed governments, lax rule of law, and little respect for human rights. The film does important work in showing Westerners how far the struggle for LGBTQ dignity and equality has to go in places around the world. And if it does its work by getting us to invest in a moving love story between two brave men from the other side of the world—comrades in the army of lovers—all the better.