After five years of living in the Middle East and now in Kabul, genderqueer filmmaker and activist Jordan Bryon, who prefers they, them, their pronouns, says they are bothered less on the street there than they are in Australia.
“Obviously women get harassed enough in this part of the world, but because I’m masculine-presenting, I get so much respect,” they says. “Whereas I was in Sydney a few months ago, walking through Darling Harbour at 11 o’clock at night and this guy walks past me, made sure he shoulder-barged me, and said, ‘I fucking hate lezzos’. I was like, ‘oh my god, I’m going back to Afghanistan where I feel safer’.”
Not that the last five years have been without challenges, as revealed in Bryon’s remarkable Mardi Gras Film Festival documentary Birds of the Borderlands. An incredibly immersive introduction to the at-risk lives of several outspoken LGBTIQ+ Arab people living in and around the Jordanian capital Amman, Bryon soon became enmeshed in their lives.
Growing up next to the Murrumbidgee, Bryon had long been itching to spread their wings when they overheard a conversation about Amman in a bar. With their mother having named them after the Middle Eastern river, serendipity seemed to be at play. A month later they were heading to Jordan, intending to stay for three months. In the end, they were there for a year and a half.
Bryon takes in Youssef, a gentle soul who fled Baghdad after the horrific murder of his boyfriend and is caught in an interminable limbo waiting for refugee status. Their apartment soon becomes a safe haven for the likes of closeted lesbian and feminist Rasha, whom Bryon begins to date, and teenage trans woman Hiba, concealing her self-administered hormone therapy from her Bedouin tribe.
“When I set out to make the film, I had absolutely no intentions of putting myself in it,” Bryon says of the unusual approach. “The turning point was really when Hiba contacted me because she had heard that I was recording these queer stories and she wanted to tell hers.”
With Hiba’s family keeping a close eye on her movements, their initial contact was by phone. “I didn’t know how else to capture it other than to put myself in there,” Bryon says.
Hiba’s eventual decision to leave home sparks a staggering cascade of events, which I won’t spoil here, but one of the most touching scenes sees Bryon muse on how, as someone who is exploring their own gender identity far from home, they both find themselves caught in the middle, in neither one place nor the other.
Hiba, who still passes for male during shooting, is the only face seen on camera. Rasha, increasingly outspoken, wanted to show herself too, but Bryon was worried it would spark homophobic retribution from Rasha’s family and convinced her to allow them to conceal her face and voice in the final cut.
“She was so determined to be in the film and said, ‘I’m tired of being invisible, I want to stand up and be seen and be heard’,” but I couldn’t take that risk, especially now I’m not there… it feels irresponsible to just drop this film into the world with no surrounding social impact campaign and few risk mitigation strategies, but I trust Queerscreen to protect the film. I don’t think there’s much risk of it being leaked in Jordan.”
Whatever the risk, the power of the contributors’ combined voices is undeniable, with these genuine connections oft overriding Bryon’s filmmaker’s instincts. “So many moments were lost because it didn’t even occur to me to turn the camera on, because the film is secondary to the relationships.”
A heart-breaking exception occurs when the camera is already rolling and Youssef, at the end of his tether, cracks it at a comment from Bryon and screams that he’s ready to face whatever awaits him back in Iraq. “It highlights Youssef’s stress levels, and how wonderful our relationship is, but it also complicates my personality, because I’m not just this caring, nurturing, selfless person at all. Like, I’ve called him arrogant and pushed him to the point where he has exploded like that. I feel that shows more of my less desirable side.”
Warts and all, Bryon’s glad they added their own voice to the mix. “I went on such a steep learning curve living in Jordan. I understood that there is such a long, voyeuristic history of Arabs and Muslims being represented by outsiders who are allegedly impartial behind the camera. I’m now so much more comfortable that I haven’t done that. That I haven’t just gone into this really close community and imposed myself and my camera on them, and then kind of taken their stories out to Western audiences.”
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