Q and A with genderqueer filmmaker & UTS alumni Jordan Bryon
Jordan Bryon, global activist filmmaker and UTS Media Arts and Production graduate, is bringing their brilliant doco Birds of the Borderlands to this year’s Mardi Gras Film Festival aka Queer Screen.
As the festival blurb for Birds of the Borderlands suggests, this is a courageous and eye-opening piece of storytelling:
“Genderqueer Australian filmmaker Jordan Bryon’s intense and compelling piece of guerrilla filmmaking powerfully illuminates four queer Arab stories. Jordanian teenager Hiba is transitioning in secret, fearful of being killed by her Bedouin tribe. Gay Iraqi refugee Youssef fled Baghdad after his boyfriend was murdered and is living in limbo in Bryon’s safe house in Amman. Lesbian feminist Rasha hides her sexuality and her relationship with Bryon from her family while striving for LGBTIQ visibility. Khalaf, a gay Imam turned activist, lives a lonely life in Beirut while waiting for asylum in Canada. As Bryon becomes more entangled in the struggles of these ‘birds of the borderlands’ – blurring the lines between lover, friend, filmmaker, and activist – tensions explode and a dangerous crisis emerges.”
Watch the trailer for Birds of the Borderlands
Jordan has been making human rights films for NGOs in Afghanistan, Palestine, Jordan, Uganda, Peru, Ecuador, India, Japan and Australia, digging into issues such as refugees; the rights of women, children and prisoners; death and dying; and mental health, disability, homelessness, slum innovation and more, as well as LGBTQI stories. Currently living and working in Afghanistan, Jordan creates cross-platform participatory storytelling projects with marginalised communities, while also making docuseries for the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.
And in the midst of this utterly crazy schedule, Jordan also kindly made time to answer some questions about making this film.
1) What prompted you to make Birds of the Borderlands?
When I first left Australia there was quite a lot of Islamaphobic and Arabphobic media circulating, and it was affecting the community's views on Arabs and Muslims.
Living in Amman, I was encountering many queer stories that I knew people back home – who'd been affected by Islamaphobic and Arabphobic media – would be surprised and moved by. So I started with making a poetic interview-based film of queer stories from Amman. But when I got that phone call from Hiba (the transgender Bedouin character in Birds of the Borderlands), from that moment on, the film shifted to a narrative and character-driven participatory film.
2) How did you find these amazing people depicted in your film (Hiba, Youssef, Rasha and Khalaf) and why choose them?
I met them through mutual friends and LGBT activists. Amman is very small, and word spread that I was documenting queer stories – something that many people from the LGBT community in Amman did NOT appreciate, and I completely understand why because of global queering, orientalism, etc. – but many others wanted to share their stories.
3) They are immensely brave to do this. Why do you think they allowed themselves to tell their stories in your film?
They are brave! For all of them, their first and primary concern was their families. Family is the centre of life for Arabs and they didn't want to bring them any shame, which is a theme in the film, this sacrifice of personal liberty for the greater collective good; of protecting your family from shame.
Throughout production, we had maaaaaaany hours of discussions about the risks of the film and how to mitigate them. Even during post ([production) I got spooked on several occasions and wanted to discontinue editing the film but they encouraged me to continue. Youssef was filmed anonymously from the beginning to ensure his identity is protected but we didn't decide to blur Rasha's face until after the film was edited, which was a very difficult decision for her because the whole reason she wanted to be in the film was to be seen and heard, but I begged her to blur her face! I just couldn't take the responsibility of her being shamed and losing her job, being ousted from her family, or suffering something even worse.
4) What is the most important part of your job in this film?
During the edit, it was making choices with integrity to ensure the film didn't sensationalise, and was respectful and authentic. I had to make some tough choices in the edit, deciding to cut out some very compelling and graphic content. During production, the biggest part of my job was keeping the documentary off the radar of the intelligence people and other people who would not approve of such a film. We did some digital security training in Jordan so we could communicate with encryption. And even when I was interrogated by the intelligence people they never mentioned the film – success!
7) What are some other projects that you are particularly proud of since finishing your degree at UTS?
I just made a 10-part docuseries for Discovery Channel about animal rescue in Afghanistan (see ).
I live in Afghanistan and I'm so excited to have created a show that presented Afghanistan in a fresh way – it wasn't about war or drugs or suffering women. I'm on a mission to make films and docuseries in Afghanistan that present some of this country’s more quirky sides, and make it interesting for western audiences again. :) I'm also developing a new docuseries now about MMA (mixed martial arts) in Afghanistan.
8) What would you describe as your highlights or crucial defining moments in your life and career?
When a woman I was filming with in Dharavi slum in Bombay, India turned the camera on me.
(Read Jordan’s about how this sparked a change of direction towards participatory filmmaking.)
I realised that social change through storytelling can have immediate impacts (films like Blackfish, Bully, The Invisible War and Lion had brilliant social impact campaigns around them) but mostly shifting attitudes is the first step and then behavioural change takes tiiiiiime!
I understood that having a specific call to action attached to films is important. You have people emotionally engaged, and when the credits roll is the time to ask people to take specific action - like donate to an organisation that is working on the issue.
10) What advice do you have for current students and new graduates?
Watch this! I live by it :)