The danger and hope of birds of the borderlands
Genderqueer filmmaker Jordan Bryon reveals the dangers of being LGBTQIA+ in Birds of the Borderlands - a deeply personal documentary filmed in Amman, Jordan.
Hidden LGBTQIA+ stories
Jordan Bryon’s documentary Birds of the Borderlands can be summed up simply: devastating, yet hopeful. The film details four queer Arab stories. And although each story is different, they all deal with the tension between culture and identity.
Through the documentary we meet Hiba, a young trans woman who is transitioning in secret using self-administered hormones. Although she is still masculine-presenting and thus relatively safe, she fears that if she is outed as trans, she will be killed by her traditional Bedouin tribe.
We also encounter Youssef, a gay Iraqi man who lives with Jordan. One of the documentary’s most heart-wrenching moments sees Youssef break down after recounting the night his boyfriend was murdered, a tale he has to relive over and over again while seeking resettlement through the United Nations Refugee Agency after fleeing Baghdad.
Rasha, a lesbian feminist with a strong drive for LGBTQIA+ issues, flits in and out of Jordan’s home in Amman. As the documentary progresses, Jordan and Rasha begin dating, and Jordan later begs her to blur her face so she can remain safely in Jordan – being out in her country is a radical and dangerous protest against the conservative norms.
What right does a privileged white Australian like Jordan, regardless of their sexuality or gender, have to tell stories that are uniquely Arabic?
Finally, we meet Khalaf, a gay Imam (an Islamic worship and community leader) who lives alone in Beirut while seeking resettlement. Like Youssef, Khalaf fled his own country after being subjected to homophobic hate crimes, and rarely leaves his flat for fear of being recognised as a gay rights activist.
Jordan becomes the link between each of these stories, drawing out the personal relationships that blossom between each person. Together, they create an insightful artwork that the filmmaker hopes will reach “people who have decision-making power over asylum seeking cases around the world”.
Participatory storytelling and combatting Arab-phobia
Fittingly, Jordan is a self-proclaimed “story-activist”, harnessing the power of storytelling to explore human rights issues. The genderqueer director has produced films for NGOs across the world, covering topics including mental health, slum innovation and homelessness.
Jordan felt compelled to make Birds of the Borderlands after reflecting on the Islamophobia they had witnessed in Australia, and their own desire to facilitate personal connections with people who are so often ‘othered’ by the Western world.
As Jordan says in the film: "There are all sorts of borders telling them where they belong. But they've already crossed. They belong to the borderlands. The space between borders where the worlds overlap. They are extra than ordinary. They are the birds of the borderlands."
As a viewer, I must admit, I approached Birds of the Borderlands with slight scepticism. What right does a privileged white Australian like Jordan, regardless of their sexuality or gender, have to tell stories that are uniquely Arabic? This sentiment was shared by some of the LGBTQIA+ community in Amman, where the film was made.
However, I quickly realised that Jordan wasn’t telling the stories – Hiba, Youssef, Rasha and Khalaf were. This is the beauty of Jordan’s brand of “participatory storytelling”, where a film’s subjects can produce their own media and thus narrative.
Making participatory storytelling possible empowers the people who are so often vilified by Western media, and minimises these negative narratives, a move vital in fighting Islamophobia and Arab-phobia.
So, why do Hiba, Rasha, Khalaf and Youssef insist on sharing their stories despite the danger that faces them if they are caught?
The answer is simple: because they don’t want to hide anymore.
Although Birds of the Borderlands may differ from the Australian queer experience in many ways, it undoubtedly demonstrates the isolation, self-doubt and, paradoxically, hope, that is common to many LGBTQIA+ people.
Jordan Bryon graduated from UTS with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication (Media Arts and Production) in 2011. The degree is now known as a Bachelor of Communication (Media Arts and Production).
See Jordan's production company Off the Record to learn more about their work and watch the Birds of the Borderlands trailer.