Not every couple you hear about can withstand war, terrorism, systematic hatred and five years apart living on separate continents. Then again, Btoo Allami and Nayyef Hrebid are not your typical, traditional couple – in more ways than one. Scrutinising complex and far-reaching topics like gay military relationships, refugee policies and homophobia in the Middle East, Out Of Iraq is a beautifully gripping and heartwarming account of a truly unique and inspiring love affair and its journey to becoming a protected and legalised marriage.
Usually documentaries garner meticulous records, detailed accounts and figures to persuade the viewer into adopting a certain mindset or tend to raise awareness exclusively through statistics and cold hard facts. What Eva Orner and Chris McKim do in their film, Out Of Iraq, is completely different and, quite honestly, refreshing. Data and numbers take a back seat in this heartfelt documentary which brings to light the actual palpable impact that these events have on real people. Singling out one gay couple out of hundreds and two Iraq enlisted militiamen out of thousands, the directors take the mystery out of abstract concepts like immigration and zoom in on the lives, heartbreak and anguish behind the statistics in order to bring the viewer closer to the reality of the refugee crisis. Focusing on an anecdotal account instead of a myriad of abstruse figures and artificial information, the documentary pieces together a love story that rightly questions the current American immigration policies, as well as the disturbing aftermath of religious indoctrination.
Nayyef worked as a translator for the US Marine and was later relocated to Camp Ramadi where he met Btoo, a soldier in the Iraqi Army. The documentary is centred on their raw and candid testimonials about their experience serving under the US forces together, as well as their grueling struggle and formidable efforts to remain a couple, immigrate and get married. The two describe their initial encounter as love at first sight and, although one might expect a trite depiction of a cliché romance, their entire accounts are surprisingly fascinating and brimming with adorable, innocent love. Filmmakers McKim and Orner playfully emphasise this charming leitmotif of their relationship using flowery framing, glitter and colourful screen effects. Although some critics have deemed these transitions as inappropriate giddiness or being too kitschy, they undoubtedly bring about a nonchalance and light-hearted spirit that is representative for gay pride and fittingly used to take away from the tension and distressing nature of the content when needed.
The movie makes a very interesting point regarding cultural heritage and its impact on LGBT relationships – Btoo’s interview, in particular, sheds light on the deep-seated prejudice and animosity directed at gays by an overwhelming and startling majority of their community. While the film doesn’t directly state that these harmful attitudes and hate crimes stem from religious fanaticism, it certainly hints at this idea all throughout. Moreover, the documentary does not concentrate all of its attention on ISIS and its anti-LGBT atrocities, but rather shows how odious and intolerant religious beliefs, albeit not always extremist, can still manifest in the context of societal and familial relationships. Thus, Btoo is at risk of being shunned and even killed by his own community for his homosexuality. In a chilling testimony, the man confesses how his brother had threatened Nayyef, claiming he will murder his entire family unless the two lovers stop seeing each other. The film does seem to suggest that gay hatred not only permeates these religious concepts held up with such prestige by the two lovers’ families, but also that it is precisely the content of these beliefs that breeds more hatred and bigotry. And this type of malice does not necessarily require fundamentalism to be materialised or acted on.
Although the insights into the current American refugee policies are baffling to say the least, the directors take it upon themselves to deliver this unpalatable truth to the viewer. The lack of support is somewhat balanced out by the gentle and incredible presence of Michael Failla, a business owner and former psychiatrist who routinely helps refugees enter the country. After taking interest in Nayyef’s case, the activist assists Btoo in fleeing to Lebanon and later instructs him on how to act and speak in order to pass the impossibly high standards of the second UNHCR interview. Unlike Btoo’s initial interrogator, Michael understands the urgency of helping Nayyef’s boyfriend to escape his home country – as he states in the documentary: “Most executions aren’t publicised because they’re not carried out by the government. The governments don’t have to; the people do it themselves. There’s willing executioners on every block in every neighbourhood who kill gay people”. This is one of many harrowing facts that we learn of during the documentary, all of which deserve but never receive more media attention.
This engrossing documentary is unique in its ability to expose viewers to the riveting reality of homophobia in the Middle East without being consumed by figures and statistics. Despite not outlining any concrete actions for policy reform, the film nonetheless brings awareness to crucial LGBT issues and provides valuable insider information on the red tape and needlessly intransigent procedures concerning immigration. Out Of Iraq is a must-see if you’re looking to become more educated on the refugee crisis or if you’ve got a kind heart and a soft spot for unlikely love stories.