Following the outspoken Swedish rapper Silvana Imam for three years, this lively documentary never digs too deeply into the issues swirling around her. Instead, it offers fans a chance to go behind-the-scenes with a young woman who has become a lesbian hero. Silvana, which is screening at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, is sharply filmed with close-up camerawork that makes the most of the musician’s confrontational activism as well as her personal connections. Blonde, slim and deliberately queer, she certainly challenges the stereotype of an activist hip-hop artist.
Silvana had her first chart-topping hit in Sweden in 2014 with the track Imam, launching a career that has been unapologetic in the way it addresses immigration issues, race, religion and sexuality. These things are at the core of her music, as she plays with her gender identity and cultural heritage. The cameras are with her when she meets the pop star Beatrice Eli, with whom she is instantly smitten. And the filmmakers then follow them as they begin a very public romance, becoming queer icons across the region through both their music and television appearances.
The film’s directors Christina Tsiobanelis, Mika Gustafson and Olivia Kastebring also follow Silvana on a visit to Lithuania to visit her parents. Her mother Lilia Bakanauskaite is Lithuanian, while her father Talal Imam is Syrian, so her sexuality is transgressive in both of her parents’ cultures. But they clearly support her work, even participating in the recording on one of her albums and appearing on-stage with her. They also provide the filmmakers with a superb range of home movies showing Silvana as a boyish child who, even at a very young age, refused to play by the rules.
Best of all are the more private moments caught on-camera behind the stage, especially the interaction between Silvana and Beatrice. These are the only moments in the film in which Silvana lets her guard down, offering a limited glimpse into her real personality. Otherwise the film keeps the music at the centre, featuring numerous clips of her performing her pointed songs to large crowds of screaming fans. The interval when she suddenly cancelled her tour and dropped out of the spotlight is covered, although the film never explores what happened there.
It’s refreshing to see such a popular artist who is so uncompromising about her identity. Fiercely defiant, she hates being pigeonholed in any way, constantly calling out journalists on their inadvertent sexist, racist and homophobic language. Intriguingly, she isn’t angry about this: she wants to challenge people to see their own prejudice and change the way they look at the world. So the fact that the film mainly has her expressing her opinions through her bold music is perhaps appropriate. Even if the film never seems to crack through her tough-as-nails surface, it offers a lot of cool unseen footage for her fans. And it also serves as a fascinating introduction for viewers who need to be aware that artists like this are out there trying to wake up the world.