By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 10/5/21 – “Either the God does not exist, or being gay is fine,” says Tugay, one of the film’s subjects in Seyran Ates: Sex, Revolution, and Islam (2021), a fascinating new documentary film about a Kurdish-Turkish female Imam in Berlin named Seyran Ates. Raised in Germany by her parents and a practicing lawyer as well as a Muslim cleric, Seyran Ates is calling for Islamic reformation and the need to deal with its patriarchal tendencies. In Nefise Özkal Lorentzen’s latest documentary film, Seyran Ates rejects the views of radical extremist Islam that calls for violence and hatred of others – instead returning us to the Qu’ranic principles of peace and love. Nefise Özkal Lorentzen is a Turkish-Norwegian director known for her previous films: ManIslam (2014), A Balloon from Allah (2011), and Kayayo (2016). In this film, Ôzkal’s camera follows Seyran Ates on a personal and collective look at how the patriarchal views of Islam impact believers in Germany, Norway, Turkey, Spain, Europe, and even China. The film screened recently at the Toronto International Film Festival and is currently playing at the Laemmle Theatre in Glendale (and later online with Laemmle Virtual Cinema).
Seyran Ates is a delightful and amusing human being and we cannot help but like her from the start. It must be difficult to be like her, living under 24/7 police protection during the constant death threats from extremist Muslims because she is a female Iman and a proponent of radical change in Islamic beliefs. We meet her family, including her mother, her sister, and her nephew Tugay. The documentary uses the simple language of first-person narration. Seyran lies back with the camera shooting her face from the top angle position. She divulges without fear and openly on her struggles from childhood to this day. The frame is fixated, but her power of dissent is not. It is clear from her struggles, being shot in the neck in her early career in 1984, and the heavy presence of security guards that her story is not easy to tell. In the second half of the film, we learn more about the life of Tugay (Seyran’s nephew), who was a radical Islamic believer and now alright with himself as he realizes that he is gay and that’s ok.
What is so impressive about Seyran Ates is her fearless willingness to spread her teachings and vision to reform Islam and its patriarchal structure. It is so impressive to see Seyran greeting men and women together in the Ibn Rushd Goethe Mosque in Berlin (opened in 2017), as they share the same equal space for worship. There is even a performance of the dance of the whirling dervishes by women in the mosque – something one would never see in Turkey. Many of Seyran Ates’ ideas are in her recent book Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution, published in Norwegian and German in 2017. To reinforce her thinking, she mentions that in the Qu’ran, there is no story about Eve being made from Adam’s rib, but rather “that a ‘mate’ was created with Adam, from the same nature and soul.” “It is He Who created you from a single person, and made his mate of like nature, in order that he might dwell with her in love” (7:189). In her interpretation, this is an affirmation of all loving relationships, including LGBTQ ones.
At the core is Seyran’s preoccupation with the question of Islamic reformation and deal with its patriarchal tendencies. She dreams of a progressive Islam where sexuality is private, and there would be no shame to be a female Imam. She dreams of a community where LGBTQ people can practice Islam and love, not hate, dominate human relations. She thinks of a pan-Islamic utopia in which, more than being labeled a whore, discussion circles dominate. She dreams of having her family members not being hated for who they are and gravitating towards extremist ideology. She idealizes a time when Turkish men end their hypocritical lifestyles and allow more agency towards their female companions and family members. viewed in two evocative scenes where Seyran plays snooker; in both cases, she wholeheartedly aims to shatter political Islam and reactionary right-wing fascism symbolically and agentively.
The last part of the film deals with the gender relation reality in China enriches and reinforces the film’s primary message. Ozkal’s camera takes us into the heartland of the Chinese Muslim community and depicts a reality in which both female Imams, Uyghur religious bias, suppression, LGBT admonition, and censorship coexist. It is interesting that there are 300 female Imams in China, although these female Imams are quite traditional and only engage with women in separate mosques from the men and avoid treading on the traditional patriarchal system. The culminating scene of her reflecting on the Great Wall of China on these conflicts speaks volumes of the magnitude of challenges and the role that dissenters as Seyran can play. Indeed, China is not immune from the shared problems of Muslim issues globally, and the sexuality problem in that context has to be deeply addressed.
Currently in Germany, there are more than 200 progressive mosques – a country with a sizeable Muslim population. The movement is spreading to other countries in Europe. Özkal’s documentary film dares to portray the shattered glass left from radicalism and violence perpetrated by radical Islam, and in doing so, sends a clear signal that cinema has a role/voice, the future of Islam and women’s role in it is not bleak, and the dream of the sexual revolution and gender equality is not too far-fetched. It will take time but change is in the wind.