By B. J. Coleman
Short and documentary films tackle LGBT rights and struggles
The GI Film Festival’s screenings on Sept. 28 showcased two films of LGBT interest. The short film screened was 2017’s “Coming Out to Grandma,” directed by Jason Zuidema and currently in its world premiere. The eight-minute film offers a wryly humorous fictional narrative of dutiful, loving grandson Charlie making the big announcement to his culturally conservative grandmother, who has dementia. Charlie is under time pressure to come of the closet to his grandma, because of his impending marriage to his longtime boyfriend.
Grandma repeatedly informs Charlie that she prays for him every night to find a nice girl and settle down as long as she is not a Democrat, even as Charlie is gradually broaching topics of gay marriage and asking grandma what she thinks of lesbian TV host Ellen DeGeneres.
As they sit side by side in grandma’s kitchen eating nook and Charlie completes his “coming out” to grandma, she looks confused for a moment and then tells Charlie she loves him and wants him to be happy. “Just be you,” she says.
The feature film was the San Diego premiere of “From Baghdad to The Bay,” a documentary directed by Erin Palmquist. The film follows several years in the life of Iraq refugee Ghazwan Alsharif, who served as a translator for the U.S. military during Operation Iraqi Freedom and ultimately reached safety when relocated to the U.S. in 2008. Palmquist crafted an entertaining, engaging documentary of this story.
In the film, Alsharif described that he volunteered to assist the Army and Marine Corps troops he accompanied on missions in Iraq to help the Iraqi people amidst wartime chaos and to restore safety to his native country.
Because Alsharif often wore a cowboy hat, he earned the nickname Tex from the troops. Two of his commanding officers appeared on film in interviews. They stated that Alsharif saved their lives and the lives of their units several times, and that they relied on and trusted him.
But trouble awaited Alsharif. He recounted in the film that initially the majority of people in Iraq favored the U.S. intervention. Those opinions changed over time as conditions unraveled within Iraq.
“This was a very complex environment,” Alsharif said.
And then there was this complicating factor: Alsharif’s grandfather was minister of defense for then Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Family members approached Alsharif, encouraging him to “work both sides.” That was enough to endanger him.
Alsharif was seized by military police and transported to a detention facility, to the consternation of his military handlers when they learned what had happened. They knew something had to be wrong and they tried to find him. Alsharif was jailed in a tiny cell, where nearby detained jihadi terrorists and opportunistic criminals jeered at him. He was later transferred to another detention facility, housed in a cold ceramic cell and tortured. Alsharif was water-boarded, which in the film he described as being made to feel like he was drowning.
His interrogators pressed him during the torture sessions about what he was hiding. They declared they knew he was hiding something. Eventually, Alsharif broke down. “Yes, I am hiding something, yes. I am gay,” he confessed.
Soon after he was released into the personal custody of one of his commanding officers. And he was later granted refugee status, with assistance to relocate in San Francisco. He began working in kitchens, with the goal of becoming a head chef.
The 68-minute film opens with scenes of Alsharif walking in San Francisco and saying that he “lost everything,” including his country and his family. Told with flashbacks and flash-forwards, the film is quietly moving. Alsharif is very open and winsome while revealing his emotions in reaction to his experiences.
For those scenes where no filming was possible, such as descriptions of Alsharif’s detention cells and torture, sketched drawings provide the backdrop, making Alsharif’s verbal accounts stark and deeply emotional for audience members.
During the film, Alsharif and his San Francisco friends explain that homosexuality is considered anathema in the Middle East. An openly gay man within their ranks is such a disgrace to family and tribe that men in the family lose business opportunities and women in the family are treated as unmarriageable in the Middle Eastern culture.
Alsharif spoke with chagrin about the differences in how family members responded to his working with Americans and how they responded to his coming out. At first his family labeled and shunned him as a traitor, but relented and resumed contacts with him after a few years. But he is ostracized to this day by many for coming out instead of remaining closeted.
“I don’t want to die in a lie,” Alsharif said, adding that he resists labels and wants to be known as an individual. “That’s who I am.” he continued.
The film ends by returning to scenes of Alsharif in San Francisco. The film credits roll over shots of Alsharif studying U.S. history in preparation for his naturalization test, while cooking, and then taking the oath of U.S. citizenship and happily waving a small flag within a throng of new American citizens.
“From Baghdad to The Bay,” by Alejandro Marquez Vela earned the national award for Best First Time Filmmaker in its directorial debut at the San Diego GI Film Festival.
—B. J. Coleman is a local freelance journalist and editor/staff reporter with 22nd District Legionnaire. B.J. can be reached at email@example.com.