Two very different documentaries playing at the Mardi Gras Film Festival 2022 focus on individual LGBTQ+ activists in different walks of life: controversial gay rights warrior Peter Tatchell in Hating Peter Tatchell, and progressive Islamic campaigner Seyran Ateş in Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam.
Seyran Ateş is a human rights lawyer and Imam, born in Turkey before emigrating to Germany, who is fighting for a progressive Islam that battles the patriarchal elements of extremism and embraces women and the LGBTQ+ community. Bold and unflinching, even in the face of death threats and physical attacks, her story is fascinating as is the nuance in her beliefs.
Ateş is a firm believer in Islam, who finds herself under fire from the religious right as well as the liberal left, as a lawyer who fought to keep a ban on headscarves in schools; a story that’s only briefly touched upon in the film. In the face of terrorist attacks across Europe—shown in disturbing security footage that’s not for the fainthearted—she is trying to take back the narrative and change the structures of organized religion from within.
Sex, Revolution and Islam charts Ateş’ history and her ongoing work, examining the rise of extremism in Islam through a touching case study of her own nephew who was radicalized by YouTube videos, only to be pulled away from it all by the love of his auntie.
Turkish-Norwegian documentarian Nefise Özkal Lorentzen gives us a somewhat didactic hagiography of a remarkable woman. Some overly staged interviews and shots (Ateş filling a table with kids toys to symbolise her journey, or sitting on a swing in a doorway for example) feel awkward in the mix with disturbing news footage. Ultimately the lack of any examination of her work through a critical lens feels like a missed opportunity to prove her arguments in the face of opposition.
The celebrities are out in force in Christopher Amos’ Hating Peter Tatchell, which takes its revered and reviled subject head on. There is no shying away from his substantial and controversial legacy in this film that tries to answer the question, ‘Why does Peter Tatchell do what he does?’
Is he a provocateur? Or is he a performance artist, as Stephen Fry suggests? Is he helping or hurting the march for LGBTQIA+ rights? Why does he seemingly recklessly throw himself into harm’s way to make human rights front page news? The tension in these questions sustains throughout as the film looks back over Tatchell’s troubled family life and passion for politics.
There’s no questioning his dedication to the cause of human rights, and to the courageous work he’s done. As he bluntly puts it, “My doctors have said very clearly, ‘no more head injuries’”, as he details the physical toll his work has taken on his body. As a man who stands in the face of homophobes from London to Moscow, and beyond, is he brave or a does he have a death wish?
Biographical details flesh out the story of a boy whose early brushes with violence taught him how to handle his fear and to fight back, and develop a stubborn need to be right that refuses to let him back down. The glee in Tatchell’s eyes as he corrects Ian McKellan on the number of years he’s been an activist is as disarming as it is infuriating.
While lacking in any harsh critique of his methods, Hating Peter Tatchell does acknowledge Tatchell’s place as an agitator and paints it in a gentle light, juxtaposing Tatchell’s pressure group Outrage! as the “bad cop” to the more publicly respectable Stonewall’s “good cop”. As an historical document of Tatchell’s 50+ years of activism, the film is happy to sing his much deserved praises.
Both these films are a worthwhile chance to educate ourselves on our own queer history and to honour those who work to improve all of our lives. As examples of how to change the world, these are both excellent spotlights.
By Chad Armstrong
Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam, and Hating Peter Tatchell play at QueerScreen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival 2022 in Sydney, Australia. Click here for times and tickets.