Emirati Filmmaker Pushes Boundaries, Exposes Hidden Lives

"Only Men Go to the Grave" makes it past Arabic censors to the big screen.

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An Emirati filmmaker is pushing boundaries and bypassing state censors by delicately unraveling a story about a traditional Arab family grappling with issues of same-sex love, gender identity, sectarianism and women’s rights.

The movie focuses on a conservative Iraqi family who begin seeing and unearthing one another’s secrets after the family matriarch goes blind and dies.

What makes the film “Only Men Go to the Grave” particularly avant-garde is that the LGBTQ characters are not simply supporting characters or portrayed as Westernized or globalized elites, like past characters in other famous Arabic films. Rather, the film’s stars are same-sex lovers who are also traditional Arab mothers, wives and caretakers.

The movie, by filmmaker Abdallah Al Kaabi, also reveals its central male character to be struggling with his masculinity and gender. In possibly the movie’s boldest scene, the character dresses in full makeup, a wig, jewelry and a dress.

Most surprisingly, the Arabic film passed state censors to screen at major movie theaters across Dubai this month. The United Arab Emirates, and Dubai specifically, are more liberal and seen as more tolerant than other parts of the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia, where there are no movie theaters.

Al Kaabi says he believes the film’s handling of homosexuality and gender identity helped propel it to the big screen.

“A movie in the end is a story and people don’t really have a problem with what you talk about in the story, but they have a problem with how you expose it,” he told The Associated Press after a screening of the film. “I think you need to show good taste when you talk about controversial and taboo issues,” he said.