(Editor's note: San Diego Gay & Lesbian News will be previewing the 14th annual FilmOut San Diego LGBT Film Festival, which runs May 30 through June 3 at the historical Birch North Park Theatre. Look for Q&A interviews with celebrities and directors as well as film reviews.)
Rolla Selbak, director of "Three Veils," grew up in the Middle East and chafed under the strict social structure of a Muslim family. Her second film, chosen as the Girl's Centerpiece on June 1 at the 14th annual FilmOut San Diego LGBT Film Festival, is a snapshot of her feelings about how women's rights are trampled under in her otherwise rich and vibrant culture.
Selbak talks to San Diego Gay & Lesbian News talks about the taboo of homosexuality in the Middle East, how she has received death threats as well as high praise from her community, and about the controversial ending to her movie.
SDGLN: “Three Veils” paints a rare portrait about life in America for three women with Middle Eastern roots in the Muslim world. How has your community reacted to the movie?
Rolla: As far as support from Muslims and Arabs worldwide, I will say the majority of it has been extremely positive, and it makes me so proud to say that.
Of course there have been some negative reactions along the way. I did receive a few death threats (that never came to fruition thankfully … slackers!) Also, when we were trying to fund the film, it was hard to get support from investors within the community at all.
I think it was very difficult for them to read the script on paper, and not know how the film was going to manifest itself on-screen, whether it would end up being offensive or gratuitous or not. Fundraisers were on the brink of being boycotted by groups of conservatives who really felt strongly about the film and who thought it would be disrespectful to Muslims, especially because of the Muslim lesbian aspect of the story. This was, of course, before a single frame had even been shot yet.
So there have been downs, but it has mostly been ups, and it’s lovely to see our support worldwide. It seems like there is a lot of interest in such a film and so many people are excited to watch it.
I get emails, messages and tweets almost every day about audiences trying to find the film, hoping it shows in their hometown. It’s very heart-warming and encouraging, and this is exactly who I made this film for.
SDGLN: The story of Amira, a devout Muslim struggling with coming to terms with her attraction to women, is one that most LGBT audiences can relate to … how one’s religious teachings don’t match up to one’s feelings about same-sex attraction. How taboo is homosexuality in Middle Eastern culture, both abroad and in the U.S.?
Rolla: The Middle Eastern culture has a very long way to go when it comes to homosexuality. And this is true across the board, no matter what religion is being taken into account (whether it’s Islam, Christianity or Judaism). It is considered a sin and an unnatural sickness of society that can be eradicated by turning to God and the family as a support system to go back on the right path.
The interesting hypocrisy about this is that it’s also generally accepted within the society’s subconscious that some men may have their “homoerotic flings” under the covers, but that in the end, a true man will marry a woman and create a family. Now when it comes to women, the subject of lesbianism is hardly even breached at all, and in fact, it is a huge part of the patriarchal cycle of denial that women even own any part of their sexuality. Coming out to a Middle-Eastern family will, in most cases, subject the queer person to huge scrutiny and heartbreak, exile, and in some cases, danger to their life.
There are some brave initiatives by organizations such as Meem in Lebanon, and Aswat in Palestine, as well as many underground support systems that are slowly, but surely, combating this. I really hope this issue becomes a non-issue in my lifetime, but for now, I hope this film plays its part in the struggle.
SDGLN: You also tackle the subject of arranged marriages, through the story of Leila. Is this common practice in the Muslim world? Is this still practiced among Muslim families in the U.S.?
Rolla: It certainly isn’t uncommon, though some would call it a family match-up, rather than an arranged marriage. It’s usual for parents or family members to push women in the family to marry who they think would be a good fit for them.
As you can see in the film, it’s not like Leila’s parents threatened her with punishment or violence or anything of the like. You see, it’s all about expectation, and the enormous pressure to meet that expectation.
The expectation for a woman to be smart, beautiful and a childbearing wife, as well as doting, demure and wiling to fulfill the wishes of her parents. It’s a psychological pressure that, in my opinion, can hinder the growth of a woman’s character, and truly knowing herself and what she wants, versus what her family wants for her. It’s a very real and constant struggle.
SDGLN: Nikki’s story is also fascinating as it unfolds in the movie. She is a lost soul with a strained relationship with her father after the tragic death of her mother. Is this character based on a real-life person or is it purely fictional?
Rolla: The character is purely fictional, however I tried to take inspiration from others around me, and myself, and how we deal with darkness and grief. The interesting and somewhat eerie aspect to the art-imitating-life-imitating-art cycle is that my mother passed away shortly after I completed shooting. It was then that I really, truly connected with Nikki on a deeper level. It was very powerful and shocking.
SDGLN: You should be commended for your bravery in making this film, since many gays and lesbians in the Muslim world face life-and-death situations in their daily lives. What message are you sending with this movie?
Rolla: Thank you sincerely. I have deep gratitude for the amazing cast and crew who took this daring journey with me as well; I couldn’t have done it with them.
I hope this film will be a mirror for the lesbians and gays in the region, to echo their voices and to validate their existence and their feelings. I’d like to show them that people around the world can connect to their stories, and that in the end, they are not alone, and they are not wrong. The heart is always right, whether you choose to listen to it or not (like in Amira’s case).
SDGLN: Why was it important to you to make this particular movie?
Rolla: It was time.
SDGLN: Some audience members will be disappointed by the final choice made by Amira regarding her sexuality. A line in the movie went something like this: “It’s easier to deal with God than with love.” Why did you choose to go this route for this character? Isn’t that a hopeless point of view?
Rolla: I grappled with this for a while when writing the script. I was really rooting for Amira and Nikki to ride off into the sunset myself. I’m very aware that the majority of films with lesbian characters end up broken-hearted or killed off by the end. However I also wanted to show the truth; the painful truth of what a character like Amira would probably choose to do.
It’s meant to showcase the grimness of the issue, and hopefully, it will push people in the audience to do something about it, whether they know someone in a similar situation, or whether they’re going through it themselves.
SDGLN: Will you continue to make movies about the Middle Eastern community, complete with LGBT characters, or do you have goals to be a mainstream director?
Rolla: I make movies that I myself would want to watch, and write material that’s personal to me in some way. In the end, the most important thing to me is that audiences connect with my films. I will take any path to achieve that, without compromising the content.
Being queer, and being Arab, is a part of my identity, so that will no doubt make its way into projects I embark on. There are other parts of my identity and philosophy that also bleed into my work of course.
In the end, I hope to be a filmmaker that audiences can trust will give them material that is thought provoking, original and entertaining.
SDGLN: What’s next on the horizon for you as a filmmaker?
Rolla: I have a few exciting projects I’m working on which I can’t talk about just yet. I’m delving into the world of online content, as I think that’s a great and direct way to reach audiences while I write my other features and shows that will take longer to complete.
One of these is, for example, a short film called “Darkest” about a man who’s going blind in seven days. It’s on my YouTube channel for those interested in watching.
I’m also writing a book on independent filmmaking which is meant to encourage more females to get behind the camera and create content of their own.
SDGLN: What is something that your fans don’t know about you?
Rolla: Hmm, you know fans can be pretty resourceful, so there are things they dig up that I didn’t even know about myself, hahaha … Well, one thing that fans may not know is that I have written music for every film project I have directed thus far.
SDGLN: Single or taken?
I’m taken. I find that term so funny by the way, like I was snatched up during a heist or kidnapped by an alien spacecraft or something. LOL!
SDGLN: If you were granted three wishes, how would you use them?
Rolla: I always joke that I’m a Gemini, so I don’t need many choices. Just two. And also like a true Gemini, my two wishes will never be fulfilled. One is to see my mother again. And the second is to find out the truth about why we’re all here.
Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to (877) 727-5446, ext. 713.
Friday, June 1 – 7 pm, GIRLS CENTERPIECE
Sponsored by GayTravel.com
Co-presented by Pink Egg Media
“Three Veils” (2011), directed by Rolla Selbak, 117 minutes, USA.
Powerful film about three Middle Eastern women living in the United States, each with her own personal story. Leila (Mercedes Mason) is engaged to be married, however as the wedding night approaches, she becomes less and less sure how her life is playing out. Amira (Angela Zahra) is a very devout Muslim, but is dealing with her deep repressions about her intimate feelings toward women. Nikki (Sheetal Sheth) is acting out her promiscuity as she battles her demons after a tragic death in the family. As the film progresses, all three stories unfold and blend into each other as connections are revealed between the three women.
Where: Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Ave., San Diego, CA 92104
Tickets: $10. Order online HERE.
Festival Pass: $125 – providing access to all movies and parties Click HERE to purchase a pass.
Tickets are also being sold for Opening Night film, the Opening Night Party and the combo pass. Click HERE.