Hot Docs 2016: Café Désirs
How do you express yourself freely in an oppressive religious society? What can you do when you don’t fit the norm? In Algeria, a heavily Muslim and patriarchal society, homosexuality is illegal and severely punished. Café Désirs follows three young men dissatisfied with life in the city of Constantine as they discuss the frustration they feel trying to follow the rules and trying to reconcile their sexuality with what their religion tells them is the ultimate sin. Director Raymonde Provencher has documented the highly sensitive subject matter with discretion and respect, yet shows how far the struggle for LGBT recognition still must travel in Africa and many countries around the world.
Algeria’s history is storied and violent. From the free and open society of the 1970s and 1980s after independence, to the Black Decade of religious rule, to now and trying to find a balance, the country has seen a lot of moral changes in a short period of time. The society is still dominated by haram, the idea of the forbidden and restraint. The emphasis is on separating men and women, virginity, and aiming yourself towards marriage to follow the rules. For men who don’t fit into these expectations, life can be difficult and lonely. This is even more so the case for anyone who may happen to be gay or bisexual. There is not even a remote possibility they could accept this for themselves and they still talk about finding a nice girl and getting married. They must actively repress their natural urges otherwise they will be in danger. Trying to keep this hidden causes inner turmoil, isolation, and depression. When you look closely however, there is hope. It’s buried deep but it’s there–hope for a better future.
In a subtle way, this film is an act of defiance. It dares to broach subject matter in a country where almost no one is brave enough to even say the words “gay” or “homosexual” out loud. The men featured in the film all very deliberately talk around saying anything specific as a way to protect themselves. We know these kinds of attitudes and dangerous situations still exist in many places for LGBT people but it’s heartbreaking to witness it firsthand. The daily struggle they face trying to hide who they are is damaging and sad. It forces them into a state of apathy and solitude.
In rare occasions of privacy, the film is able to catch moments of authenticity between the men, when they feel safe enough to let their true selves out. They are still cautious and guarded but they find their own ways show affection with one another. At the same time, there are still very outdated notions of what it means to be gay, even among these men themselves. They still express it as a male/female, dominant/passive relationship because they are still perpetuating the ideas that to be gay is to be weak and effeminate. Many repressed men act out sexually on children and boast about it as an outlet. It’s a highly complicated situation.
The men of the film are all highly articulate and intelligent. They know what their situation is and how to play the game well enough to not get discovered. At the same time, against the backdrop of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts, there are glimmers of hope for a better life. One man in particular, studying to become a journalist, can see international context and how other societies function towards LGBT people. He understands that change will come. It will take time but the oppressed will rise up and demand a better society from those in control. It is plights like this, happening in many countries around the world, why the LGBT community needs to stand together. In solidarity, they need to offer support and love to those less fortunate and for them to know they are not alone in their fight. Algeria is a long way from any sort of acceptance but this film is a step in the right direction.