The gay men in the film Zenne Dancer kiss on the cheek, not on the mouth. The only time they go further than that is when they need photographs of gay sex, to convince a military committee they are actually gay and for that reason get exempt from doing their military service (which is not a procedure invented for the film but still common practice in the army). Then, when they ‘have to’, we see full kisses, and then the suggestion of sex. The funny thing is, one of the men, the German Daniel, is bisexual, and a girlfriend visiting him does immediately sit down on his lap and starts kissing heavily, as lovers do. He rejects her: he is in love with his Turkish boyfriend.
It must have been very hard for the director and producer to make a film for a broad audience about a gay honour killing and about how gays are treated in Turkey. To find a balance between telling a true tale of gay love and friendship and not shock the audience with too explicit images. Because in Turkey that is what still shocks mainstream audiences: real love, including sex, between two men.
The other shock in the film is the tragedy the film is based on and which happened in 2008: Ahmet Yildiz, a student in Istanbul from the conservative south-eastern region of Urfa, was killed by his own father because he was gay. The murder is known for being the first gay honour killing that drew widespread public attention. The father has still not been arrested, and is most probably hiding in northern Iraq.
In short, you could say that Zenne Dancer (meaning ‘male belly dancer’) tries to find a balance between what shocks Turks in general – gay love – and what is condemned often but nevertheless still happens and often even understood: honour killings. Some statistics: a survey at Bahcesehir University showed that 88% of the Turks object to a gay or atheist neighbour or an unmarried couple living next to them. Stats from the Turkish government show that in Istanbul alone every week an honour killing takes place (and usually women and girls are the victims), and about thousand were carried out in the whole country between 2003 and 2008.
Turkey as a society is not primarily based on freedom of the individual and seeking happiness in your personal life, but on protecting the family and tradition you are a part of. Individual choices are subordinate to that. Who challenges the order, can get into serious trouble.
In the film, that is very well shown by a conversation between the two lovers, Daniel and Ahmet. Daniel encourages Ahmet to be honest to his conservative family about being gay. ‘Honesty is always the best way’, he says. ‘In the end, your parents love you’. Especially that last sentence made me giggle: it is so utterly typical of a western way of thinking. Your parents will at most be shocked for a while about their child being gay, but if you give them some time, they will adjust and welcome you into their arms again. Ahmet replies: ‘You don’t understand. Honesty could kill me.’
Ahmets parents do love their son, that is clear throughout the film, but that love is not strong enough to wipe away traditional convictions. Ahmet refuses to come back to his family and get ‘help’ from the Imam to overcome his ‘sickness’. So then the father sees no other way: he travels to Istanbul and guns down his son. In a later scene, we see Ahmets mother, who encouraged the murder, crying uncontrollalby.
The film won a series of awards at Turkey’s most important film festival, in Antalya. It is now in cinemas all over the country, also in conservative cities like Trabzon, Konya and Diyarbakir. I do wonder what kind of audience it is attracting, and about how they feel afterwards. The message of the film is clear, and what should be the most shocking part is the honour killing. How big a part of the audience has to admit that deep down they are more shocked by the one vague but unmistakably gay sex scene? How much will the film contribute to changing attitudes towards gays in Turkey? Can gays really kiss in the next big release film about gay rights?