Support Cinema: Films to Watch if You’re a Sad, Queer SWANA Femme

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

by Sarah Trad
CW: Sexual assault, physical assault, and suicide.

During the first months of the pandemic,

when I had watched enough films to earn another film degree, I became obsessed with film list articles. I devoured The 10 Best Lesbian Period Pieces! and The Most Iconic Vampire Movies of All Time!, but I struggled to find the same writing about SWANA (South West Asian North African) pop culture and cinema. All my life, I have binge-watched television as a coping mechanism. On the best days, it allows me to decompress and let my brain turn off and during the worst phases of my depression, when I barely have the energy to eat or move, cinema is my only solace. I will always crave trashy, commercial genre films, but sometimes I just need to watch empowering cinema about women with whom I can identify. Since I couldn’t find a list of films focusing on the intersectional struggles of SWANA women and queers, I wrote my own. 

If you’re reading this,

then you are probably familiar with the sexism and homophobia queer women face in and outside the SWANA community, and the way the film industry can profit off of these struggles. This list is in no way an attempt to romanticize women’s suffering. Instead, it is meant more as a canon of sulky feminist emotional support cinema. Collectively, these films of the “SWANA sad girl new wave” recognize women’s emotional labour and the communities they create, as they navigate queerness, classism, mental health, diaspora, and family within the systems of patriarchy. All made in the last 20 years, these films lean toward cinematic realism, have amazing soundtracks, and are affordable and accessible to stream.

1. Caramel

Caramel directed by Nadine Labaki, 2007. ©Roadside Attractions

Let’s start off with a classic, shall we? Everything about this film is sensual and gay as hell. There are lots of scenes of femmes doing each other’s makeup and hair, having unattainable crushes, and seductively licking hair removal wax. The sound, costume, and set design are both chaotic and alluring, while the cinematography furthers the film’s hyper-femininity with warm light and pink color palettes. Caramel feels like it is dedicated to generations of Beiruti women as it follows an ensemble cast, each dealing with their own issues. Layale (Nadine Labaki) is waiting for the man she is dating to leave his marriage and becomes obsessed with his wife. Jamale (Gisèle Aouad) is insecure about aging and starting menopause. Rose (Sihame Haddad) is exhausted from caring for her aging mother with dementia. Nirsine (Yasmine Al Massri) is about to marry her judgmental boyfriend and has surgery so she can appear to be a virgin again. Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) is a lesbian navigating her sexuality as she falls for a client at Layale’s beauty salon. I love all these characters so much and wanted more for them than the film’s ending. Even though many of the characters settle for their circumstances in the end, the film is iconic in its representation of each woman’s struggles and the relief they find in community.

Caramel is available to rent on Amazon Prime and YouTube.

2. In Between

Review: 'In Between' Tells of Three Women Fighting Patriarchy in Tel Aviv -  The New York Times
In Between directed by Maysaloun Hamoud, 2016. ©Film Movement

In Between starts when Noor (Shaden Kanboura) sublets from her cousin and moves in with Leila (Mouna Hawa) and Salma (Sana Jammelieh.) These women are refreshingly confident. They aren’t necessarily conflicted about who they want to be but instead about how to reach their goals within a patriarchal system. Noor is judged by Salma and Leila for choosing to wear the hijab and by her fiancé for pursuing her education and independence. Leila struggles to date and pursue her career as a lawyer when her ambition and confidence scare the men around her. Salma tries to navigate her lesbian identity while her family plans dinners with potential suitors. Each of these struggles is centered within a Zionist state that is always looming in the background of the film, such as when Leila helps her boyfriend’s sister with legal advice when her teen son is arrested by the IDF. The film subverts patriarchal expectations of women’s dress and behaviour through the portrayal of a beautiful new friendship between three very different women. Especially touching were the scenes where Noor cooks with Leila, Leila and Salma bathe Noor after she is attacked by her fiancé, and the film’s final scene. They always help me find hope in supportive femme and queer communities. 

In Between is available for FREE on Tubi

3. May in the Summer

May in the Summer directed by Cherien Dabis, 2013. ©Cohen Media Group

This film is centered around May (Cherien Dabis), a Palestinian-Jordanian-American writer, who has just finished publishing a successful book and is visiting Amman to plan her wedding. Tensions revolve around her Christian mother’s (Hiam Abbass) disapproval of the Muslim groom, her parent’s divorce, and sleeping in the same room with her two visiting sisters, Dalia (Alia Shawkat) and Yasmine (Nadine Malouf). The film’s chapter titles of Middle Eastern proverbs, such as “One is always a child at home,” and the set design of her mother’s cramped house, with clothes everywhere, exemplify the claustrophobia of toxic family relations. To be completely honest, I don’t find any of the film’s characters redeemable, except Dalia who struggles to open up about her queerness while holding a lot of emotional responsibility in her family. The film has some great comments on diaspora, as Dalia and Yasmine bicker about who speaks better Arabic, only to answer their mother in English, as well as how women are affected by patriarchy in public space. Outside of the endearing relationship between the sisters, I’ll end up watching this film just to be happy that these are not my problems.

May in the Summer is available for FREE on Tubi

4. At My Age, I Still Hide to Smoke

I Still Hide to Smoke' Review – The Hollywood Reporter
At My Age, I Still Hide to Smoke directed by Rayhana Obermeyer, 2016. ©Les Films Du Losange

This film focuses on one day in the life of Fatima (Hiam Abbass), who runs a local hamam. After a water shortage ends, women of different ages, jobs, and religious beliefs gather to wash and massage each other and treat each other’s hair with henna. Some women celebrate divorces and weddings. Fatima secretly harbours Meriem (Lina Soualem), a pregnant woman who gives birth in her attic while on the run from her brother who wants to kill her for her “illegitimate” child. The film is set in Algiers in 1995, during a period of civil war in a country still struggling 33 years after achieving independence from France. The film could be viewed as a feminist allegory for the generations of women who were forgotten after fighting for the independence of their country and the ways war affects women in general. The film’s title addresses smoking bans which tend to come with conservative Muslim sects in power. The film is a tribute to women’s emotional and physical labor, dreams and oral histories. There is something so beautiful about all the times the women ululate and dance, and are quieted, only to do the same thing again later. The cinematography adds to these themes by enveloping characters in warm pink light and colour palettes. The film is a powerful reclamation of the image of the hamam from the Orientalist male gaze.

At My Age, I Still Hide to Smoke is available for FREE on Tubi

5. Appropriate Behavior

Appropriate Behavior directed by Desiree Akhavan, 2014. ©Gravitas Ventures

Appropriate Behavior is a comedy about queer second adolescence, hipster culture in Brooklyn, the banter of “identity politics” and American misunderstandings of the Middle East, as seen through the eyes of a whiny Iranian-American bisexual. Shirin (Desiree Akhavan) is going through a lot. She is transitioning jobs, attempting to come out to her family, and dealing with depression caused by a break-up with her toxic girlfriend. We see Shirin pick up the pieces of her life, moving into a new apartment with weird goth performance artists, and starting a job teaching cinema to preschoolers. Her boss is a white man who is constantly stoned and can never remember her name. The film is very successful at exemplifying the intersection of queerness and diaspora. Shirin’s experience is uniquely and powerfully bisexual as she navigates a hook-up with a white couple who treats her like a unicorn as well as her ex-girlfriend’s claims that her queerness was a “phase.” It also shows the complexities of coming out in a SWANA family and the added pressures for some BIPOC and Muslim individuals. Overall, Appropriate Behavior is an exemplary SWANA break-up film for crying queers. 

Appropriate Behavior is available for FREE on Tubi

6. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014. ©Kino Lorber

This film can be described as a Noir Western Vampire film set in an Iranian ghost town called Bad City. The plot centers on two equally weird characters; Arash (Arash Marandi), a naive groundskeeper-turned-drug dealer, and a chador-clad, skateboarding vampire, Girl, played by Sheila Vand. Arash meets Girl while tripping on ecstasy after a Halloween party where he is dressed up—like a vampire! Aside from an amazing scene where a queer cowgirl dances to opera with a balloon, the best part of this film is watching Sheila Vand terrorize toxic men who impose themselves on others and take advantage of patriarchal power dynamics. For instance, Girl kills a pimp and threatens to stalk a little boy if he does not continue to be “good.” She has no time for peacocking masculine behavior, which is exemplified in a scene where she murders a greasy drug dealer with “Sex” literally tattooed across his neck. After he attempts to seduce her, Girl bites his finger off in a scene not devoid of vagina dentata metaphors. Filled with magical realism, this film is extremely satisfying to watch if you are angry at men.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is available for FREE on Tubi

7. Circumstance

Circumstance directed by Maryam Keshavarz, 2011. ©Roadside Attractions

If you’re feeling low, Circumstance probably won’t make you feel better, but it will distract you with its impressively complex, sexy, and tragic plot! The film’s title refers to the circumstances the main characters find themselves in and the actions they take to change them. Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) is an orphan living with her uncle, whose progressive, professor parents are either dead or missing. She is constantly dealing with classism throughout the film, including when she is late on her school tuition or when she marries Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) to get out of jail. In stark contrast, her best friend Atefah (Nikohl Boosheri) is from an educated and privileged family. Atefah’s mother is a surgeon and her father quizzes her on classical piano music. Her brother, Mehran, returns home after being institutionalized for drug addiction while studying music at college. Atefah is used to getting whatever she wants and is competitive with Mehran. When the siblings both develop feelings for Shireen, they each pursue her in problematic ways. The film deals with censorship, propaganda, and the realities of being gay and a woman in contemporary Iran. And in classic lesbian gaze tradition, there is a scene of queer longing where two women’s hands touch while playing the piano.

Circumstance is available to rent on Amazon Prime

8. Head-On

Head-On directed by Fatih Akin, 2004. ©Strand Releasing

One of my favorite films of all time, Head-On was my first experience seeing SWANA representation on screen outside of the Western gaze. It was also a film that centered on mental (un)wellness, suicide, and counterculture that I first watched when I was a 19-year-old punk two years away from my own attempt. The plot centers on two Turkish immigrants in Germany, Cahit, and Sibel, who meet after each is institutionalized for suicide attempts. Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) is fleeing domestic abuse and is too provocative for her conservative family, so she proposes a sham marriage to Cahit (Birol Ünel) in order to gain independence from them. The film explores what happens when two very damaged people’s lives come together. It is also a brilliant assessment of living in diaspora and the judgment faced from within and outside the SWANA community. Cahit’s ability to speak Turkish is always judged by Sibel’s family. He code switches throughout the film, speaking in Turkish, German, and English depending on his comfort level and who he is addressing. He also faces racism when the white doctor clearing him in the mental health facility tells him to leave the country and arrogantly discusses Turkish culture with him. Sibel’s heartwarming relationship with her mother is filled with love, understanding, and shared circumstances. Head-On is much darker in tone than many of the other films, while still holding on to its humour with hopeful, beautiful scenes that always make me cry.

Head-On is FREE with a Strand Releasing Free Trial on Amazon Prime

This article was originally commissioned by Burlington City Arts (Burlington, VT, USA).

Sarah Trad is a Lebanese American artist and curator. Working in fibers, video, and computer art, she focuses on themes of how Arab identity intersects with queerness, mental health, memory, and future alternate realities. She is a former member of the artist-run gallery, Little Berlin, and is currently a programmer for the MENA Film Festival in Vancouver. Trad is the recipient of the 2019 Rutland Vermont Art Center 77Art Artist Residency, the 2019 Plyspace Residency and Fellowship, and 2011 Carol N. Schmuckler Award for Outstanding Achievement in Film. Sarah’s work has been screened at the Gimli Film Festival, Antimatter Media Art Festival, Rendezvous With Madness Festival, Everson Museum of Art, and Currents New Media.