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Why I Made a Film About Queer Migration

Why I made a film about queer migration

LGBTQ people understand the need for escape, writes filmmaker Mikko Makela.

"On a day of September I left behind a land, a life, I'd never called mine."

Those are some words of bad poetry I scribbled down in a notebook over a decade ago to mark the day I left my native Finland for the shores of the United Kingdom -- ostensibly to study English literature in its country of origin, but really to escape the confines of my small, conservative, gossipy hometown for a place where I could more comfortably come out and start over.

For me, Helsinki wasn't far enough, nor liberal enough: same-sex civil unions had been legalized in Finland a few years prior in 2004 (we had to wait until 2017 for equal marriage), but this seemed to have very little effect on attitudes of old and young, as LGBTQ youth were still openly harassed in schools and the few brave, openly LGBTQ celebrities became the butt of jokes nationwide.

I followed a path taken by so many LGBTQ persons before me and since, away from the judgment of the provincial home and into the welcoming arms of the (queer) city far away, with the hope of being able to more safely and freely assume and live out the identities we had often had to hide, growing up.

This trajectory of queer migration from hostile environments to safer spaces is also shared by both lead characters of A Moment in the Reeds -- a romantic drama film I wrote and directed about the chance encounter of Leevi, a Finnish academic who has left Finland for Paris but is back for the summer to help his father renovate the family's lakehouse, and Tareq, a Syrian architect who has recently arrived in Finland as an asylum seeker. Tareq's migration is also complicated by his sexuality, and both characters are ultimately looking for freedom, acceptance and a place to call home -- a shared longing over which they connect during a few midsummer days by the rural Finnish lakeside.

Finland was one of the first western democracies to experience the recent rise of the populist right and the beginning of a new nativist politics following the arrival of large numbers of Syrian and Iraqi refugees that enabled frightening numbers of right-wing extremists and white supremacists to come out into the open to protest immigration. There was a swell of xenophobic sentiment among parts of Finnish society that opened up a deep chasm between right-wing nationalists and those responding to the refugees with empathy.

In this context, I felt compelled to begin work on a film that would challenge those narrow definitions of Finnish national identity bound to whiteness, heterosexuality, and traditional gender roles and present a vision of a more inclusive society. Thus in A Moment in the Reeds, I sought to approach the experience of being marginalised in western societies not only from the point of view of sexual orientation, but also of ethnicity, nationality, language.

I hoped that by staging an intimate love story between two fully-formed, human characters with not dissimilar hopes and dreams -- one Finnish, one Syrian -- who find common ground despite their differences of circumstance, I might get some audiences to see beyond their prejudices. It felt urgent to explore this contemporary experience; to humanize and provide a multi-dimensional portrait of someone too often reduced to a stereotype built up simply from news headlines, or worse, xenophobic political discourse.

Crucially, A Moment in the Reeds also examines the moment when latent racism, under pressure, boils over into overt aggression. I wondered at the time of writing whether the film was in fact too pessimistic about racism in Finland, but with socio-political developments worldwide in the two years since, it sadly feels more relevant and accurate than ever. This particular story may be set in Finland, but it will find resonance in any country grappling with debates over immigration and over the intake of refugees

In depicting Leevi and Tareq's romance, I was trying to communicate a very simple but important message about the potential and need for solidarity between white queer people and marginalized communities of color. Though the LGBTQ community has been making strides in gaining rights and increased acceptance in many part of the world, most of us do still carry with us the trauma and scars of homophobia encountered in the course of our lives and should therefore be able to empathize with the experience of being persecuted or marginalized. Many of us have had to journey from hostile small towns and rural areas to more liberal cities and should, on some level, understand the meaning of needing to escape or to seek asylum, even if our migrations haven't all been marked by material loss or mortal danger.

While the film was initially made as a challenge to Finnish society in particular, I think it can more broadly be seen as representing most things antithetical to Trumpism and Brexit: open borders, freedom of movement, international solidarity, and not only tolerance, but respect for ethnic, sexual, and religious diversity.

MIKKO MAKELA is a Finnish-British filmmaker based in London who recently completed A Moment in the Reeds, his first feature as writer/director that has screened at over 60 festivals worldwide.

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