SU Human Rights Film Festival ends strong by exploring LGBT identity

While it’s important to push back on LGBT narratives that are solely tragic, it’s also important to acknowledge the bitter and political realities of LGBT identity. The end of the Syracuse University Human Rights Film Festival sought to do just that, with careful attention to intersecting identities.  

About 40 Syracuse University students, professors and community members make small talk as they wait for the lights to dim.

As coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, intersectionality or intersectional theory demands that we look at race and class and gender and ability and sexuality and age together. Only once we start thinking about how society’s perception of all these traits affects an individual’s life can we then fully understand their lived experiences.

The last night’s line-up consisted of two films: 8-minute art house documentary “Reluctantly Queer” and the feature-length “Aligarh,” which is also based on a true story.

Reluctantly Queer (2016)A study in figuring out where you belong

Directed by Akosua Adoma Owusu, “Reluctantly Queer” is a letter from son to mother. The semi-biographical film stars SU alum and University of Virginia professor Kwame Otu, who tries to describe the limbo that he occupies. Citing the works of James Baldwin and Langston Hughes as inspiration, Otu collaborated with Owusu to make a statement about the conflicting nature of his identities, as dictated by society.

“It’s basically a film that seeks to document an aspect of my life as someone who is queer from Ghana and is now domiciled in the United States,” said Otu. “My identity as a gay man really became so complicated with my identity as a black man.”

Quiet B+W shots of Otu going about his day and reflecting on his innermost thoughts — sometimes with a lover, sometimes alone — underscore the poetry of his words. But for all the lyrical and aesthetic beauty of Akosua’s film, there is an unshakable sense of loneliness that haunts the viewer.

“Reluctantly Queer” is Otu’s answer to the question of “How do I navigate being queer and black in the United States, which is very anti-black? And how do I tell the journey of being a queer man to my mother, who is Ghanaian?” Caught between America’s racism and Ghana’s homophobia, Otu challenges the concept of the home he is yearning for.

“Aligarh” (2016)A study in figuring out when to stand up

Another film based on a true story, “Aligarh” follows the scandal surrounding the late Ramchandra Siras. Siras was a Marathi literature professor who was fired from his post at Aligarh Muslim University due to his sexuality.

Hansal Mehta’s biographical film is less an artful documentary like “Reluctantly Queer” and more a narrative comprised of the most heart-wrenching parts of Siras’ story. Siras’ queerness isn’t the focus of the story. Instead, it is a window into the Indian public’s differing views on ethics, law and journalism.

Before the screening began, filmmaker and S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications professor Tula Goenka spoke about the intersectionality of “Aligarh” in particular. A fitting coincidence: both the SUHRFF tradition of closing the festival with a South Asian film and the inclusion of LGBT cinema were fulfilled with “Aligarh.”

Professor and human rights activist Tula Goenka addresses SUHRFF filmgoers in Shaffer Art Building’s Shemin Auditorium. An accessible transcription of her words appears next to her on the Communication Access Real-Time Translation system.

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