Stuck Beyond the Rainbow in the Balkans – Today’s Gay People Trapped in Yesterday’s World

It’s easy to forget with all of the other ethnic, social and economic problems that the people of the former Yugoslav republics face, but intolerance toward gay people in this region can be particularly cruel and violent. This is a first look at homophobia, Kosovo style.

The courageous and pioneering documentary, Beyond the Rainbow, was written and directed by Ismet Sijarina and produced by Kastrati Cooper for Crossing Bridges Production. “Crossing bridges” is a particularly significant phrase in a Kosovar context, as the simple act of straying across the wrong one can be deadly for the Albanian residents of this province of Southern Serbia. The symbolism works well for gay people as well, as they must be doubly concerned about wandering into dangerous territory. There are many bridges that need crossing in this part of the world, and many people massing on one side yearning to get to the other. In this case, it’s the bridge over the chasm of dangers that separate the dark, secret world that Kosovar gays are forced to live in and the world that they can see and here just across the way in western Europe. They can look across at what people in other European societies have been able to achieve, but it is solace and torment in equal parts. They have the unpleasant choice of staying locked up in their dark houses staring across the divide, or they can make a run for it, across the dangerous bridges, dodging the snipers that exist all around them.

A considerable amount of time in this documentary is given over to interviews of four gay men, who sit uncomfortably perched on stools, silhouetted in shadows to protect their identities, talking about their feelings, their fears, their humiliations and their hopes. The story is often told between the lines: the way they make excuses for the actions of others, the way they spin their own rationales in ways that western gays would never dream of explaining themselves, the way that some of them put up smokescreens of bisexuality to hide from others and from themselves. This is unfamiliar territory for Western Europeans, like the societies of sixty years ago, when there was no freedom for gay people, not even in their own minds. In fact, one of the characters says that people cannot allow themselves to be free neither in their actions nor in their thoughts. This mental prison is taken up again in the recurring staged scene in which a gay man debates with his embittered alter ego, which ridicules his sexual orientation and almost succeeds in convincing him to accept the deception.

Other citizens speak as well, including social workers and religious spokesmen. A lesbian who is eloquent about her situation, says in contrast to the religious figures, that we live heaven and hell right here on earth, and the interviews given by young straight men on the street, as they cruelly mock the calls for gay rights, is a frightening reminder of the physical danger that the silhouetted interviewees face.

I saw this film in Sarajevo, a city that itself has lived through the era of deadly bridges. It was just a decade ago that the low, lyrical bridges that span the river throughout the city were some of the most dangerous urban places on earth. And yet today, in this peaceful place, it seems so impossible, so absurd. But what about those other bridges that the gay people of Kosovo are so worried about? Do the gay Sarajevans have any better access than their Kosovar cousins? Sadly, the answer is, just barely. It seems that even here, in this intelligent, cosmopolitan city, homophobia is rampant as well. There isn’t even one gay bar in Sarajevo, and the one organization that holds gay parties every month or so, does it with hired security guards. While the film festival was going on, the gay organization announced that it would organize Bosnia’s first gay pride march in June, 2008, and the news was immediately taken up on the front page of a scandal sheet, ready to stir up trouble for the benefit of circulation. Even here, where people have lived through years of suffering over foolish sectarian divisions, that shameful homophobia still holds sway.

Beyond the Rainbow is a proud, courageous film that reminds us that there is still much work to be done to chase out the secret ghosts lurking in ex-Yugoslav societies. Some bridges are peaceable thoroughfares, for sure, but there are many more that still need to be secured, and all declarations of victory are still very premature.

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