In 2011, as the United States was ramping up to reelect its first Black president, Tamara Shogaolu was in Egypt, taking part in the political revolution that has come to be known as “Arab Spring.” Across North Africa and the Middle East, young people fed up with staggering unemployment, lack of opportunity, and what they saw as failed leadership were revolting against and overthrowing repressive governments and regimes.
Among them were members of the region’s LGBTQ community, who had long faced persecution, sexual assault under the guise of “inspection,” random arrests under arbitrary “debauchery laws,” and even the death penalty. They saw the uprising as a long-overdue avenue for relief. Forced to live their lives in hiding and further stigmatized by their families, they wanted the world to finally know their stories.
Shogaolu helped them to do just that.
Her role as participant in the protests and demonstrations shifted to researcher and documentarian—a years-long process that would culminate in a three-part film entitled Queer in the Time of Forced Migration. The virtual reality series helped shed light on the experiences of the queer community in Egypt, specifically the most marginalized of that community, women—cis and trans.
Shogaolu is hoping their stories resonate with Americans enough to help change their hearts and minds about LGBTQ asylum seekers struggling to get past U.S. borders.
Conservative policies in the U.S. that similarly target marginalized people have placed a bull’s-eye on LGBTQ people—including asylum seekers. President Donald Trump’s immigration policies targeting Latin Americans have separated families and turned away people who need the asylum most. However, transgendered people of color fleeing criminalization, stigmatization, and death find themselves facing sexual assault, further criminalization, and deportation back to their origin countries.
Americans are a tough audience to sway, Shogaolu says. Research has shown about half of the people in the U.S. are not sympathetic to refugees/asylum seekers. For that reason, she believes the U.S. is the perfect place to screen her virtual reality film series.
Tamara Shogoalu creator and director of Queer in the Time of Forced Migration. Photo from Ado Ato Pictures.
A filmmaker, writer, and animator, Shogaolu and journalist Nada Elkouny tell the story of 60 women from the LGBTQ community in 2011 Egypt, just as the country was in in the midst of a revolution. She describes the confluence of governmental changes that made it all possible as “a time of hope.”
President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-plus-year rule was over and so were his policies punishing the LGBTQ community. But as the Arab Spring faded away, a more terrifying atmosphere emerged that would force the LGBTQ community in Egypt to migrate. The backlash to the uprisings had fierce consequences, particularly for LGBTQ people. They were the government’s scapegoats for the problems Egypt faced. By punishing the gay community for violating “moral laws” or “debauchery laws,” the government was able to distract from the real issues the country was having, such as job shortages and a massive food crisis that left millions of people hungry.
The latest installment in the series, Another Dream, was featured at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It is a compelling love story told through virtual reality animation, which lets the viewer experience the love between queer refugees as they fear and flee for their lives. The first installment, Half a Life, follows an activist who must decide whether to stay and keep fighting for LGBTQ rights in Cairo or flee and seek asylum with everyone else leaving.
Virtual reality immerses the viewer into the lives of the lovers, Shogaolu explains.
“It’s kind of like a video game and an animated documentary,” she says. “The animation allows for the use of abstract ideas and themes that live action can’t depict. I think [it] has the power to be extremely visceral, to allow you to look at things differently.”
To watch, the viewer enters the staging area and puts on a virtual reality headpiece, which covers their eyes and ears. The film begins, and immediately the viewer enters the couples’ world. They can walk around and explore things. The entire time, they hear the couples’ voices talking about their need to flee, to leave their home and families.
A participant experiencing Another Dream at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. Photo from Ado Ato Pictures.
One viewer described the experience as feeling like “you are living through the predicament with the women.”
“You also share in their newfound peace and hope,” says Justin Lockwood of Geeks Out, a nonprofit serving the queer geek community.
More filmmakers are using virtual reality to tell stories of marginalized people to get viewers to empathize with their experiences. According to research from Stanford University, the medium has been successful in reducing prejudices among viewers participating in the studies, while also increasing empathy and giving viewers a perspective other than their own. One study found donations for the homeless increased after viewers’ virtual reality experience.
Shogaolu says she chose virtual reality because of the effect it could have on Americans detached from the world outside their own.
“[Virtual reality] has the power to really make people listen. You are literally stepping into the memories and the minds of the people who are speaking. And that’s what I wanted to create … a connection,” she says. “I wanted people to be immersed in those memories and feel [their] fear.”
It’s too easy to distance oneself from the subject of a film. Virtual reality immersion doesn’t give the viewer that luxury, she adds.
“People need to hear [these stories].”
Another Dream and the Queer in the Time of Forced Migration series will soon be playing at museums and art galleries nationwide.
Jonita Davis is an Indiana writer who works regularly on social and cultural topics. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Fix, People’s World and more. You can read her work at www.jonitadavis.com.