There are very few true love stories that span 2 continents and last after 5 years spent apart under very trying circumstances. Nayyef and Btoo, the subjects of the new documentary “Out of Iraq” are no ordinary couple, however. The two men met while Nayyef was stationed in Ramadi, Iraq as an interpreter for the U.S. following a stint at art school and Btoo was an Iraqi soldier. Their love was forbidden, as gay men were persecuted, tortured and murdered on the spot all around Iraq. Nayyef is able to obtain a visa to the U.S. thanks to his service as a translator. He leaves, hoping Btoo will follow shortly. However, the process is much more complicated for Btoo. So begins a five year journey to reunite Nayyef and Btoo.
The bulk of the documentary concerns Nayyef working on finding a way to grant Btoo access as a refugee to the United States. While in his new life in Seattle, he meets Michael, an activist who takes an interest in Nayyef and Btoo’s case. He advises Btoo to desert his military post, leave his family, who grows suspicious of his sexuality, and flee to Lebanon. From there, Btoo tries to apply for refugee status with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). However, his chances seem to diminish the more and more interviews he goes through.
The documentary does a good job piecing together this couple’s harrowing tale as they flee from persecution to reach a better life in America. For as problematic as our country is regarding gay rights, it was shocking and eye opening to see the levels of gleeful violence lobbied by both the government and public against LGBT members in Iraq. It adds another frightening and inspiring layer to this couple’s tremendous story.
For as well depicted as the love story was, the most interesting element for me was the arduous process Btoo had to endure in Beirut, Lebanon as a refugee. The international bureaucracy caused so many delays and setbacks to this couple looking to be reunited and for a home. The film made sure to identify the UNHCR was merely an understaffed entity that can’t tackle the entire refugee problem themselves. However, clerical errors and misinterpretations nearly landed Btoo on the exclusion list, which would prevent his visa application from ever being considered. With a heated political conversation going on in our own country regarding refugees fleeing their country for safety, now was a perfect time to delve into the process of obtaining refugee status through the prism of this gay couple.
For as interesting as this portion was, the filmmakers, Chris McKim and Eva Orner, felt the odd need to dial up the kitschy flavor when dealing with the couple’s relationship. While moments of levity are welcome during more serious, depressing fare, the notes struck at inopportune times that made the film seem more at war with itself, tonally, than it initially appeared. The film will be released as a TV program on LOGO in the coming weeks. In many ways, the way the project was edited does make it seem like a TV movie, which can be a double edged sword in many aspects.
Despite technical flubs, tonal inconsistencies and a TV “Movie of the Week” approach at times, the passion behind the documentary does resonate. It’s easy to make a story about star crossed lovers, torn apart by prejudice fly off the page onto the screen. Yet, Nayyef and Btoo’s story is engrossing, both as they are falling in love and when they are struggling to be reunited. The documentary should appeal to more than just people interested in the refugee crisis. In many ways, above all else, it is a love story. I guess the old adage is true, love conquers all.