Seyran Ateş reads the hate mail, and she even tells the camera what she has to say back to them. “I ask them if they’ve lost their political mind,” she says, to some of her reply guys who are leftists. This is surprising since she also is one. She and her fellow leftists agree on everything except for a few issues, one of them being the hijab. As a Turkish-born Muslim, she doesn’t wear one. Part of her work is as a lawyer. She works in defense of a government barring Muslim women from wearing the scarf if they work in certain professions like teachers who deal with children. Director Nefise Özkal Lorentzen’s documentary, Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam, then, is mostly about the subject’s relationship with the religion she still practices.
Other than being a human rights lawyer, Ateş is also an imam, the only female one in all of Germany, the country she immigrated to as a child. The documentary tells her story mostly through her perspective. There are scenes where she builds a train set with her family or where she’s alone, sitting in park on a fold in chair like Wait Whitman in therapy. But some, mostly voices who agree with her, vouch for her. They see her as a woman trying to bring people together to try to do good, which is a complex thing since everyone has their own version of who’s a good person. One of these people is someone who had radical views before she converted him to ‘postmodern’ Islam. And there are problematic spoilers about this character, by the way.
The title of Özkal Lorentzen’s documentary does highlight the sex part. There are enough people who read my work who know that I’m not a prude. But there’s something inherently distracting and misleading about how the title shapes its subject. It’s as if calling her a ‘feminist revolutionary’ would sell less tickets. I’m still of two minds when it comes to both the title and its ethos. But it does deal, in fairness, with Ateş’ philosophy on sex. That the people who dislike the word also have an obsession with it, and one where they want to ‘inflict’ it on sexually liberated people.
Seyran Ateş also glosses over certain facts and make reductive shortcuts, like not looking at sociological factors before 9/11, or being more explicit on who’s behind 3/11 instead of who’s behind 7/22, or how it makes female Uighur imams look. But again, in fairness, it’s still nice to have a documentary imparting facts about female imams existing centuries before Ateş. Ateş travels the world. In one of those trips, she tells young Uighur queer women that they can be members of the LGBT2+ group and still “believe in Allah”. This hits different with demographics who need constant reminders that religion and postmodernity can coexist. And the whole world need to work very hard to make coexistence happen.
Cinephiles in the Greater Los Angeles area can catch Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam in theatres. Theatrical dates for New York, San Francisco, Toronto, and on demand availability will follow soon.