A member of Pakistan’s transgender community plays a lightly fictionalised version of himself in “Noor”, a moving French-Turkish film currently in French cinemas. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look.
Some true stories are so singular, so full of twists, turns, pain and hope, that their journey to the big screen seems like a foregone conclusion.
So it was with Noor, a twenty-something member of Pakistan’s transgender community who is both the eponymous subject and the lead performer in a new film currently in French cinemas and likely to make its way around the world in the coming months.
Noor was five years old when he started to dance. With his delicate features and physical grace, the young Pakistani boy quickly became a popular attraction, allowing him to financially support his family after his father died of an overdose.
But the pressure soon proved too much, and Noor ran away at the age of nine. Taken under the wing of Pakistan’s transgender community (known as Khusras), the young boy travelled the country, performing in circuses and fairs.
As the years passed, Noor began dressing as a woman, and fell in love with a fellow dancer who convinced him to undergo medical castration. But when their relationship ended, Noor left the Khusras, striking out on his own with a single goal: to become a man again. Though the surgery was irreversible, he grew a beard (with the help of hormones), got a new job and dreamed of romantic companionship with a woman. The only vestige of Noor’s past was his long hair, which he refused to cut.
A passion for Pakistan, and for an ‘extraordinary story’
After spending twelve years making documentaries and short films shot in the Middle East, Asia and Europe, Turkish-born Çagla Zencirci and her French partner Guillaume Giovanetti decided to make Noor the focus of their first feature-length film. Motivating and inspiring the project every step of the way was the directors’ shared passion for Pakistan.
Travelling through India ten years ago, Zencirci and Giovanetti decided to take a side trip to Pakistan. Fascinated by the country and its inhabitants, the duo started shooting footage for a potential documentary. “We ended up going back several times as tourists and we met several people there who made us want to make a slightly more substantial film,” Giovanetti told FRANCE 24.
One of those people was Noor. Inspired by his extraordinary story, Zencirci and Giovanetti decided to tailor their next film to his experience. “We were lucky that he immediately accepted that we would make the film,” Giovanetti said. “His desire has always been to share his story, to show what he’s been through and to listen to people’s views.”
Though Noor was raised, and never mistreated, by the Khusras, his efforts to re-integrate into mainstream Pakistani society after having belonged to the transgender community have been fraught with difficulty.
But part of what piqued his interest in the film, according to the directors, was the opportunity to show the world a different Pakistan than the country that constantly makes front-page headlines for drone strikes and terrorist attacks. Zencirci and Giovanetti, too, wanted to reveal another facet of Pakistan.
Transgender Pakistanis, ‘protected by God’
“Since the very beginning, our experience in Pakistan has not been reflective of what people read or see on TV,” Giovanetti said. “Pakistanis watch CNN. They know very well that their country has a bad image abroad, and what we liked in our film was the chance to shed light on a different aspect of the country.”
While homosexuality is still a crime in Pakistan, Khusras are a surprisingly visible, unconventionally integrated community there and throughout Central Asia. “Pakistani women are not supposed to dance in public,” Zencirci explained. “That’s why men dressed up as women replace female dancers for most public dance performances in Pakistan.”
As Giovanetti has emphasised in promotional interviews for “Noor”, Khusras are at once isolated and respected in Pakistan, particularly in the Punjab province as well as the bustling port city of Karachi in neighbouring Sindh. “It’s a very present community, because it has a specific function in society,” he told FRANCE 24. “They travel to perform at celebrations, marriages, engagement parties, ceremonies following the birth of a child. Because they’re seen as a fragile segment of society, they’re considered to be protected by God and some even believe they have magic powers.”
Playing a role based on himself in a film based on his life proved to be cathartic for Noor, who recently won the Best Actor prize at a film festival in Vancouver. “Noor used the film and the experience of shooting it to gain independence from the Khusra community,” Zencirci told FRANCE 24, adding that today Noor makes a living serving tea at a billiards club.
According to the filmmakers, Noor has gained confidence through seeing his life on the big screen. He is still looking for love, Zencirci noted, but has been talking to a young woman over the phone and hoping that something blossoms between them.
“Our fingers are crossed for him,” Zencirci said.
Date created : 2014-04-29