Many stories start with silence, before speaking follows. Does a story ever end with silence? When it comes to emancipatory tales – those portraying lgbtq+ experiences, for example – silence is always a start, never an end. How is silence told, without centralizing speech as progress?
In Western European context, affected by the visualization of Enlightenment, silence is seen as a sign of retreat, an un-agentic living in the shadows. The dark, then, is presented as backward, as a place of the past to escape from – moving forwards and inwards, from the periphery to the center stage.
While silence is stigmatized as a starting point, awaiting manifestation, silence is also celebrated as civil. Consider the increase in phone calls reporting noise disturbance to the police in gentrifying neighborhoods: those who easily pay thousands of euros per square meter, also expect a frequency that signals peace of mind. Serene living in the city.
Just before the most recent lockdown of everything but shops, I went to a cinema in the city center of Amsterdam. An expansive code of conduct preluded the commercials. Thirty distanced viewers learned that you care most for others by staying quiet throughout the movie. Negative freedom shows up: it is considered a form of freedom not to interfere with the experience of another individual viewer. Instead of, for example, sharing or stimulating a collective experience, it is a symbol of respect to say nothing at all. Who, in such a shared environment, determines the depth of silence, the silencing of quiet, thereby also permitting when an exception to the rule is possible? Everyone kept quiet when, in this film addressing the effects of racism, the subtitles showed ‘white’, ‘wit’ in Dutch, translated as ‘blank’ – a term that exists superior in relation to the n-word.
Silence is such a varied speech. It appears loud in the repression of Ayoreo songs in the film Nothing But The Sun. The title suggests the end of a plural, shared world. This end has been happening for decades and centuries: ‘Maybe the sun is the only thing white people don’t consider their property yet.’ Mateo uses a tape recorder to collect the stories of Ayoreo in Paraguay. He speaks to the man who, when they were both young boys, led ‘the whites’ into the forests, who killed their parents with a disease brought by the missionaries: measles. He knows there are still Ayoreo living in the forests, who practice shamanism instead of Christianity, which declares shamanism a sin. He imagines them singing songs while going about their day. When the whites find footprints of Ayoreo shoes, Mateo is worried. Any sign of Ayoreo existence is too loud – the whites only hear an invitation to enforce their habits, their jeans and shirts and sneakers, their god, their capitalism.
In Silent Voice, silence is an effect of trauma for Khavaj from Chechnya, who lost control over his voice. Khavaj is on the run from gay hunters, continuously moving to different cities in Belgium, hiding from his family and anyone who might identify him. Since Khavaj is a famous martial arts fighter, he can be easily recognized: his fame and visibility offer no protection. What is the use of speaking up if any sign of existence endangers you?
In Unforgivable, it is easier to speak about serial murder and cannibalistic rage than it is about loving another man. Two lovers are stroking each other’s cheeks, a history of gang-belonging tattooed on their faces. One of the lovers, Geovanny, writes an official statement to the prison ward: I cannot stay here, this prison is run by an evangelical church. It’s isn’t a coincidence that the presence of Christianity forces an official ‘coming out’. Christian colonialism always demands a clarity of scripture. This is how, for example, prostitution was legalized by colonial interference: as long as you were registered as an official sex worker, working in a formally run brothel, inside a designated space of sin and subjected to mandatory STD tests, your existence was controlled and thus permitted. Geovanny’s boyfriend instead refuses to write a letter and will stay behind. He refuses to ‘come out’ as homosexual, even though it could save his life on earth. But God is listening in. And he fears his mom’s response.
There is no clarity here. And this lack of clarity is not the problem: it is the ideological demand for transparency and legibility that violates the many possible ways of being, believing, loving, dressing, singing. This pressure of legibility has concrete consequences: in The Netherlands, the Immigration services - IND - might decide that you are not gay enough to be a lgbtq refugee. This happened to Happy recently, who, also recently, was attacked with boiling water in an asylum center. Burned for being gay, she isn’t conceived lesbian enough to stay. IND also denied Justine from Uganda, who, in 2018, was thrown out by the nuns of an Amsterdam convent where she assumed shelter, because she was ‘outed’ when hoping to celebrate Pride.
The films in the IDFA pathway Show Me Your ID defy the possibility of showing anything that will comfort and soothe the authority’s demand. Each of these films – whether narrated by showgirls in Pakistan or a Black feminist politician in Tunis – portrays the impossibility of complying to powers that require a singular identity, a single being. Most, but not all films in this pathway, explicitly address lgbtq issues. Most, but not all films, portray the presence of colonial Christianity. The entrance of the El Salvador prison where Geovanny lives is crowned by a depiction of a white, blonde and blue-eyed Jesus. The demand “Show Me Your ID!”, exclaimed by a police officer or by border control, is fundamentally tied to a notion of freedom that depends on a single origin. The single origin enforces clarity, because, to speak loosely with Edouard Glissant’s “For Opacity”, an expectation of totality obstructs totality’s potential. Demanding unity absorbs all differentiation.
In the secular Western conception of lgbtq life, a single origin is expected: you are born this way. All you have to do is come out, proudly saying love = love and live like everyone else, expect that you just happen to be gay. ‘No problem’ is your middle name. Nothing is in your way of living a stable, middleclass white life with a productive job. Negative freedom – doing your own thing while not bothering anyone; not being bothered by anyone – is available, but not necessarily accessible or desired. In monotheistic religion, the single origin is God. Colonially exported, God means: wearing certain clothes, detaching from the land for proximity to profit, reading numbered verses, expressing a clear order of good and bad.
“Show Me Your ID” – a classic interpellation like a police officer saying “Hey, you” – is a demand to stop and show. To reveal, to come out. No personal details or stories are required: just the formal categorization that defines you. The ‘me’ and ‘you’ are clearly distinct, there is a speaker and someone addressed with orders. But in the speaker’s demand, a desperate call for clarity is heard as well. You can imagine this demand uttered on repeat: “Show me your ID. Your ID please”. And in this repetition, you might hear someone refusing. The refusal to show an ID poses a great threat to authority, because an unidentified someone can easily become many.