Queer youth refugees and the pursuit of the happy object: Documentary, technology and vulnerability
Authors: Pullen, C.
Queer Youth Refugees and the Pursuit of the Happy Object: Documentary, Technology and Vulnerability
Authors: Pullen, C.
Editors: Cover, R., Aggleton, P., Marshall, D. and Rasmussen, M.L.
Queer youth are coming to Europe as part of the refugee trail, leaving oppressive war torn zones in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan that as nation states offer little hope for queer lives. At the same time in Europe, through changes in legislation in Russia that has limited the liberty of gay citizens; Russian queer youth are finding themselves as ‘proto-refugees’ still trying to exist in their own country. Two recent documentaries vividly explore the limiting life chances of these diverse forms of refugee queer youth, which foreground their reliance on smartphone social networking technology. These texts on the one hand offer a powerful affective image of mobility and desire, and on the other illuminate ethical issues within documentary production. In Shaunagh Connaire’s documentary Exiled: Europe’s Gay Refuges (Channel 4, 2016, UK), the plight of queer youth on the refugee trail is revealed. Although having safely arrived in Europe from the war-torn middle east, they not only find oppression from fellow refugees, but also there are instances of oppression from European citizens, who consider them as doubly abject as terrorist/refugee and deviant/queer. In Liz Mackean’s documentary Hunted (Channel 4, 2014, UK), queer men in Russia are revealed to be the target of vigilante groups, emboldened through recent changes in legislation there, that prohibit liberties for queer citizens. Without the protection of law enforcers, groups of thugs target vulnerable queer youth, with impunity, mostly enabled through queer dating apps, where queer youth are literally hunted as ‘fair game’.
Notably in both Exiled and Hunted smartphone technology and particularly the use of social networking apps, seems to offer liberation in the ability to make friends and form communities of resistance or empowerment. Despite this conversely containment and vulnerability are evident in the use of smartphone technology. The Middle Eastern refugee has little means of support and is encouraged to find sex work enabled by the use of technology in order to survive. The Russian proto-refugee tries to escape from oppression through using dating apps to find partners and friends, but is easily caught out or trapped by punishing individuals, posing with false identities.
This chapter consequently considers the documentary representation of the plight of queer youth as refugee and proto-refugee, revealing ambivalence in their engagements with technology. The documentary maker productively focuses on the queer body as vulnerable, not fixed in identity, but yet deserving, through referencing their engagements with technology. However, despite such a positive bias, there are ethical problems in documentary production. Whilst clearly there is a political focus on the plight of the refugee, moral worlds appear suspended, in order to make a point. Notably in Hunted assailants physically abuse a queer man on camera, in circumstances that the production team had closely followed, and did not directly intervene. While a member of the production team attempts to care for the victim after the attack, a sense of hopelessness pervades.
This chapter focuses on the production of documentary, which ambivalently frames the transience and yet deservedness of the queer (proto) refugee. While appearing as an ‘affective’ vision, in seeming to move towards the ‘happy object’ (such as moving to Europe, or finding security in partners), as Sara Ahmed (2010) tells us “it is the very exposure of those unhappy effects that is affirmative that gives us an alternative set of imagining of what might count as a good or better life’ (p. 50). Hence the affective potential of such engagements with technology and the offering of themselves as vulnerable subjects of documentary film, suggests both a means to move forward, as a way of communicating or achieving, all the while framing that distance – seeming forever denied.