Two former lovers circumvent their roles as prisoner and prison guard as they pass messages to each other through the inside of a milk carton in “The Carton Tongue.”
The short film follows Salam, an imprisoned journalist and gay rights activist in Morocco who discovers that his jailer is his closeted former lover, Mourad. As the two rekindle their romance, they are forced to keep it hidden from Salam’s other jailer.
As part of an intensive summer film program in the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, students worked together to create the short film over the span of six weeks. Director Chelsea Giles, a graduate acting student, said the film is meant to create awareness for LGBTQ communities in countries other than the United States, as many people are largely unaware of the dangers faced by queer people around the globe.
“I found it very inspiring to read stories about people who had found a way to heal themselves after persecution for their sexuality and had found a way to survive after intense trauma,” Giles said.
After growing up in Australia and now living in the United States, Giles said learning about the intense persecution others face gave her a wider perspective concerning how she has been treated. To be as close to reality as possible, Giles said she immersed herself in Moroccan culture, watching hours of documentary films and travel videos from the North African nation.
Remaining culturally sensitive as well as providing an accurate depiction of what LGBTQ people face was also integral to producer Maggie Rouleau, who attended UCLA for the intensive summer film program. She focused on casting actors who would accurately represent the characters, and the film features both Moroccan and Middle Eastern actors. Writer Jeremy Snowden, who also participated in the program, researched Moroccan culture by watching documentaries and reading underground LGBTQ newspapers. While researching, he discovered the story of a British man who was imprisoned for having a relationship with a Moroccan man, which went on to influence “The Carton Tongue.”
Actor Süfyan Elmoum, who plays Salam, has lived in Morocco on and off his entire life, and gave his input to Giles based off his personal experiences growing up there. Having first-hand knowledge of the risks of being openly gay in a nation that punishes homosexuality provided him with an intimate connection to the character, he said.
“My whole life, I was bullied. Being in that atmosphere growing up, always being on my toes, always careful about what I’m saying, if I act this way, if I move a certain way, if I put my hand on my hips,” Elmoum said. “It’s little things that could potentially get you killed on the streets.”
One moment in the film that particularly resonated with Elmoum is when the hostile jailer pulls on Salam’s shackles, forcing him to dance. Elmoum said the scene reflected his own experiences growing up when bullies, suspecting his sexuality, would ask him to dance, and him being unable to react due to the potentially dangerous consequences. The scene also stood out to Rouleau, who said it draws attention to the mistreatment LGBTQ people in other nations endure.
However, despite the suffering of LGBTQ members depicted in the film, Snowden felt it was critical to add nuance to the story by including hints of positivity, which are often lacking in other LGBTQ media. Though the characters do face multiple challenges due to their sexuality, he said it was essential that they overcome such difficulties.
“I didn’t want this story to be about two gay people who are persecuted,” Snowden said. “I wanted to focus on two gay people who rise up against a difficult experience.”
The majority of media depicting queer relationships tends to focus on tragedy, leaving the characters to either cope with emotional longing or physical brutality, Giles said. Ending “The Carton Tongue” on a hopeful note aimed to counteract the typical queer narrative. The film ends with a title card listing the 72 countries where same-sex marriage is illegal, which Giles said reminds the audience that there are many people around the world who are unable to experience Salam’s happy ending.
Elmoum said he hopes the film will inform those who are ignorant to the suffering of LGBTQ people outside of the U.S. to recognize their privilege in having more rights. While the LGBTQ community does struggle even in the United States, Elmoum said many people are unaware of the consequences that occur in nations where homosexuality is illegal. Though Giles views the issues American LGBTQ people must fight against, such as conversion therapy, as important, she said they must also be aware of the suffering the same community endures worldwide.
“I wanted to end the story with hope. However, the happy ending requires displacement,” Giles said. “Just because queer folk in America can hold hands in California doesn’t mean that same reality exists everywhere.”