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“You can be queer and Palestinian at the same time” — Bilal Hasna and Amrou Al-Kadhi talk LAYLA

6 min read
A still from LAYLA at BFI Flare.

British-Iraqi filmmaker Amrou Al-Kadhi (also known as drag queen Glamrou) offers a fresh and poignant perspective of what it means to navigate faith, culture and romance as a non-binary Arab Muslim drag queen in their debut feature LAYLA

The film — starring British-Palestinian actor Bilal Hasna (Extraordinary) in the titular role — centres queer joy, unexpected love and a vibrant glimpse into an alternate London brimming with diverse LGBTQ+ culture.

As the film premieres at BFI Flare Festival, FILMHOUNDS spoke with Hasna and Al-Kadhi about the importance of this trailblazing story. 

Bilal Hasna

What was your first impression of the script and what drew you to Layla as a character?

I could really identify with [Layla] when it comes to code-switching. When it comes to altering your identities based on the expectations you think others have of you. I also think the film really marries things like queerness and Islam which are sometimes categories that the world and dominant media narratives teach us are incompatible. It's a real camp fairy tale.

A British Palestinian representing this role feels so important in the current climate. What impact do you hope this authentic, honest representation of a queer Palestinian on screen has?

The world tells us that queerness and Palestinian-ness are also two things that are mutually incompatible, and that can't be married together. Often the world uses that as justification for acts of total terror and horror. It's one of many many reasons why we're seeing the utter, utter devastation of Gaza right now. It's one of the many narratives that the Israeli government is using, also known as pinkwashing, not only to justify the occupation but the continued bombardment and destruction of Gaza. Exemplified by an Israeli soldier in Northern Gaza holding up a pride flag. 

I hope that the film shows the world that you can be queer and Palestinian at the same time. I feel so proud as a British Palestinian to be heading this film right now because we desperately need more about Palestinian lives. 

These issues are so selectively chosen by certain regimes of power in order to justify oppression. What we must remember is that queer people are oppressed all over the world. In America over 60 trans people were killed last year. Then we had Rishi Sunak in Parliament making fun of Brianna Ghey who was killed for being a trans woman.

How did you work with Amrou to bring Layla to life and draw from both of your experiences?

The initial script was written to be semi-autobiographical in a way. But when I was cast the role began to be shaped more around me and my experiences as well. It was a real spirit of collaboration with Amrou on set. They have first-hand experiences of all the situations that Layla finds themselves in the film so they were a great resource to draw from. 

They really opened my eyes to the power of drag and the tribulations of being a drag queen. 

Did you do much drag before filming?

In an amateur capacity, I used to make these music videos when I was a teenager and used to get into drag. But not really to be honest. Drag is a total Olympic feat and drag queens are Olympians. That's one of the big lessons I've learnt doing this. 

The film's premise centres around Layla's outraged reaction after performing at a corporate pride event filled with performative allyship. Why is that an important discussion to be having right now?

Corporate pride is a symptom of a wider problem which is selectively co-opting marginalised identities and ostensibly supporting them for capital gain. It's one of my favourite scenes in the film because it is a total takedown of that very co-opting but in a camp and queer and grotesque way. 

What was it like building the chemistry on set with your co-star and onscreen lover Louis Greatorex (Masters of the Air) who plays Max?

Louis is one of the most extraordinary artists I have ever worked with. We connected immediately and the chemistry on screen is very much because we became best friends. I really don't think I could have done this film with anyone else apart from him. He really is a truly singular actor.

Amrou Al-Kadhi

This project has been six years in the making. How the film has evolved over that time?

I was 27 when I started writing it and I'm 33 now so you just change as a filmmaker and the world changes as well. So some of the themes I was thinking about when I first started are irrelevant now.

When I first started writing Layla, they were a bit more of a victim [which] the industry expected of minority characters. By the time I shot it, I was not doing that. So I rewrote Layla to make them a lot more an agent of their own destruction.

From your perspective what does it mean to have someone of Palestinian heritage take on the role?

It wasn't on purpose, we just wanted to find the best actor for the role. I think it's really important that audiences get to see queer Palestinians merging those sides of their identities, because I think so much of the rhetoric [about] their queerness is used as a way to dehumanise. In Layla I want people to see that it's really magical.

You've worked closely with Russell T Davies over the years, what was it like being mentored by such an icon within the industry?

[Russell] really changed my life because he doesn't pull any punches and it's very hard to get direct feedback in this industry. So to have someone like him be as honest with me as possible so that I can write as strongly as I can has meant the world. I owe so much to him. 

You have previously described the world in Layla as a “dreamland” and we see this in elements like the fictional nightclub “Feathers” which you built in a tunnel in Rotherhithe. Why is it so important we preserve LGBTQ+ nightlife and spaces like this?

Layla is living in a London that doesn't quite exist. Everyone lives in places they can't afford. People are wearing clothes they can't afford. The spaces are beyond the scope of what's possible in London right now. But it's moving away from social realist British cinema, and trying to give queer people something to dream about. Hopefully that makes people think “This is a London I want.” I don't think it's a London that exists.

You have also spoken about how you drew inspiration from Peter Pan in the themes of the film, what other cinematic influences shaped Layla?

Todd Haynes. A film like Carol I love because it gives lesbian women such cinematic grandiose and production value. I also love films that go beyond the scope of what's real like Pan's Labyrinth. [LAYLA] drags together loads of influences to make something new. 

During a time when the meaning of drag is being distorted by the media, what does it mean to share a film that hits back against toxic narratives?

Often in film drag queens have one-liners and are usually very desexualised characters on screen. One thing I wanted to show is how multifaceted drag queens can be. Layla is a very sexual character who can go from high camp to sober. I really wanted to complicate people's understanding of what it means to be a drag queen. 

LAYLA screen as part of this year's Festival.