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Review: ‘Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam’ provides a frustrating introduction

A woman sitting on the floor inside a mosque in the documentary "Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam."
Seyran Ateş sitting on the floor inside the Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque in Berlin in the documentary “Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam.”
(Juno Films)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

American audiences might not have heard of Seyran Ateş, the titular and central figure of the fawning documentary “Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam.” A Turkish German lawyer, activist, author and self-described feminist Muslim, Ateş is a well-known figure in Europe for her outspoken ideas about the need to transform Islam. Documentarian Nefise Özkal Lorentzen’s “Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam” serves as an introduction to her work for a broader audience, but the film aggravates with its refusal to interrogate its titular subject.

A recipient of countless death threats from all corners of the religious and political spectrum who has been under police protection since 2006, Ateş has long spoken and written about the need for a “sexual revolution in Islam,” as she says in the documentary. Through speaking engagements, services at the Ibn Ruschd-Goethe Mosque Ateş founded in Berlin, conversations with her relatives, and discussions with Muslims looking to Ateş for guidance, “Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam” lets her expound on this ideology — without being challenged by follow-up questions or illuminated by contextualization.

Instead, Ateş is given the power of telling her story solely on her own terms. While lying on her back in a grassy field or speaking directly into the camera, she recalls moving from Turkey to Germany as a child and immediately feeling stifled by her immigrant parents’ strict rules in their new country: “It was just like slavery.” She talks about the attempt on her life in the 1980s and how the police (incorrectly) assumed it was an attempted honor killing because of her faith. She complains about the criticism she receives from liberals and leftists who disagree with her anti-headscarf stance: “I think it’s really sad.” And because “Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam” doesn’t invite any other viewpoints, Ateş’ declarations about Muslim women being subjugated and Muslim men being hypocrites go unchallenged.

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“I’m not fighting against Islam. I’m fighting against patriarchy,” Ateş says. There is a trend in all of these stories and situations, though: Ateş’ seeming ignorance of, or unwillingness to admit, that Islam is not singular in its tendency toward patriarchy. Ateş speaks fondly now of how living in Germany made her feel more free, as if the country hasn’t in recent decades experienced an upswing in far-right politics. She demands that Muslims be more public about denouncing terrorist violence, as if Islamophobia isn’t widespread through Europe. And she wonders when Islam will experience its own Reformation, a la Christianity, as if that religion hasn’t also been seized upon worldwide by terrorists and extremists.

Lorentzen tags along with Ateş while she’s in Berlin with her mother and sister; in Madrid, at an event commemorating the 2004 train bombings there; and in Beijing, as Ateş visits with female imams (whom she insults for their traditionalism) and the Uyghurs, who have experienced forced encampment and genocide under the Chinese government. In all these places, Ateş repeats her blunt arguments, and “Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam” supports them with jarring news footage from various terrorist attacks, including Sept. 11, 2001. It’s a clunky technique that attempts to manipulate our shock and disgust into support and appreciation for Ateş, and only highlights how the documentary limits itself by allowing Ateş and her adoring nephew to serve as the primary sources of information about her influence.

“Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam” would have been better served with more scenes like Ateş’ stop in Oslo, during which she visits the parents and sister of Bano Abobakar Rashid, a young woman from an Iraqi Kurd family who was killed in the 2011 attacks by far-right domestic terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. Ateş’ rawness during that meeting is appreciably genuine, and the reminder that horrendously violent attacks can be borne from all ideologies is a useful one for a film that otherwise spends so much time blaming Muslims. “Why are people so full of hate?” is a question Ateş often asks about followers of Islam, but the Oslo stop reminds that the query unfortunately applies to all kinds.

None of this is to say that Ateş hasn’t done good work with the Ibn Ruschd-Goethe Mosque, which allows men and women to pray side by side and includes the LGBTQ community. Those are deliberate, inclusive steps forward. And there isn’t always a need for “both sides” storytelling; a filmmaker is allowed their own agenda and prerogative. But from a purely technical viewpoint, Lorentzen’s one-side-only methodology makes “Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam” a lopsided viewing experience, one that seems tailor made for viewers predisposed to agreeing with Ateş’s critical opinions on Muslims, and no one else.

'Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam'

In Turkish, German, English and Chinese with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes

Playing: Starts Oct. 1, Laemmle Glendale


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