HBO and Logo are celebrating Pride Month by releasing two excellent new documentaries. HBO is offering “Suited,” a fascinating profile of the staff and clientele at Bindle & Keep, a bespoke tailor shop serving the trans community. It premieres on Monday, June 20. Logo’s “Out Of Iraq” profiles two Iraqi soldiers who find love in the unlikeliest of places, the brutal combat zone in Ramadi. It premieres Monday, June 13.
Nayyed Hrebid knew he was gay from a young age, but he also knew it was dangerous to be out in Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, the official punishment was 15 years in jail, but gay men were often the victims of “honor killings” by their families. (Under the regime that replaced Saddam, the punishment for homosexuality was death.) Nayyed left his hometown of Basra in 1997 to study fine arts at the University of Baghdad and to explore gay life in the capital city. He did form a circle of very discreet gay friends, but as he wryly notes, while it was common in Iraq for two straight men to hold hands in public as a sign of affection, gay men would never feel safe doing so.
In 2003, when the war started, Nayyed moved south and started working as a translator for the United States Army. In 2004, he met Btoo Allami, a soldier in the Iraqi Army. The two felt an instant attraction, but did not discuss their feelings for each other — or share their first kiss — until the following year when they were on a mission together. Nayyed, who was known to the American soldiers as “David,” did not even tell Btoo his real name until 2008.
Things become even more difficult for the couple when Nayyed was forced to flee the country in 2009. He was able to get a U.S. visa, but Btoo was forced to desert the army and become an undocumented refugee in Lebanon. American refugee activist Michael Failla helped Btoo get to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but his reception was chilly. “You have an appointment in nine months,” he is told. He is also told, “We don’t care about gays here.”
As their bureaucratic battles play out, a series of titles marks the increasing number of days the men have been separated. Co-directors Chris McKim and Eva Orner (who won an Academy Award for “Taxi to the Dark Side”) document the political situation and administrative struggles with an amazing clarity; more importantly, they clearly and respectfully capture the raw emotions of the young gay couple separated by religious bigotry in Iraq and political indifference in America. Produced by the World of Wonder team of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (HBO’s “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures”), this deeply moving and thought-provoking film captures an amazing story from the shadows of the Iraq War.
In 2011, Daniel Friedman founded Bindle & Keep, a bespoke tailor shop. He intended to make a lot of money catering to rich Wall Street clients. Things changed when the straight tailor met Rae Tutera, a gender-nonconforming client. Rae had “gotten accustomed to being invisible,” but at the age of 25, decided to get a custom suit made. The result, Rae remembers, was transformative: “I never felt so good about myself before.”
Rae (who tries to avoid using gendered pronouns) asked to become Daniel’s apprentice and Daniel agreed. As Rae says, “I introduced him to a new world of people. He taught me how to make clothes.” Friedman responded to Tutera’s challenge by developing a method of suit design that supports people of all genders and gender identities whose needs were not being met by conventional tailors.
It’s fascinating to see how Friedman’s skills can subtly change the silhouette of a garment by emphasizing or masking busts and hips, two of the traditional markers of gender identity. It is equally amazing to see how his clients respond to seeing themselves in custom-made clothing that finally matches their inner self.
Director Jason Benjamin cleverly mirrors Friedman and Tutera’s approach to their clients in his own filmmaking. He even uses the Bindle & Keep intake form to introduce each new client. He shows them at work in the intimate process of taking measurements, choosing fabrics and making alterations. More importantly, and more interestingly, he shows how they interview each client to create their perfect suit. His thoughtful approach makes the movie both a great portrait of the tailors and a powerful introduction to the trans and gender-queer community.
For example, Derek, a transgender man, is introduced when he arrives to be fitted for a suit for his upcoming wedding to a cisgendered woman. Benjamin follows Derek to Bindle & Keep for his initial visit and his first fitting, to his hometown for a visit with his loyal parents, to the hospital where he has surgery, and finally to his joyous wedding with his fiancé Joanna, where the happy couple is surrounded by supportive friends and family.
Aidan is a transgender teenage boy from Tucson who has decided he wants to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah (the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony for boys) instead of a Bat Mitzvah (the ceremony for girls). Unable to find a suit that fits his needs in Arizona, his grandmother takes him to Bindle & Keep so he can feel comfortable and confident at the service.
Everett, a transman who is attending law school in Atlanta, needs interview suits that express his identity and give him confidence. Rae and Daniel are able to provide him with both.
The film closes with an emotional runway show where trans and gender-fluid models strut their stuff, looking great and feeling confident in suits that reflect their personality and their gender identity. As Daniel learns, “It’s all about feeling great in your body, especially when you’ve been struggling your entire life.” As Rae notes, “everyone has a right to feel good about themselves. You have the right to be handsome.”
Benjamin’s superb and confident documentary is not only a fascinating picture of unlikely business partners who brings their unique talents and perspectives together to help an underserved community, but a sensitive and moving portrait of an emerging community struggling to express their identity in a world that literally does not fit them.