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Queer Muslim refugee experience subject of film “Choke”

HOLLYWOOD — In the film “Choke,” Sara Alpha Beta is a champion mixed martial arts fighter who hides her Muslim refugee status from the residents of a small South Carolina town she and her family have settled after escaping a vicious war in Syria.

While fighting for a new life in the brutal world of mixed martial arts, Sara struggles with her identity, racism, and homosexuality.

“Choke” will have its world premiere 8 p.m. Saturday at Outfest 2018 as part of its “Emerging Voices” short program that will take place at the Harmony Gold Theater.

Director Rolla Selbak wanted to tell an immigrant story that is often overlooked by the prevailing stereotype of brown women as the devout wife, or the unsuspecting terrorist, or painting refugees as weak and powerless.

Rolla Selbak Choke

Rolla Selbak directed “Choke,” a short film about a Muslim refugee who moves to the U.S. and becomes a mixed martial arts fighter. As she fights her way to the top, she conceals her refugee and queer identities. Photo: “Choke.”

“It’s both a challenge and an honor to depict an authentic refugee experience truthfully and with creative empathy,” Selbak said in a statement. “Being an immigrant myself and being part of a Palestinian family, I feel that my personal experience lends itself to this intent in a powerful way.”

As Sara’s star rises, she becomes a hero in her town, but feels she must conceal her intersectional identities as anti-immigrant and Anti-muslim rallies begin to spring up not only around the nation, but also in her city.

“Everyone can relate to hiding aspects of who we are in order to feel like we belong,” Jessica Damouni, who plays Sara, said in an interview on the film’s Vimeo page.

Selbak is a triple-minority in the filmmaking world. She identifies as queer, Muslim-American, and female. As a queer Arab immigrant who escaped to the United States after the first Gulf War, Selbak often focuses her lens on social justice themes.

For example, her feature film “Three Veils” addressed homosexuality  in Muslim-American subculture.

About the author

Beatriz E. Valenzuela

Beatriz E. Valenzuela is an award-winning journalist who’s covered breaking news in Southern California since 2006 and has been on the front lines of national and international news events. She also covers all things nerd, including comic book culture and video games. She’s an amateur obstacle course racer, constant fact-checker, mother of three, and lover of all things geek.

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