Exoticism and Tourism: Representations of Sexuality in Exils and Edge of Heaven

Sexualiy ExilsIn “Discovering Form, Inferring Meaning: New Cinemas and the Film Festival Circuit”, Bill Nichols has argued that the viewing of festival films, specifically those of foreign countries, positions the spectator as a tourist. This got me thinking about how such “tourism” may also exist within migrant cinema. Films dealing with issues such as colonialism, exile and the diasporic condition also inevitably address the notion of belonging/not belonging, which can manifest itself in various ways. It seems one consequence of this type of cinema is the tendency to ‘exoticize’ the culture and/or the people. In an almost self-reflexive manner, both Tony Gatlif’s Exils (2004) and Fatih Akin’s Edge of Heaven (2007) represent sexuality within this framework. Although both take very different approaches, in examining Gatlif’s ‘Seville sequence’ juxtaposed with Akin’s ‘prostitute sequence’, there is a link to be found in both between tourism, exoticism and sexuality.

The way Gatlif chooses to shoot the Seville sequence (among a few select others) helps to position first the audience as tourists. The observant documentary style in which the Seville entertainers are presented makes obvious to the audience that they have now entered another world. As a festival film (released at Cannes 2004) it is easily aligned with Nichols’ argument that the spectator can use films like these to engage superficially with the culture portrayed. While his theory may be flawed at times, there is merit in the idea that what is exciting about a foreign film is the fact that it is foreign – something, and more importantly somewhere, new. Subsequently, in a film that moves from France to Spain to Algeria it would be impossible not to take into consideration that your audience is moving with you.

Tony Gatlif’s Exils

Judging from Gatlif’s representation of Seville, it seems it was too tempting to pass up the opportunity to take advantage of having both character and spectator positioned as ‘stranger’. Zeno and Naima have just begun their travels toward Algeria from France and have stopped to take in the Spanish culture, as any good tourists would. When Naima catches the eye of a man who has already seemed to notice her, she immediately plots an attack of seduction. Her sexuality is as uncensored as his voyeurism is. From the back he sits and watches, and in no time she makes her way to him. The exploitation of Seville is put on hold while Naima exploits her own exoticism. Without hesitation she exclaims that she is Algerian which, not surprisingly, appears to please him. She uses her ‘Otherness’ as a tool of seduction. While here she had been so proud to call herself an Algerian, later on with the same assurance she announces she is French to an officer asking for her passport. Again even later in the film she will admit that she is a stranger everywhere. It is clear from this comment that although Zeno is weighed down by his sense of diaspora he is still basically a tourist, but it is Naima who plays the role of vagabond.

This idea is borrowed from Zygmunt Bauman’s theory that within migrant cinema the tourists are those who have privileged mobility and homes to return to while the movement of vagabonds is controlled, dangerous and aimless in the sense that there is no home to go to. Naima, like all vagabond figures, essentially belongs nowhere. This adds to her exoticism. One can recall Frollo’s burning desire and longing for the Gypsy Esmerelda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (William Dieterle, 1939), and even Dracula’s ability to capture the hearts of women in the innumerable versions of Bram Stoker’s story, to see that historically, fiction has represented the exotic as sexy (albeit dangerous). Because of Naima’s beauty and mysterious allure, expressing her overt sexuality is easy; finding men who appreciate her on a purely sexual level is easy. She becomes an irresistible figure. Even Zeno is guilty of falling prey to her seduction, while picking fruit to fund the rest of their travels. Although upset with her because of her overt sexuality, he gives in almost instantly and they end up having sex right then and there.

In the Seville sequence, while the Spanish dancer is ‘exoticized’ with close-ups of her swaying hips for the tourist audience members, she is not as enticing to the Spanish man as Naima is because, as he says, Naima looks like a gypsy. While the audience both on and off screen are watching the Spanish woman (exotic to us ‘tourists’), he is watching Naima (exotic to him).

Fatih Akin’s Edge of Heaven

In Akin’s film again there is a moment when the woman, Yeter, is asked by Ali if she is Turkish and she responds that she may be, and goes on to note that she can speak various languages for him. As a prostitute, Yeter is supposed to know what men want and what turns them on. Here she is allowing herself to be mysterious and still exotic – an any-woman. She can create the allusion best suited to her customer’s sexual desires. Just as Naima is French, Algerian and nothing, Yeter is Turkish, German and anything. Here again we have a vagabond-like figure, extremely sexualised, and culturally ambiguous.

Later in the film we are told that Yeter is in fact Turkish although living in Germany and avoiding publicising it. She is asked by fellow Turks on a subway at one point if she is ashamed of who she is. The depiction of Istanbul in the film is violent and unwelcoming so it comes as no real shocker that she has left (or that her daughter has been exiled). Still it is arguable that announcing herself as one race over another would hinder her business as a prostitute, taking away from the mystery that keeps her exotic and different.

sexuality the edge of heavenLike Naima, Yeter too is the subject of voyeurism in this sequence. Her place of work is set up in such a way to put her on display; to be seen by men as they pass by on the street. This image exemplifies Laura Mulvey’s argument that in film the “male gaze projects its phantasy onto the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed” (837). The woman’s “to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey, 837) is made explicit in this sequence while the male gaze is made explicit in the Seville sequence of Exils. There, Naima is not on display but is no less the subject of the gaze. In adding a layer of exotica to the equation, the representation of both women and sexuality becomes suited to the tourist-spectator as the film itself is suited to the vague category of World Cinema at (particularly North American) festivals; excitingly unfamiliar. However, this technique of eroticising the exotic is not restricted in any way to migrant cinema. Even American films are guilty of exploiting people’s apparent attraction to the ‘Other’, but travel narratives definitely have the advantage of making these moments feel organic to the story.

Ultimately, both women have a moment of settlement. During the trance sequence in Exils there is a suggestion that Naima may have found a way to connect with Algeria as her homeland but it can not be made explicit because logically there will always be a disconnection between Naima and Algeria because she is also French and has been raised as such, not even knowing how to speak Arabic. In Edge of Heaven there is also an implication that Yeter has found a home as she gets very comfortable in Ali’s house, but as quickly as it happens it is taken away when she is reminded that she is a paid guest only and punished for her resistance to acting as such.

The link between tourism and exoticism is obvious but its connection to sexuality, at least in these two films, should not be overlooked. Neither of the films employ the typical love interest subplot. Akin’s film does not portray any meaningful romances (I do not count the purchased relationship between Ali and Yeter) and Gatlif’s film takes a very aloof approach in portraying Zeno and Naima as a couple, hardly stressing the monogamy one expects in movie-romance. Yet even without love stories, there is no lack of sex or allusions to it in either film. That it is largely unnecessary to tracing or understanding the movement of the characters, which is of course the focus of these films, signals a need to understand it in context with the movement. Thus to have sex with the exotic Other is portrayed as another way to experience another place or culture. These films present sexuality as another form of tourism not unlike watching a film about another place; a superficial experience of difference and exotica without having to actually travel or be a real tourist.

Works Cited

Bauman, Zygmunt. “Tourists and Vagabonds”

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”

Nichols, Bill. “Discovering Form, Inferring Meaning: New Cinemas and the Film Festival Circuit”


About the Author:

My passion for film has manifested itself into years of study in both film production and film studies. I am currently completing a Master’s Degree at Carleton University for which my focus has been Slasher cinema. My research interests include Horror, Gender, and Adaptation. My typical approach to film study is to think critically about the cultural contexts of any given film in order to make sense of the formal elements, story and connotations. I am also a freelance writer and, not surprisingly, I run two film related blogs: Sinema Addiction and Pick Canadian Pictures.

3 thoughts on “Exoticism and Tourism: Representations of Sexuality in Exils and Edge of Heaven

  1. I’m not familiar with Exils, but I have admired Akin’s films for a while now. I was always struck by the sense of displacement more than anything else. I may not be remembering correctly, but it seems to me that the hetero-sexual sex in both Edge of Heaven and Head On occur between Turkish transplants living in Germany — Ali and Cahit with Yeter and Sibel. I’m wondering how you see the instance of cross-cultural sex, which is the relationship between Lotte and Ayten in Edge of Heaven. Do you find any difference in the way Ayten is gazed upon? I suppose the analysis is complicated by the fact that the two characters are women, but the storyteller is still a man.

    • You bring up a good point. I am inclined to consider the idea that the cross-cultural sex in Edge of Heaven (having not seen Head On) has to do with the cross-cultural conflict that Ayten is bent on correcting. This reading is admittedly problematic as it displaces her sexuality onto her political activism but I feel like the two have to be connected. Their relationship would then be seen almost as a contact zone, where two cultures interact. The notion of the gaze here, as you point out, is complicated by the lesbian aspect but I felt like her sexuality was always connected to something much larger (authroity, anti-complacency), and I saw this reflected in how the camera gazed upon her.

  2. Interesting article, Shyla. You’re right–there is a kind of touristic quality to watching foreign films, as if part of the attraction is their unfamiliarity. But I definitely think that’s cosmetic; once a film loses the novelty of mystery, it must maintain a high quality for me to remain interested. That said, I think you have an interesting point about otherness and perceptions of it. We don’t seem to be able to escape myths about exoticism and their connection to sensory experience. Good post.

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