Decolonial Queer Futures in No Hard Feelings [Faraz Shariat, Futur Drei 2020]
This is part of our special feature on European Culture and the Moving Image.
About halfway through Faraz Shariat’s debut film, No Hard Feelings, Banafshe is notified that her asylum claim has been rejected while her brother will be permitted to stay. Shortly after this starkly staged rejection, the film shifts to a several minutes-long series of disjointed shots that embed Banafshe in multiple communities and intimate relationships. What appears to be a therapy group meeting in the asylum home is depicted in silence as the camera circles the room, showing first Banafshe and then close-ups of the faces of the people in attendance; tracking shots show life in the courtyard and the shelter as people play, eat, drink tea, do laundry, and dance together; a line of women of color who each grasp the shoulder of the woman in front of them are shown standing and staring in the camera that circles them; one after the other, they turn and look right into the camera (Fig. 1). The sequence ends with home video footage of family life and travels. Dissonant extradiegetic music swells and then fades. The film shifts into slow motion until, rather abruptly, diegetic sound returns as Banafshe talks with their friend Parvis about belonging, her brother asleep next to them—a conversation interrupted by a text warning her that the police are on their way to deport her.
This scene epitomizes the entanglement of spaces of intimacy and state violence in No Hard Feelings. The film follows three main protagonists in the mid-size city of Hildesheim, Germany: second-generation Iranian-German and openly queer Parvis who has to complete community service hours at a local refugee shelter after being caught shoplifting, and Banafshe and Amon, two siblings who live in the shelter and are awaiting their asylum decisions. The three develop a close friendship, and Parvis and Amon fall in love. Amon is granted asylum, but Banafshe faces a deportation order. At the end of the film, the three spend a few days in a country house before Banafshe moves on (potentially to Switzerland) to seek asylum elsewhere. The political interventions offered on the level of the narrative are underpinned by varied, but playfully intersecting, cinematic styles that create a local yet mobile perspective on decolonial futures.
No Hard Feelings imagines multiple relationships and communities of care that are interrupted by state enforcements of borders. By depicting borders that are all too real for its protagonists, the film deconstructs white European myths that would align post-racial, post-national, and post-homophobic Europes. At the same time, the film evokes a decolonial politics of care that imagines present and future spaces, communities, and families that radically transform white European and German imaginaries, proposing a decolonial future whose imagination relies on queer relationships of care.
No Hard Feelings offers what Fatima El-Tayeb describes as a “queer of color critique” of European production of racialized otherness. The “precarious intimacies,” the film depicts are aesthetic strategies that “allow us to recognize and articulate how intimacies are always embedded in forms of violence, even as alliances and affinities may also present moments of defiance, resistance, and even sustenance.” No Hard Feelings formulates political critiques of nationalist and European notions of place and belonging based on tensions between spaces of surveillance and spaces of care and between various forms of movement and stagnation. Both of these tensions are expressed both narratively and aesthetically throughout the film. Juxtaposing narratives of deportation and successful arrival, No Hard Feelings evidences a range of ways that Europe functions in contemporary cinema (or, for that matter in the world): as a field of power, an imagined space of refuge, or a space linked to projects of future-making. Europe has material effects on and power over the lives of the characters the films depict; it produces precarity even as it promises economic and political stability, but only for some. Becoming European remains an impossibility for many, and often results in concrete, racialized disparities in access to social mobility, education, or public agency. Germany as a nation/state is only relevant in the film as a guardian of borders, easily interchangeable with any other Western European country. No Hard Feelings’ undoes colonial, racialized foundations of European modernities that fundamentally shape the conditions of precarity. The film projects futures that imagine decolonial sexualities and families. Although Shariat conceptualizes the film as a conscious attempt to “rewrite white, heterosexist narratives into pluralistic and post-migrant ones,” our readings further show that the diasporic communities in the film not only envision post-national and post-European spaces but also propose possibilities for decolonial futures.
Contemporary notions of Europeanness are deeply gendered and racialized. Political and cultural discourses continue to construct Europeans of Color, including Muslims, as other to Europe; in the early 2010s, this exclusion was expressed particularly in terms of anti-refugee sentiment that dovetailed with anti-Muslim racisms. Homonationalist processes of racialization associate Islam with homophobia while (white) Europeans are understood as emancipators of women and queers of color. Following Jasbir Puar, scholars show how homonationalism, or, as El-Tayeb has described, a “pinkwashing of post-1989 Europe,” glosses over deeply ingrained heteropatriarchal structures within Western and European cultures. Similarly, assumptions that Europe can “save” Muslim women form gendered and sexualized violence ignore the widespread existence of these violences throughout Europe. Additionally and paradoxically, “situated within the larger ideologies of colorblindness,” Europe is often imagined by white Europeans to be post-racial, despite the continued gendered racialization of European Muslims, Black Europeans, and People of Color in Europe. Tropes of mobility exemplify these paradoxical constructions where certain forms of mobility such as the “transnational entrepreneur” or the “global bohemian” are celebrated and welcome, yet “the capital-less labor migrant embodies its opposite. And this undesirability is extended to the descendants of migrants.” This was particularly apparent in the responses to the violence on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, which explicitly pitted the mobility of white women against the mobility of refugee men, merely reconfiguring old binaries and borders while familiar forms of domination and racism persist.
No Hard Feelings depicts these paradoxical reconfigurations in part by showing Europe as site of, rather than refuge from, sexism, homophobia, and racism. Banafshe navigates advances mostly by white German men who try to take advantage of her precarious legal positioning. For example, when her application for asylum is denied, a worker in the refugee home proposes a marriage, emphasizing that he would demand sexual intimacy as part of the deal. He couches his proposal as a helpful offer and mutual sexual knowledge as necessary to validate their relationship to the state. Similarly, while Amon and Parvis experience homophobia in the shelter, mainly expressed by one of Amon’s friends, Ahmed, Parvis is also confronted with racism in predominantly white gay spaces. The film begins with a hook-up scene in a club where another man asks Parvis where he is from, positioning Parvis as racialized other in spite of his German accent and German citizenship. Parvis later meets up with a white German man through Tinder, who, after they have sex, states that he is not usually into “ethnic,” “hairy, darker-skinned guys” (min 20:59; “Ausländer;” “haarige, südländische Typen”). After an awkward silence, Parvis reacts by countering that he is not fond of “middle-aged youth-obsessed krauts” (min 21:38; “junggebliebene Kartoffeln”) and leaves. These encounters show how Parvis is constantly forced to confront and navigate deeply racialized barriers to his belonging. Revealing Europe as site of and source of racism, sexism and homophobia, works to reveal the colonialist ways of thinking that imagine such violence as located outside of Europe.
No Hard Feelings further enacts queer decoloniality through the depiction of moments of intimacy and care. While El-Tayeb imagines diasporic queer of color critique as a way of critically intervening in European colonial knowledge systems and European modernities through solidarities enacted in artistic practice, Sandeep Bakshi highlights how decolonial queer practices, in critiquing hostile spaces, may also participate in regenerative healing through communities and families, whether chosen or biological. In No Hard Feelings decolonial care practices are enacted in community and family but also extend to care for and in the plant world. The shelter represents a state-run institution of control and surveillance, yet the room Amon shares with his sister, for example, is a space of refuge where Amon cares for many beautiful plants. Similarly, Parvis lives in a suburban neighborhood where space is tightly controlled by the owners of private residences with carefully groomed gardens on display, presumably marking middle class values; yet Parvis’s house and specifically his bedroom are safe spaces. His parents and extended family—the Iranian diasporic community—are accepting of his life choices and his sexuality. The film does not deny that homophobia exists within migrant communities—after all, Amon is warned by a refugee home resident to avoid Parvis because of the potential “contagion” of Parvis’s homosexuality—but the film refuses to restrict homophobic violence to those spaces perceived as non-European, and further insists on the potential for supportive community for gay youth within Iranian-German families. The juxtaposition between loving communities in the shelter, in the family, at work, in nature, and in clubs, with homophobic and racist encounters in many of the very same spaces, paints a paradoxical picture of European political and social spheres. The state’s control over certain spaces holds the most violent power over some (othered) people’s lives. These national and European spaces are structured by the coloniality of migration restrictions. As Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez points out, the limiting of migration through the increased restrictions of access to refugee migration relies on colonial assumptions that imagine immigration as threatening and new, and repress memories of European colonial and settler colonial migration to other parts of the world.
The scene in which Banafshe and Parvis surprise Amon with a birthday party in a greenhouse highlights this juxtaposition of supportive intimacies and violently structured spaces (Fig. 2). Banafshe and Parvis blindfold Amon upon entry into the greenhouse, and after a series of disorienting shots and close-ups of hands touching fragile leaves and plants, Amon removes his blindfold. The lush oasis of the greenhouse provides the backdrop to a colorful, loving, and joyful celebration full of balloons, cupcakes, eating, drinking, hugging, and kissing. The greenhouse as a space carries the legacies of colonial theft and violence, but the friends remake this space as one of care and celebration. There is no dialogue in the scene, only soft and slow electronic music; the images are blurry and distorted; time appears to slow down. The greenhouse (filmed at a botanical garden in Göttingen), with its history of colonialist exploitation and exoticization of the other (people as well as plants) offers a temporary reprieve for the three main characters in the film as they joyfully celebrate their love and connection, nevertheless embedded in multiple forms of precarity and violence. Unbeknownst to Amon, Banafshe’s claim has already been denied; Amon and Parvis keep their relationship secret in fear of homophobic violence. The film cuts from the scene in the greenhouse directly to a violent attack after Ahmed discovers Amon and Parvis making out in the gym equipment room. Expressions of state and social violence frame the scenes of joyous intimacy, sexual pleasure, chosen family, and care. Urgency and threat clash with joy and love. This sequence imagines futures without borders and binaries, and insists on the freedom to imagine different spaces of belonging and care. While these utopian moments in the film insist on moments of joy and point to the possibilities for more just futures they always highlight the violent conditions that prevent these futures from becoming realities. Ahmed’s homophobic attack and the deportation announcement that follow the greenhouse celebration signify these violent breaks. The pace of the film changes as the different realities clash.
No Hard Feelings further depicts state control and violence as inconsistent and seemingly random. The film highlights Parvis’s privilege as a German citizen in contrast to Banafshe and Amon’s precarious legal status; the film furthermore constructs a perplexing plot in which Amon receives asylum while Banafshe does not (explicit reasons for applying are not part of the film). Perhaps, for Amon, access to legal residency is dependent on demonstrable oppression from a Muslim context that is legible to a German public. Amon’s successful asylum claim can seemingly confirm a narrative of European modernity as post-homophobic. The denial of Banafshe’s asylum claim, on the other hand, does not uphold the dominant narrative in which European hospitality is purported as anti-misogynistic in the face of Muslim misogynist violence. These differing asylum outcomes point to how asylum processes are used to reduce and manage immigration. Banafshe’s exclusion from the family she formed with Amon and Parvis reveals the destruction of communities of care, yet the film repeatedly imagines and represents the possibility of decolonial community building. Indeed, although much reception of the film has focused particularly on the relationship between Amon and Parvis, Banafshe’s character carries a particular weight here, as both the persistent carrier of hope, and the evidence of the destructive power of state migration regulation. As the greenhouse scene and the series of static shots we point to in our introduction illustrate, relationships of decolonial care exist and persist even as movement and agency stall, interrupted by inconsistent yet structural state violence.
Banafshe escapes deportation from Germany by hiding in a country house with Amon and Parvis. The imagery of romanticized rural spaces evokes traditional German Heimat discourses and ideologies that historically excluded the three protagonists from claiming belonging in Germany. Dream-like images accompanied by romantic electronic music show the three friends as they hike, ride horses, east sushi, sit around bonfires, and pose in front of a sand and gravel pit. The joyful and intimate scenes are contrasted with shots of darkness and sadness inside the dimly-lit house; Amon and Parvis make love; the three have long conversations; they cry. Again, the film pulls disparate aesthetic forms and combines them to create new meaning. By reframing Heimat imagery and discourses in terms of queer of color belonging and queer family, the film replaces essentialist and racialized notions of place and belonging with a form of homemaking as active process in which they all participate. When Parvis states, “I feel like yelling into people’s faces ‘I am the future!’”, he writes himself into that very future. (1:16:36; “Da will ich den Leuten ins Gesicht schreien ‘ich bin die Zukunft’”). In one of the scenes, standing with a bouquet of lavender and flanked by Amon and Parvis, Banafshe calls out, “The world is ours” (Banafshe, min 1:21:34). Time slows in this sequence, in contrast with the urgency of Banafshe’s deportation order. For the duration of the sequence, a different order or time and space seems possible.
No Hard Feelings thus enacts a decolonial queer practice via its constructions of belonging, intimacy, and family, existing within Europe even as they are threatened by practices of European border-keeping. Banafshe describes this precarity: “Since we came here, I feel like I always experience everything twice, once as the person I could have been, and once as the person I am today” (min 1:21:11). She knows of different possibilities and futures, of what can also be, even as she formulates her keen awareness of the precarious position in which she finds herself in. The film reconfigures multiple relationships to place, time, belonging, and the natural world: between colonialism and plant care, between queer families of color and Europe, between sexual intimacies and the larger family structures within which they reside, and between racist nationalism and landscape.
The final sequence of the film is a collection of seemingly static shots, close-ups of plant leaves, tree bark, and cacti. Aesthetically, these plant images both gesture to the history of Heimat and rewrite access to and care for nature. Many of the shots appear to be stills, but even those actually contain some minimal movement. Rather than the sweeping landscapes of Heimatfilm, these shots offer intimate encounters with each plant and painfully slow movement. This sequence is accompanied by a voiceover phone message Banafshe leaves for her brother after she has left the country house, her brother, and Parvis, ending with the words “now I have really started to move, and so have you. The future is ours.” It remains unclear where she is and where she is going as she calls from a borrowed cell phone, presumably in hiding somewhere in Europe.
In these final scenes, the film again highlights the paradoxical construction of a post-racial Europe. Banafshe cannot legally stay. As the character most clearly and visually embedded in and challenging of the processes of racialization, as signaled by the association with a community of Women of Color in the sequence we discussed at the beginning, she is expelled from this national space. Her mobility within this state is undesirable and reduced to the possibility of accepting a marriage offer proposed in language that resembles a sexual assault, while her forced mobility becomes a primary source of precarity. Her disembodied voice, however, insists on creating a future that is hers. The intimate plant portraits imply care and locality yet they appear out of context, place-less. The depiction of European’s others as invisible, and as cast outside of European belonging by certain forms of mobility, performs a similar move to one El-Tayeb identifies among BPOC cultural production and activism: it queers Europeanness in that it “paradoxically […] offers a certain kind of freedom from prescriptive identity models that allows for eclectic and subversive appropriations of disparate traditions” and for “multilayered challenges to established norms and concepts” and “means of resistance to dominant, seemingly natural forms of identity.” Furthermore, the emphasis on movement even in what appears to be stillness rejects the sense of impossible futures that so often accompanies films representing refugees in Europe. No Hard Feelingsconfronts the violence and precarity of the European border regime but insists on the possibilities for queer, decolonial mobility and belonging.
Maria Stehle is Professor of German and Co-Chair of the Interdisciplinary Program in Cinema Studies at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. Her publications include Ghetto Voices in Contemporary German Cultures (2012), Awkward Politics: The Technologies of Popfeminist Activism (with Carrie Smith-Prei, 2016), and Precarious Intimacies: The Politics of Touch in Contemporary European Cinema (with Beverly Weber, 2020).
Beverly Weber is Associate Professor of German and Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, gender, and migration in Germany and Europe; comparative studies of racialization; digital activism; contemporary visual cultures; contemporary German literature and culture; and Islam in Europe. Her first book, Violence and Gender in the “New” Europe: Islam in German Culture, examines how current thinking about Islam and gender violence prohibits the intellectual inquiry necessary to act against a range of forms of violence. In 2020, she published her second book Precarious Intimacies: The Politics of Touch in Contemporary European Cinema (with Maria Stehle).
 Maria Stehle and Beverly Weber, Precarious Intimacies: The Politics of Touch in Contemporary European Cinema (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2020), 5.
 “The Queer Coming-of-Age Film Reclaiming Migrant Bodies,” Dazed, February 4, 2020, https://www.dazeddigital.com/film-tv/article/47702/1/the-queer-coming-of-age-film-reclaiming-migrant-bodies-no-hard-feelings.
 Zülfukar Çetin, “The Dynamics of Queer Politics and Gentrification in Berlin,” in The Queer Intersectional in Contemporary Germany, ed. Christopher Sweetapple (Gießen: Psychosozial-Verlag, 2018), 141–81; Fatima El-Tayeb, European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Postnational Europe (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 128–30; Fatima El-Tayeb, “‘Gays Who Cannot Properly Be Gay’: Queer Muslims in the Neoliberal European City,” European Journal of Women’s Studies 19, no. 1 (February 1, 2012): 79–95, https://doi.org/10.1177/1350506811426388; Jin Haritaworn, Queer Lovers and Hateful Others (London: Pluto Press, 2015).
 Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007).
 El-Tayeb 2012, 87.
 Weber, Beverly M. Violence and Gender in the “New” Europe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
 El-Tayeb 2011, xvii.
 El-Tayeb 2012, 82.
 Beverly M. Weber, “The German Refugee ‘Crisis’ after Cologne: The Race of Refugee Rights,” English Language Notes 54, no. 2 (2016): 77–92.
 Note that our translations here differ from the film subtitles.
 Sandeep Bakshi, “The Decolonial Eye/I: Decolonial Enunciations of Queer Diasporic Practices,” Interventions 22, no. 4 (May 18, 2020): 533–51, https://doi.org/10.1080/1369801X.2020.1749707.
 Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez, “Conceptualizing the Coloniality of Migration: On European Settler Colonialism-Migration, Racism, and Migration Policies,” Refuge 34, no. 1 (2018): 17–28, https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110600483-011.
 Mike Maunder, “The Stately Pleasure Domes of the Anthropocene,” Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture 52, no. 2 (Autumn 2020): 139–48.
 The music in the film deserves its own recognition. The credits illustrate that the selection of songs in the film highlights the work of queer of color musicians and artists and breaks any national boundaries. The film creates a similarly complex web of references to the global and multi-generational pop-phenomenon Sailor Moon.
 See, for example, Johannes von Moltke, No Place Like Home: Locations of Heimat in German Cinema, University of California Press, 2005. While we don’t have space to address this here, one might also consider how this particular triad challenges the Romantic constructions of family in similarly decolonial ways.
 El-Tayeb 2011,xxiii.