Film Review: Silvana, MQFF

Liza Dezfouli

Melbourne Queer Film Festival introduces us to the extraordinary Silvana Imam.
Film Review: Silvana, MQFF

Silvana Imam in the documentary Silvana.

Silvana Imam is a Swedish rapper, out feminist lesbian, and a queer cultural icon for Swedish youth. She’s more than that, though; she makes as much noise about racism and Scandinavia’s racially-based immigration policies as she does about homophobia. Self-described force-of-nature ('I’m my own Pussy Riot') the unapologetic Silvana has taken what was once an performance tradition mired in hyper-masculinity, misogyny and celebration of gang violence and made it her own. She isn’t the first woman to do so, but she is the only fair-haired lesbian rapping about misogyny in Arabic. Silvana’s dad, Talal Imam, is from Syria. Her mum, Susi, is Lithuanian.

Silvana, directed by Mika Gustafson, Olivia Kastebring, and Christina Tsiobanelis, introduces us to a serious, self-reflective, sharp-minded young woman, inclined to take herself seriously, referring to herself as the 'Vincent van Gogh’ of rap. But you don’t doubt her dedication to activism.

'I want to give myself what I needed when I was younger,' she says. We see the child Silvana confidently performing at family functions, looking like a little boy. In her mind, she was: Eric. That confident child grows up to be someone who is proudly gay, knows what they’ve got to say is important and is unashamedly egotistical in performance. We see her getting drunk, storming naked in a forest and performing blistering anti-establishment furies. Her wild, fluent rages against the man and the machine are exhilarating.

However, for all the posturing, Silvana is attached to her family and sensitive to others. The child unwilling to be singled out as the best dancer in a pretend competition for fear of hurting the feelings of her cousins is still there. Visiting her extended family in a small town in Lithuania, she’s anxious about the judgement her being such a loud lesbian will bring to her relatives. An amusing aside is a voice-over of her negotiating in English with a local curate to perform in church. It doesn’t go ahead.  

Central to the doco is her crushing on and then meeting Swedish pop/rock princess Beatrice Eli. We see the vulnerable side of Silvana, openly enamoured, mouthing all the words to Beatrice’s songs. Silvana writes a song to her shortly after their first meeting, an occasion where the rapper is uncharacteristically inarticulate. The admiration is mutual, so is the attraction and the two quickly become a glamorous revolutionary power couple and start performing together. They’re aware of their talent and status, and of how incredible they look, milking it all with wry self-consciousness in a photo shoot with Beatrice dressed in a blue baroque princess gown. Their home videos show the two snuggling, almost shyly playing up their affection. 'You’re cute,' Bea tells Sylvana. 'I’m not cute, I’m cool,' Silvana replies, without irony.

The demands of fame, being always the strong woman on the receiving end of fame and adoration, expected to be so outrageously confident all the time, becomes too much. Silvana cancels a gig in Paris and takes time out. She doesn’t hide her irritation with banal questions on the part of media. 'Being called  "superhero", a "fighter", is hard when you’re down. I hate interviews; I hate journalists.' Once restored she makes albums with Bea and involves her father as a backing vocalist. He gets his own taste of fame; we see Silvana perplexed at the sight of her dad being asked by a young queer woman to sign a rainbow flag.

Silvana looks like a rock-doc in parts, with side-on camera angles, footage of the rapper’s stage performances, entrances and exits, and screaming crying young fangirls. Film edits jump and cut while she’s on stage, morphing into slo-mo footage of her walking around Stockholm later when Silvana retreats into herself, although still with megaphone in hand. Her music has the impact of early punk. It feels revolutionary. 

All the girl power you could want. Someone bring her to Melbourne, quick. 

Rating: 4 stars ★★★★

Director: Mika Gustafson, Olivia Kastebring, Christina Tsiobanelis
Courtesy of: Rise and Shine Documentary 
Sweden 2017
Unclassified 15+

14-25 March 2019
Melbourne Queer Film Festival


About the author

Liza Dezfouli reviews film, live performance, books and occasionally music. She blogs about film and other things in a blog called Copy and Cake and writes another, somewhat less-measured blog about feminism and heteronormativity called WhenMrWrongfeelsSoRight. She can occasionally be seen in shows or in short films. For more: