A New Film Explores the Gay Relationship Between an Israeli and a Palestinian

I spoke to director Michael Mayer about how <i>Out in the Dark</i> has been received.

19 July 2013, 3:18pm

American director Michael Mayer's first feature-length movie has been dubbed the "Brokeback Mountain of Israeli film". Which isn't too inaccurate of a comparison, in that it's about two men having a romantic, sexual relationship in an environment where you might not typically expect two men to have a romantic, sexual relationship.    

But Out in the Dark – a story about a Palestinian student named Nimer and his Israeli lawyer lover, Roy – is more of a gay Persepolis to Brokeback's triple-denim Disney drama. Set against the backdrop of Israeli-Palestinian relations – historically, not the best of relations – it explores the stigma of gay, inter-faith relationships between men from perhaps the two most notoriously opposed countries in the world.    

I gave Michael a ring to speak about his film, being gay in Palestine and Israeli police corruption.  

VICE: Hi Michael. What inspired you to write and direct this story? 
Michael Mayer: I met a friend for dinner who was volunteering at the gay and lesbian centre in Tel Aviv, and he told me about the support they offered to Palestinians hiding illegally. First of all, I never knew about that. We chose to tell this story very intimately, about people who aren't politically involved until they're forced to confront and take sides and actions. They try to float above it, like a lot of people in Israel do, out of exhaustion in dealing with the conflict over the years. I’ve become more politically aware through the process of making this film.

Was your intention to make more people politically aware, or did you just want to tell a good story?
My first priority was emotional impact. To assume that the film will actually create change is pompous. Even if one person goes home after the movie, googles "gay Palestinians” and reads an article, that’s more than I could’ve asked for.

Has the audience response in Israel been different to the response in other countries?
Yes, the reactions at home were surprisingly embracing for a niche film. Some left-wing Israelis felt I didn’t push the political envelope enough. But the movie opened in Israel on 18 screens, which was a big surprise to me because of the gay subject matter. Obviously it played much better in Tel Aviv.  But it also had to do with the success we had internationally. It made Israeli audiences curious.

Did any Palestinians attend the Israeli screenings?
There was a nice turnout of Palestinians, yeah. The film probably won’t be released in the Palestinian territories since there’s no cinema in Ramallah right now. But some people were trying to organise a Palestinian screening in a public space, like a university, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Michael Mayer (left) on set.

Have you had many negative reactions at all?
During casting, there was a Palestinian actress who refused to audition because she felt that the script didn’t portray Palestine in a positive light. It was funny, because two days earlier, I had an Israeli actor show up who threw the script on the table, pointed at me and shouted, ”You’re an Israel-hater!”

Did he just storm out?
No, he read for a part, which was kind of surprising. The fact that people from both sides of the political fence were unhappy with the film actually reinforces the feeling that we’re telling a balanced story. We’re not trying to piss anyone off – there are good guys and bad guys on both sides in real life and the film.

Is this kind of inter-faith gay romance common between Israelis and Palestinians?
In 2006, a BBC radio show estimated that there were 350,000 gay Palestinians hiding out in Israel, mostly single, but these things do happen. Obviously things have changed – the openness and attitude has really improved over the last decade. I think wherever you go, the gay community tends to be more accepting of differences, whether inter-faith or interracial. There’s a line in the movie: "A dick is a dick.”

What was your greatest challenge in shooting the film?
The biggest risk I took was casting Nicholas, a non-actor, in one of the leading roles. But obviously it paid off.

Did you have trouble filming in any areas at all?
There was one night we were shooting in a village outside Jerusalem, and a street was being fought over between two clans, so the military, border patrol and police came. We were blocking the road and got kind of caught in the middle.

Is there a gay nightlife scene in Palestine?
No actual gay clubs, but there are house parties. A few years ago, there were only completely underground Palestinian gay nights in Tel Aviv, which are now fairly popular. They started at 5PM and ended by 11PM so that people could make it home in time without having to answer for where they’d been.

I found the sex scenes surprisingly discreet – is there a reason why you exercised so much restraint as a director?
Relationships – including gay ones – are not just about the sex and passion. Yes, it was an important part of the movie. But I felt Roy and Nimer’s love story would feel so much stronger if it was more than just another gay romance. That there’s a connection that goes beyond the physical. Those are the moments I wanted to show – intimacy and tenderness, loving and caring. Yael and I discussed it a lot while we were writing the script; I was like, "They can have sex on the second date, but not the first."

One of the Israeli cops in your movie tries to blackmail Nimer into becoming a collaborator. Does that happen much in reality?
The Israeli cop and a lot of people wouldn’t think he was being corrupt or abusive in any way – they think they’re protecting Israeli lives against terrorists and extremists. These things do happen. A cop tried to recruit one of our Palestinian camera guys when he was in university. What happens to one of the characters – who is murdered in the film for being a gay Palestinian – has happened in the past. Although, not counting the Gaza Strip, things have been fairly quiet between Israel and Palestine, in terms of collaborator revenge killings.

Lastly, what’s your next project?
I’m working on a screenplay that takes place in the Republic of Ireland – a whodunnit.

Sounds good. Thanks, Michael.

Michael Mayer’s Out In The Dark is in cinemas now.

Follow Christine on Twitter: @ChristineCocoJ

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