Out in the Dark (2012)

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As The Bubble and The Invisible Men did before it, Out in the Dark considers the situation homosexual Palestinians find themselves constrained by, albeit with more mainstream media attention. This film, which was widely spoken about and generally well praised, centres around the story of Nimr and Roy. This feature film does indeed have many good points and I did, on the whole, enjoy it, but it does lack a certain something and can, perhaps, be accused of bias when the viewer bears in mind that its budget came from the Israel Film Fund. While this can be seen in places, it is unfair to completely suggest the film is biased. Israel is not shown in an explicitly ‘good’ light – turning away asylum seekers, dubious security forces and homophobia, are just a few negative points that come to mind. This does make the film more balanced than it could have turned out to be, but the film does still have, on the whole, a more biased view of the Palestinian Territories and plays to stereotypes.

It is difficult to tell what are stereotypes and what behaviours are based on elements of truth. It would seem that being homosexual is something less accepted in the largely Muslim Palestinian Territories, which is a trend we see across the rest of the Middle East. Considering that we see a negative reaction from Roy’s Israeli parents regarding this sexuality, the more extreme reaction from Nimr’s Palestinian family fits this trend. Here I would say the film isn’t biased and, in fact, highlights that homophobia, in varying degrees, is still a problem in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

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As mentioned above we do see negative aspects of Israeli society throughout too, which points in the general direction of a largely unbiased film. However, there are certainly points in the film when the desperate need for a bias clearly couldn’t be suppressed any longer. There are certainly points in the film when Roy treats Nimr to his own special brand of colonial snobbery. Roy can be seen to label Nimr’s family as terrorists from the second he sees the report from the Israeli news channel, to name just one example. There definitely seems to be the suggestion that Roy and his family are more developed socially than Nimr’s family, which opens up a whole separate debate – mainly, is it actually vicariously Roy’s family’s fault as Israel cuts off the Palestinian Territories from the luxuries of a rich and developed state.

Moving away from any political or social bias in the director’s or writer’s stance, and looking at the relationship between Roy and Nimr, we see yet another great portrayal of a homosexual couple on screen. The film is generally quite praiseworthy in this respect and I, for one, appreciated that Roy and Nimr didn’t sleep together the night they met and the fact that they weren’t portrayed as two men who were emotionally or psychologically damaged by their sexuality.

As the film progresses the two men realise that they can’t be together in Israel, not matter how many strings Roy tries to pull. With a solution in sight, the film closes with a close race to escape. One bugbear for me was that we will never find out if either of them made their separate ways successfully, to actually facilitate their new life abroad, but in reality, if it had ended in this ‘happily ever after’ fashion then I probably would have complained about that too.

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The Invisible Men (2012)

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Last night I watched The Invisible Men; Yariv Mozer’s polemic documentary about the situation of gay Palestinians inside Israel. The documentary follows the lives of three men, Louie, Abdu and Faris, who have escaped from the Palestinian territories across the border into Israel.

Tel Aviv is well known for its gay scene and relative equality compared to other Middle Eastern countries when it comes to homosexuality. Homosexuality is legal in Israel, and homosexuals enjoy much the same rights as in Europe. Equal marriage isn’t legal, however, and, of course Jerusalem is somewhat a special case when compared to Tel Aviv. Despite all this, this tolerance doesn’t extend to homosexual Palestinian refugees, and as a result they live their lives in fear of being sent back across the border into the Palestinian territories, where their families, friends and the police are often waiting to attack.

The documentary focuses on Louie, who has a noticeable scar on his face from when his father attacked him with a knife after finding out about his homosexuality. He has lived illegally in Israel for 10 years, mostly avoiding the police but occasionally being returned across the border. He meets with Abdu who has applied for humanitarian asylum in Europe. While this may seem like the logical option, this is a difficult decision to make. Applying for asylum in Europe is a long process with no guarantee. Furthermore, for these men, Europe is a world apart from the world they have grown up in. Obviously, they will be able to live openly as homosexuals in Europe in relative safety (the EU Fundamental Rights Agency survey has proved, however, that even Western Europe isn’t a utopia for gay rights and equality), but they will be alone and a long way from home. On top of this, they will experience a language barrier and it is unlikely they will return to Israel or the Palestinian territories any time in the near future. Louie doesn’t want to leave Israel. He was born there and has lived there this entire life, but a lack of an Israeli birth stamp and residency papers means that he cannot legally stay in Israel or apply for Israeli asylum.

This raises many, many questions. This film was only made possible because all three men ended up gaining asylum in Europe and as a result they are now safe from their families and the Israeli police force and the Magav (the border force). Politics is obviously a huge and contentious issue in this area of the world and it is something for which there is no clear and simple answer. Palestinian citizens need to be able to claim asylum in Israel on the basis of sexual discrimination in the Palestinian territories, however. Israel is progressive in terms of its policies concerning homosexuality, and as we see time and time again from Eytan Fox’s films (for example) gay Palestinians could live happy and safe lives in Israel just like homosexuals do from many other countries in the world. This would mean they would not have to leave the Middle East to find safety, and would solve a lot of the fundamental issues that face them everyday, or issues that they would face in Europe. Here Israel has the opportunity to become a safe-haven and model for rest of the Middle East on social reform and sexual equality. At the very least the police forces should be more understanding of the plight of these men, instead of simply seeing them as the Palestinian papers they hold.

This documentary is very moving, and can be difficult to watch at times. The stories these men tell, and the obvious fears they have are testaments to the inequalities of this world. There are many sub-issues that influence this particular problem (all of which are political) and it seems a crying injustice that these men should be returned to, what is essentially, their deaths on the grounds of their sexuality and their nationality. If we are to promote that all love is equal in the Western World then we need to think of our brothers and sisters all over the world that are discriminated against to the point of death on a daily basis.

Die Zeit newspaper in Germany recently ran a story on Palestinian gay men in Tel Aviv, which featured many heart-breaking stories of boys being pushed from pillar to post, back and forth across the border in a fight with the Israeli police and their families. One boy had been in Tel Aviv since he was a teenager; he was raped as a child but his father believed his rapist’s lies because of the position he held in their town. As a result, he punished his son, locked him up and physically and mentally abused him. When the boy finally managed to escape he crossed the border to Israel. Living in an abandoned bus station he was involved with drugs and lived in fear of the police. He once returned home, only to be attacked again by his family. The article, entitled Wir Kinder vom Busbahnhof (Us children from the bus station) is available here in full, if you speak German.

I can only assume there are only stories of male homosexuals in this situation in the press and on film because, as is often the case when homosexuals are persecuted, the (all too often) men in charge in these countries do not see lesbianism as a real threat for reasons that link back to misogynistic ideologies. Whereas male homosexuals are often seen, and portrayed in propaganda, as dangerous and ‘infectious’ bodies due to the penetrative nature of sex between men. There seems to be a belief that female sexuality is also not a threat because this is a ‘weak decision’ that can be changed by a man. Men are scared of other men that threaten their masculinity or patriarchy. For more information surrounding this, see research into the persecution of homosexuals in the Third Reich – particularly Richard Plant’s seminal text, The Pink Triangle. Ernst Röhm is a fine example of a gay man who became too powerful and was killed by the fears of his fellow party members.

Finally, the Israeli LGBT+ organisation can be reached here (in English and Hebrew) and they feature as helpers in the asylum process in Mozer’s documentary. More information about Mozer’s documentary can be found here.

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(2009) עיניים פקוחות

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Eyes Wide Open is a film I have wanted to write about for a long time, having watched it well over two years ago, I finally got around to getting my own copy and watching it again. As you may have already realised I have a penchant for Israeli queer cinema and have previous written about The Bubble, Yossi & Jagger and it’s sequel Yossi. Here we have a film directed by Haim Tabakman, not Eytan Fox. Moving away from the liberal metropolis of Tel Aviv, this film is set in deeply orthodox Jerusalem and it’s surroundings.

Aaron is recovering from mourning his father’s death and decides to reopen his father’s butchers. The young Ezri comes to Jerusalem to confront his boyfriend who is uncomfortable with his homosexuality and a conflict with his religion. Looking for an assistant Aaron takes on Ezri despite the rumours that are rife in this small community where everyone knows everyone else’s business. As a friendship develops between the two of them, it becomes clear that both men have feelings for each other. Ezri, despite his orthodox stance, is much more at ease with his sexuality than Aaron, who is married with children. Soon the tension becomes too much and they end up sleeping together. As rumours begin to spread (they do not spread on fact, but instead merely on the notion that Ezri has brought a bad reputation with him) trouble increases for the pair and for Aaron’s family. Aaron is warned, and later threatened as a result of his involvement. As everything escalates, Aaron fells alive for the first time in years but realises that he can’t live this double life.

The film is very touching and covers a wide range of issues. Aaron is also involved with the modesty police and his seen to threaten a man who is believed for be unsuitable for a friend’s daughter. Throughout the film the audience sees how patriarchal this society is and how much danger Ezri, and later Aaron, could be in if they are discovered. This film is in stark contrast to the liberal and privileged lives Fox’s characters live in Tel Aviv and as a result highlights the paradoxes so rife in Israeli society today – society, religion and politics all fight for the upper hand.

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Yossi (2012)

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Yossi is Eytan Fox’s sequel to Yossi and Jagger, which I have never written about despite seeing it a few months ago – I will write about both here.

Like all of Eytan Fox’s famous films, this stars Ohad Knoller as the films lead. The film is quite slow, but this reflects the melancholia that Yossi is experiencing. Since leaving the army (and the death of his lover/boyfriend Jagger), Yossi has thrown himself at his career – training to become a heart surgeon. He works tirelessly, never takes holidays and returns to his dark apartment only to watch TV, porn, and to fall asleep, exhausted by life, on the sofa – or even in his car. One day Jagger’s mother comes to the hospital and this reawakens Yossi grief. He endeavours to tell the family that their son was gay and that he died in Yossi’s loving arms – he is unsure if Jagger heard him say ‘I love you’ as he drifted in and out of consciousness before his death and this has haunted him ever since. With the negative reaction from the mother, less so from the father, Yossi decides to take his first holiday. Giving a lift to a bunch of soldiers, who missed their bus, he notices Tom’s attraction to him. Now this sounds very predictable… however, this is not a predictable love story. They don’t make eyes at each other and wake up next to each other the next morning. Yossi is so emotionally damaged by his time in the army, the death of Jagger, the secret of his sexuality (he is yet to come out) and his body hang-ups that nothing happens for a painstaking hour.

Eytan Fox is always semi-political in his film, never really confronting the issue head on but instead hinting heavily. Here, he is clearly commenting on how Israel has changed in terms of it’s sexual liberalism – Tom serves as an openly gay man in the army (but his parents still do not know). This is very different from when Yossi was in the army, and those who have seen Yossi and Jagger, will remember how secretive the two had to be. It was only in the final moments of Jagger’s life that Yossi could even attempt to be loving to him in public and that was only because he had no choice – his time was limited before it was too late to declare his love.

This film handles a lot of issues very successfully. The older, closeted gay man haunted by his past is given a new lease of life by the ‘new’ Israeli gay man. Jagger and Tom’s family’s lack of knowledge/acceptance prevents the film from being too utopian, however. Fox also highlights the issues surrounding online hook-ups, with the cocky man who humiliates Yossi for using an older picture of himself online, but still asks for a blow job “before they call it a night”. It is unclear as to whether Yossi complies, in his cocoon of self-loathing, or whether he stands up for himself and leaves.

Having read a few professional and non-professional reviews, some were disappointed that Tom ‘forces himself’ on Yossi. I would say this is exactly what he needed to get him back on his feet. Yossi didn’t need someone to tell him he was fat and a shadow of his former self. He didn’t need someone who left the light off when they have sex. He needed brash and (over-)confident Tom to bring him back to modern day Israel and to finally help him out of the cycle of depression he found himself in.

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HaBuah (The Bubble) – 2006

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Recently I have been really into Eytan Fox’s films, having watched Yossi & Jagger and reading about Yossi, his most recent film. This is when I came across The Bubble. As I have mentioned before I am huge fan of world cinema and I have a special place in my heart for films set in Israel or other Middle Eastern countries (including Waltz with Bashir (Israel) and Persepolis (Iran) and Eyes Wide Open (Israel)). Apart from the fact that these are all wonderful films, I also have a desire to travel to Israel, so this probably plays a part too. The Bubble is a refreshing film based in modern Tel Aviv and follows a group of liberal and hedonistic friends as they fight the system and open people’s eyes to the wrongs in society. Furthermore it is also a film about the tensions between Israel and Palestine with Noam being Israeli and his love interest, Ashraf, being Palestinian. Alongside this political tension we see a tension between cultures and religions. Ashraf’s family are muslim and disapprove of his homosexuality. As the above image shows, Ashraf always feels like an outsider compared to the liberated original friendship group. This film manages to tackle so many issues and it does so while being entertaining and emotional. My only issue with the film is what Noam is played by Ohad Knoller, who also plays Yossi in Yossi & Jagger. This, of course, isn’t really a fair criticism but it was something that confused me at first and made me wonder if there was a link between the films (there wasn’t). I won’t give away the ending but it is a powerful, memorable, surprising and poignant ending to the film which is still as relevant in todays Israel as it was 7 years ago.

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