Just when you think you’ve heard about every aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a new angle pops up to surprise you.
For most audiences, that’ll be the effect of Yariv Mozer’s new documentary, “The Invisible Men,” which details the struggles of gay Palestinians living in hiding in Israel. Ostracized by their communities, and often by their own families, many face lynching if they return home.
Making their situation even more precarious is that they‘re also not supposed to be in Israel. Security measures prevent Palestinians from entering the country — even those seeking asylum. Furthermore, there’s the very real possibility they’ll be discovered by a family member living inside Israel, another threat to their safety.
“The Invisible Men” focuses primarily on Louie, a quietly tragic figure who has been hiding in Israel for the better part of a decade, and Abdu, a more self-reliant man working with an underground agency to find sanctuary in Europe. We also meet Faris — timid, young and on the run from certain death at the hands of his own family.
On Saturday and Monday, Mozer, a former department head at Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, will attend screenings of “The Invisible Men” at the Other Israel Film Festival in New York City. Dedicated to programming about Israel’s non-Jewish minorities, the eight-day festival, which begins Thursday, represents the homestretch of a US tour for “The Invisible Men” that has included screenings in Washington, DC; Ft. Lauderdale, Seattle, Milwaukee and Berkeley. The film will also show at Princeton’s Unified Film Festival on November 11, and the St. Louis International Film Festival on November 16.
Mozer recently spoke to The Times of Israel about his new film. A transcript of the interview, edited for length and continuity, appears below.
I imagine this film is generating a little bit of controversy.
Was that your intention?
My intention is not to stir controversy for no reason. I wanted to make people aware of a political phenomenon.
‘There are parts of Palestinian society that are more modern and more moderate, but in the villages, it remains traditional,’ says director Yariv Mozer
Let’s begin with some background questions. Is homosexuality illegal in the Palestinian territories?
There is no law that prohibits it, but there is no law that legitimizes it. There is not one Arab state that legalizes it in any way.
But it isn’t illegal there. Technically, in Great Britain it was illegal up until the 1960s.
Hey, it was technically illegal in Israel until 1988.
When someone is outed as gay in the Palestinian territories, he can be lynched by his family or community. Are there any protections for gays?
No. It is very complicated. The traditions of the conservative families — and the families are big tribes, essentially — they consider this an act of humiliation that harms the honor of the family. Because of the political situation in the territories, which are isolated, rumors about someone being gay spread very fast. As such, these people have nowhere to escape if they are in the West Bank or Gaza. Especially Gaza.
So if someone is outed and the families “take care of it,” will the police there look into it as a murder? Will they prosecute if there is evidence?
To my knowledge, they will not. You have to understand that any act of homosexuality is perceived as an influence of the West and of Israel. Every gay person is suspected of cooperating with the Israeli system. This happens with Abdu in the film — when he was caught by the police, he wasn’t accused of being gay. He was caught because he was gay, and then accused of working with the Mossad. This is how they perceive homosexuality, because when you are gay, you are against the norm of Palestinian identity.
I look at atrocities in Afghanistan, where they stone people for adultery, and my perception of Palestinians has always been that, by and large, they are more progressive than that.
There are parts of Palestinian society that are more modern and more moderate, but in the villages, it remains traditional. Also, in villages where you have Hamas in power, it is even harder. To make it more complicated, the fact that gay people go back and forth within Israel [the film leaves ambiguous precisely how this is accomplished], it raises suspicion that they are cooperating with the Israeli system. Louie, who was living in Israel for so long, was terrified that if he returned, he would be accused of cooperating. Vulnerable people in general are targets of the security services on both sides. What I’m saying is, I’m sure Israel doesn’t have a policy of tracking gay people. However, for the purposes of national security, Israel will do whatever it can do. The secret service will use and exploit gay people for their service.
So what you mean is, to try and convince them to become spies?
Yes, which is what leads to the gay Palestinians being accused. It is an additional complication.
Arab communities within Israel — are they more tolerant of homosexuality?
It is still a very traditional society. Not just [regarding] homosexuality, but women’s rights, arranged marriages. However, gay people in Arab society [in Israel] can travel more easily. They can leave the country, they can go to Tel Aviv. I know very few who are out of the closet, but it is still easier.
And if there were a lynching like in the Palestinian territories, the Israeli police would look into it, not sweep it under the rug.
Yes. And we know of cases like this.
Obviously Israel has to be very cautious about who is allowed in the country, but Louie says it himself: If you come from Thailand, you can work here, but he’s from here, and he has to be in hiding. Do you think there needs to be a discussion about granting refugee status to gays who are trapped and can’t go home?
I am not so optimistic, particularly with the current administration. For our interior minister [Eli Yishai] from the Shas Party, you don’t need to get into being Palestinian — all gay people are a sin.
Louie has relatives in Jaffa. This, of course, is one of his great fears — that he’ll be seen by one of them.
‘For our interior minister from the Shas Party, you don’t need to get into being Palestinian. All gay people are a sin’
There are, of course, lots of Arabs living inside of Israel, and they enjoy the democratic country of Israel, but they have no connection with their families in the West Bank. It is part of the difficulty.
Your film has something of a happy ending, when we see certain figures living a free life in an undisclosed European country. But you can see that Louie would rather be in Israel. He has a line, “We all live in yearning.” There really is no solution — gay Palestinians can be safe, but in a place that’s totally alien to them, with a whole new language they need to learn.
The LGBT agency that sent them to Europe was a non-government agency?
It runs on private money?
I can’t get into too many specifics … Let’s just say that the organization that is supporting this process is behind the scenes. Let’s just say that … there is a very large international organization, and they are doing something against an internal policy and in conflict [with the laws of] two nations. They aren’t supposed to do this. But they understand that this is the only way to help gay Palestinians.
But there are many progressives in Israel. You’d think there are people who would like to help.
I am sure of it, but in the current administration, there is no policy that can help. The LGBT center is an NGO; the lawyers … you see in the film are volunteering. They are approaching this unnamed international organization, and it is all very secretive. It is not an official policy.
One of your subjects had a terrible, abuse-filled childhood. You want to shout, “Get him into therapy!” But before that can happen, he has to be safe.
Exactly, and he is getting psychological treatment in the country where he is now. He has a job, renovating for the town. Things are improving, but he watches the Israeli news every night. He longs for Israel. It will be a long process for him.
Louie’s attitude toward Israel is fascinating. He wears a Star of David to “pass.” He seems really to like Israeli society, but also speaks of himself as a proud Arab. There’s a heartbreaking moment when he sings Arabic music. Is there anywhere in the Arab world that is accepting of gays?
Not to my knowledge. There are some underground communities flourishing, but they’re still secret.