SAN FRANCISCO — “My purpose was not to show how horrible the Palestinians are toward their people, but rather to show Israel what its responsibility is toward them,” said gay Israeli filmmaker Yariv Mozer last month to an audience at San Francisco’s LGBT Community Center.
Mozer, 34, was in town for the screening of his film “The Invisible Men” at Frameline 36: San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, where it won the best documentary award.
The film, which Mozer completed with his co-writer and producer Adam Rosner this past March after three years of work, documents the desperate situation of gay Palestinian men who illegally enter Israel and live in the Tel Aviv shadows.
The film follows the lives of three Palestinian “asylum-seekers” who are trying to avoid being caught by Israeli police and deported back to the West Bank, where they fear their families’ wrath. Mozer portrays the men living day-to-day, odd-job-to-odd-job, trying to blend in and go unnoticed in the bustling city.
After its world premiere in March at the Amnesty International Film Festival at The Hague, it premiered in Israel in May at Doc Aviv, where it won the special jury award.
Although there are no accurate statistics as to how many gay Palestinian men are hiding in Israel, Mozer emphasized at the San Francisco event that it was not a matter of a few cases but rather “a phenomenon,” as he put it. “There are no accurate numbers. We only know of approximately 30 cases being in the process of legal assistance. I am sure that more people are in the closet or on the run without exposing themselves,” he wrote in an email exchange with The Times of Israel.
Mozer chose to focus on the plight of these men through the personal stories of three individuals — all of whom sought help from the The Aguda – The National Association of GLBT in Israel. With the organization’s assistance, they received UN refugee status and the chance to start their lives over in a third country.
“They are three characters fighting for their dignity. These guys didn’t let themselves fall into prostitution, and they didn’t do drugs,” the filmmaker said. “Their only crime was being gay in their own traditional Muslim society.”
For their safety, Mozer agreed not to show the film until the men were settled in their countries of asylum. He has also asked reporters not to reveal their specific whereabouts, other than to say that they have been taken in by a European country.
At the heart of “The Invisible Men” is Louie, an earnest, sensitive and visibly wary 31-year-old from the Nablus area. He escaped to Tel Aviv after suffering what he says was prolonged sexual abuse as a child and being almost slaughtered by his father when a friend vengefully showed him mobile phone video footage of a drunken Louie having sex with another man.
Louie, with the resultant scar visible across his lower right cheek, is seen working at apartment renovation jobs, hiding from the police by moving from apartment to apartment, sleeping on rooftops, and showering on the beach when necessary. Shaul, an Aguda representative, teaches Louie — who speaks fluent Hebrew — how to walk inconspicuously on the streets of south Tel Aviv and advises him to wear a Star of David necklace at all times.
In his decade of living in Tel Aviv, Louie was caught and delivered numerous times back across the fence that divides Israel and the Palestinian Authority. To Mozer’s amazement, he always found a way back in to Israel. “There are always ways to cross the border,” the filmmaker said.
‘There are always ways to cross the border’
For his part, Mozer tried to avoid getting enmeshed in the legal issues. It is illegal for Israelis to give shelter or work to an illegal Palestinian, or to transport him anywhere within Israel. Nonetheless, “I broke the law to in order to do this film,” he admitted. “But I tried not to break it a lot.”
He was careful to maintain a distance from the men he was filming. “For instance, they never came to my home, and although I entered Ramallah semi-illegally to interview Fares [one of his characters], I did not drive him back with me to Tel Aviv,” he said. It was clear that this had been Fares’ hope, as he is filmed walking away from the interview carrying a suitcase. Fares eventually did find another way to get to Tel Aviv.
Given the large size and long arm of Arab families, Louie is untrusting of other Arab gay men and chooses to associate only with Jewish Israelis. As much as he loves the Arab neighborhoods of Jaffa, he does not allow himself to walk there freely, for fear of being spotted by family members who live there. Louie tells Mozer that he pays cab drivers to just drive him at night from Tel Aviv to Jaffa and back — without stopping — so that he can take in the sights, sounds and smells that he loves.
When Mozer drives him to Jaffa, he puts his hand to the side of his face to shield it from view and says quietly, “Drive fast. Drive fast.” Only on his final night in Israel before flying to asylum in Europe does he risk sitting in Jaffa’s port and looking out at the ocean.
Louie makes one exception when he meets Abdu, Mozer’s third character. Abdu, 24, is brasher than Louie. Despite having been hiding in Tel Aviv for many years and accused by the Israelis of spying for the Palestinians, and by the Palestinians of working for the Israeli secret police, he continues to fight for his right to be who he is. “I don’t sell myself to anyone,” he says defiantly to the camera. He’s also more optimistic than the older Louie, musing about the possibility of re-establishing relationships with relatives and one day returning home: “Who knows, maybe things will change in a few years.”
Louie cautiously becomes friends with Abdu as the latter prepares to leave Israel for Europe. Abdu invites Louie to his farewell party, asks him to take memento photos of him on the beach, and convinces him to come along to a once-a-month underground gay Israeli-Arab party with him and his Jewish boyfriend. Wary of even Palestinian citizens of Israel, Louie checks out the party, but doesn’t stay very long.
The Times of Israel recently spoke to Louie by phone. It has been almost two years since Mozer filmed him in the Jaffa port. He is settled in his adopted home, having bought an apartment with government assistance, and is keeping busy with language lessons and working as a studio photographer. Abdu lives in the same city as he does, and they have remained friends.
‘Everything is secure for me here. In Israel I was living like a cat’
“Everything is secure for me here,” he said. “In Israel I was living like a cat.” But he misses Tel Aviv very much. He longs to return to ha’aretz, as he calls Israel. In about a year’s time, he expects to become a citizen of the country in which he is now living, adding yet another layer to his complex collection of seemingly contradictory identities. At that point, he says he will make a visit “home” to Israel, but he has no intention of returning to Nablus. “I don’t want to endanger myself,” he said.
It was bad enough when “The Invisible Men” was screened in Tel Aviv. He said he received threats after his family (which does not know his exact location) heard about the film. “It caused a big balagan,” he reported, using the Hebrew slang for “mess.” The stress caused him to be hospitalized three months ago. His mother died when he was a boy and Louie had only maintained ties with his sister. But now, since his sister saw the trailer for the film on Facebook, she has cut off communication with him.
Louie remains optimistic for the long term. “A day will come when I can return to my family,” he said hopefully. In the meantime, his Jewish Israeli friends send him things to give him the taste of home, like coffee, za’atar and arak.
Mozer, however, isn’t expecting things to significantly change any time soon. “I am not so optimistic,” he told The Times of Israel. “I can’t see a big change in the Arab Muslim society accepting human rights.” He also doesn’t think Israel’s policies toward gay Palestinian asylum-seekers will shift so long as the right wing is in power.
He’s not totally defeatist, though. “I have a hope that this film will make even a small change in the life of gay Palestinians,” he said. “The fact that an Israeli filmmaker is doing this is important.”