Michael Mayer came to the topic of “Out in the Dark,” his debut feature which had its world premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and opens in theaters September 27, through a combination of chance and unexpected passion. The Israeli-born filmmaker was eating dinner in Los Angeles with a friend from Tel Aviv who mentioned his work with gay Palestinians living in Israel and told Mayer about their legal, political and emotional uncertainties. “It kind of blew me away,” he told me in a phone interview last week. “It was the first time since film school when I was like, ‘oh shit, I want to tell that story.'”
On his next trip to Israel, Mayer began to research the issue–“at first, for my own benefit,” as he puts it–and what he discovered challenged his preconceptions of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Here was a liminal space where political stereotypes were scrambled, where people who wouldn’t call themselves political activists collaborated and helped those on both sides of the fence simply because of their sexuality.
The resulting film is a beautiful, nuanced look at a rarely examined subject: the plight of LGBT Palestinians and the intersection of sexuality and politics in the Israeli/Palestinian issue at large. Mayer’s film opens with Nimr, a Palestinian psychology student played by Nicholas Jacob in a remarkable first performance, sneaking over the border into Tel Aviv to visit a gay bar, where he meets Roy (Michael Aloni), a successful but unfulfilled Israeli lawyer.
The spark of attraction and connection is immediate, and while at first Nimr fears the entanglements of a transnational love, the two quickly embark on a passionate romance that escalates in intensity–and towards jeopardy–more quickly than either young man expects.
What makes Mayer’s films so compelling is the way that the political pitfalls of Nimr and Roy’s relationship, which one might expect to be the focus of the film, are instead included for context and color. For Nimr and Roy, the back-and-forth struggle between Israelis and Palestinians is simply the canvas upon which their burgeoning relationship is painted; “Out in the Dark,” similarly, treats the love story as the foreground and the two men’s political situation as the background.
That’s not surprising coming from a man who states without prompting that he doesn’t want to go into his own personal political views. But it’s also testament to the film’s capable and compassionate screenplay, co-written by Mayer and Yael Shafrir, a writer friend Mayer knew from high school in Israel. And though Mayer and Shafrir fall on opposite ends of the political spectrum, Mayer says–“She’s very much to the right; I’m very much to the left”–they agreed together to focus foremost on the romance and to write the politics from their two divergent viewpoints, with the aim of creating a sense of balance.
This isn’t a film that sets out to ‘tell both sides of the story,’ per se–after all, how would it ever truly be possible to do so?–but rather incorporates the stories of those on both sides without editorializing. For example, Mayer met the film’s costume designer, Hamada Atallah, a member of the gay Palestinian community in Tel Aviv who has organized the kinds of parties like the one where Nimr and Roy first meet, before Mayer even had a script.
Mayer doesn’t speak Arabic–although it is similar to his native Hebrew–so he relied on the many Arabic-speakers in his mixed Israeli/Palestinian crew as he directed what is essentially a bilingual film. Astonishingly, the film’s editor, Maria Gonzales, an American, cut “Out in the Dark” without a knowledge of either Hebrew or Arabic and with the help of a translator for only a few of the film’s pivotal scenes. Working outside of one’s linguistic comfort zone, Mayer told me, “really makes you concentrate on performances.”
“Out in the Dark” won Best Picture at the Haifa International Film Festival last year, opened on 18 screens in Israel and played for 10 weeks in Tel Aviv. The reaction in Israel was mostly positive, Mayer says, with one repeated criticism: it should have made more of a political statement. Some Palestinian audiences have seen the film in Haifa and Jerusalem, although Mayer’s been told there’s no operating theater in Ramallah.
The film opened to strong notices in Toronto, sold over 45 countries and nabbed a North American distributor, Breaking Glass Pictures. In Canada and the U.S., to Mayer’s surprise, audiences were much more interested in the politics presented by the film than in Europe.
In between promoting his current film, Mayer’s at work on his next one: a murder mystery adapted from a novel. He’s been taking a break from his previous bread-winning work in trailers–“right now,” he tells me honestly, “I’m doing nothing”–and he hopes to make that a permanent sabbatical. “Hopefully I’ll just move on to the next feature and I won’t dabble again in trailers. But we’ll see.”