“I always wanted to know what it’s like to be gay on the other side of the security fence, in the Occupied Territories.” says narrator, writer and film producer, Yariv Mozer, as the first few shots of his new documentary, ‘The Invisible Men,’ flash across the screen, depicting security barriers and lonesome desert highways. “I never imagined that there were people like Louie who had to escape all the way to Tel Aviv, forced to live in another country where they are constantly hunted.” Then, cut to the neon Tel Aviv night.
‘The Invisible Men’presents the untold narratives of “Louie, 32 years old, a gay Palestinian who has been hiding in Tel Aviv for the past 8 years; Abdu, 24 years old, who was exposed as gay in Ramallah and then accused of espionage and tortured by Palestinian security forces; and Faris, 23 years old, who escaped to Tel Aviv from the West Bank after his family tried to kill him.”
The film is a step above the average Israeli documentary, chronicling life in the nuanced cultural underbelly of the Jewish state, where the public sphere is brilliantly shattered by various incongruent lifestyles. Instead of your run-of-the-mill snapshot of Israeli countercultures (such as the avant-garde bohemians, the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs) with a dash of iconoclastic irony, Mozer’s documentary of the adventures of three Palestinian seekers of sexual liberty, rings bells of naturalism, making it a kind of ‘Huck Finn’ for the Middle East, but with much darker and realistic undertones. Mozer said in an interview explaining the story’s background, “Much has been said about the plight of homosexuals in the Muslim world, yet those stuck in the ghettos of the West Bank and Gaza suffers all the more.”
The film takes all of the clichés of the conflict and puts things into a 21st century existentialist perspective by asking questions like, “What is worse, being an undocumented Palestinian in Tel Aviv, or being a homosexual in the West Bank or Gaza?” Of course, the tragedies that befall the lives of these men are only referred to in dialogue, but Mozer manages to capture some adventurous moments and brushes with the authorities on camera. “Documentary film” explains the filmmaker “has the extraordinary power to transform the reality it captures. But documentary film also has the extraordinary power to transform its characters, especially when they get behind their own cameras. As much as it is my goal to render these invisible men undeniably visible, it is their bravery—to take cameras and fight for their lives—that inspired this film.”
Mozer explains, “My interest in people like Louie began long before I met him. I had always been intrigued by the lives of gay Palestinian men who live kilometers from Tel Aviv, isolated by security fences, checkpoints, and their deeply religious society. However, the political reality of the Occupation never allowed me to meet such men.” He continues, “In 2008, I read ‘Nowhere to Run: Gay Palestinian Asylum-Seekers in Israel,’ a report published by two lawyers from the Tel Aviv University Human Rights Clinic. Their research includes the testimonies of gay Palestinians who had escaped to Tel Aviv—monologues that recount awful stories of emotional and physical torture. I cried as I read the report again and again. For the first time,” he continues, “I learned that there were gay men in Tel Aviv, the most liberal city in the Middle East, forced back into hiding because they were Palestinian. That double threat—of being gay in Palestine and Palestinian in Israel—made me determined to find these men and to expose their plight to Israel and the world.”
Mozer says: “In certain respects, Louie is one of its greatest victims, alienated on so many levels that he’s been left without a home, family, friends, a nationality, or an identity. It is my goal to strike at Israeli antipathy and ambivalence toward these innocent boys and men. Through Louie,” continues the producer and director, “I want to break down the socio-political barriers that have contributed to his isolation on both sides of the Green Line. And while I certainly condemn homophobia wherever it prevails, I do not single out Arab/Islamic attitudes toward homosexuality.”
The film had its world premier at the Movies that Matter, Amnesty International Film Festival, and then won the special jury award at the Doc Aviv, Tel Aviv International Documentary Film Festival. “Next week” explains Mozer, “the film will have its North American premier at the Frameline San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.”
Can you give some background on the tenor of the film?
Much has been said about the plight of homosexuals in the Muslim world, yet those stuck in the ghettos of the West Bank and Gaza suffers all the more. There, rumors about sexual identity travel fast—and rapidly turn threats into serious physical harm: if their families don’t find them first, the Palestinian secret service immediately accuses them of cooperating with the Israeli secret service (that does in fact exploit gay Palestinians). For that reason, these men have no choice but to escape illegally to Israel and to its most liberal city, Tel Aviv. But even there they must continue to live double lives. With no address, no passport or bank account, no real friends, no true lovers, Tel Aviv becomes their living prison. To suffocate them further, Israel criminalizes anyone who provides these illegal Palestinians with accommodation, employment, or transportation.
I broke the law during the work on this film—but it should not have been this way. Israel has ratified international treaties that obligate it to protect anyone whose life is at risk. But again, Palestinians don’t count. Israel simply deports them back to the Occupied Territories, leaving gay Palestinians with no choice but to seek political asylum in a third country—to forever abandon their identity, culture, and people. “The Invisible Men” is the first film to reveal this crisis and process.
Where did you meet Louie, Abdu and Faris?
During my process of research I met Louie at the Aguda, the Israeli LGBT community center, back in its old place in Nachmany Street where it was much more hidden and discreet.
What do you think is a harder life, being gay in the PA-controlled West Bank or being Palestinian in Israel?
Tough question, eventually I would say that the threat of life was in the West Bank (and of course in Gaza) so that is where life was much more difficult for a gay guy.
How will you protect Louie, Abdu and Faris now that their story will be famous?
In the film any legal document, ID numbers and especially their current location had been blurred. Abdu decided to leave his place of asylum and therefore he lost his protection program. He is outspoken and determined to fight for Palestinian gay rights.
Can you comment on accusations of ‘pinkwashing’?
I just don’t see the connection between gay rights and the occupation. The facts are that Israel is undoubtedly much more tolerant towards gay rights and against homophobia incomparably to the situation in the Palestinian occupied territories, as in the whole Arab world. Unfortunately, the Palestinian conservative society does not respect human rights in general, and that includes for example women rights and of course gay rights.
Another undeniable fact is that Palestinian people are still under the occupation in all of its faults.
I don’t think that there is an official Israeli policy to highlight gay rights in order to undermine the occupation and its consequences.
Abdu said a smart thing during one of our last screenings: the day the Palestinian people will liberate themselves, they will be liberated from the Occupation.
It’s a radical thing for a Palestinian to say, but it’s the smartest conception of the conflict.