Tokyo’s International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival returned for its 22nd edition earlier this month, continuing its reign as the longest running festival of its kind in Asia. The star guest this year was director Michael Mayer, whose male love affair film set against the Arab-Israeli conflict, “Out in the Dark,” has become a sleeper hit, screened at festivals all around the world since 2012, when it was selected for the Toronto International Film Festival.
Starring Nicholas Jacob as young Palestinian student Nimr Mashrawi and Michael Aloni as Israeli lawyer Roy Schaefer, the film focuses on their relationship as external issues, including an investigation into Nimr’s militant brother by Israeli’s security forces, threaten to derail their love affair.
The film comes at a time when movies exploring same-sex relationships are becoming less a case of tackling taboo topics and more about the recognition of their own artistic merit, from Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Blue is the Warmest Color” to Japanese director Shusuke Kaneko’s “Jellyfish.”
BLOUIN ARTINFO Japan caught up with Mayer to discuss the motivations behind his first film, the challenges of shooting in Ramallah, and changing attitudes to gay cinema.
Can you tell us about the movie development? Why did you choose this story as your first feature film?
I was doing movie trailers for a while when I had dinner with a friend who came from Israel, and he was telling me that he had been volunteering at the gay and lesbian center in Tel Aviv, and one of the things that the center does is to give support to gay Palestinians who are hiding in Israel. It blew him away when he started working there and it was definitely something that I’d never heard of before. My first reaction was that I couldn’t believe this was going on, living in Israel at the time.
One of the things I felt was that I knew people who would want to volunteer at this place. These are not pro-Palestine activists — not the same guys who would demonstrate for Palestinian rights. There are many shades to the Israeli left, so just because someone volunteers at a gay and lesbian center doesn’t mean that they necessarily have a political agenda. They do this out of a shared experience of being outsiders in a community.
So this movie [doesn’t] put activists first, it’s an intimate love story where the two leads are both trying to detach themselves and live their lives.
Is the specific story in this film based on real people?
Most of the story is an amalgamation of snippets from different people, so you could argue all of it is true, or none of it – it’s definitely all fiction. Things in the last few years have improved for gay Palestinians.
How did you go about casting your protagonists? Was there any difficulty in finding people to play these characters?
Not more than any other film, I would think. Michael, the lead, is a big star in Israel, so that was easy. I think it’s fairly acceptable. We were joking because he’s in a TV show now where he plays an Orthodox Jew and so now it’s as if he’s done with his duties! There has been a recent wave of gay Israeli films, I don’t think it was a big deal.
In terms of shooting the movie, what were the major challenges or obstacles? I understand you shot in Ramallah?
We filmed the absolute minimum in Ramallah — what we couldn’t get away with shooting anywhere else. All the other locations, like the interior of the Palestinian house is actually in Jaffa, or street scenes in Jerusalem. What we couldn’t cheat on we shot with no permit using a DSLR that looks like a still camera. But other than that, it went surprisingly smoothly.
What have been the reactions you have observed? Are these reactions primarily political, or do they revolve around the same-sex issue?
Talking to audiences in different screenings, American audiences seem to be more politically aware — more politically interested, if not aware. With European audiences, it’s more like “what is the general message you want to give,” and less about the detail.
Like any filmmaker, I want to tell a good story. So my first goal is hopefully to move people. If I was able to do that, and also instigate some sort of interest about the conflict, and people go home and Google something and read more about it, then that’s amazing, but I can only hope for that.
I feel like I made a small niche film, so the fact that it played at major international film festivals like Toronto and sold to 40 countries is surprising to me. I love it, but did not expect it.
What did you think of “Blue is the Warmest Color” winning Cannes, do you think that we are seeing more films tackling gay issues coinciding with the increase in equality, with same-sex marriage being allowed in more countries?
I don’t think so. Probably one of the best gay films ever made is “Happy Together” by Wong Kar Wai. He won best director at Cannes in 1997, which is a while ago, so I am not sure if they are making more gay films.
A lot of gay bars are closing down in a lot of U.S. cities, and it has a lot to do with the fact that the younger generation doesn’t see themselves as outsiders in any way. And if you look at the market for gay films, it's diminished. So I’m not sure, it’s hard to gauge. I would like to believe it has to do with quality regardless of it being a lesbian love story.
What is your own heritage?
My dad was born in Heidelberg, Germany, but his parents came from Berlin, so we are all Berliners.
Your next film is a book adaptation set in Southern Ireland, a detective story. Could you tell us about it and why you chose that story?
I’ve been wanting to do this specific book since I read in 1997. I don’t know if it’s going to happen, but it’s moving in the right direction.