Thriller brings gay romance, Mideast intrigue into focus

Filmmakers in Hollywood and abroad long have been fascinated by characters representing different races, religions, nationalities or ideologies who transgress social taboos and barriers by falling in love.

Back in the silent and barely speaking movie era of the 1920s, Jewish boys and gentile girls got together and ignored parental dismay in such love-conquers-all films as “Frisco Sally Levy,” “Abie’s Irish Rose” and, my favorite title, “Kosher Kitty Kelly” — well before such liaisons became commonplace.

It took a few more decades before Sidney Poitier could marry a WASP beauty in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

Now it’s the turn of gays, with some of the best work in the genre coming from such Israeli directors as the late Amos Guttman, Yair Hochner and Eytan Fox. The latter’s “Walk on Water,” for instance, hooks up a hard-as-nails Mossad agent, who assassinates Nazi war criminals, with the grandson of his latest target.

A new entry in the genre is “Out in the Dark,” the first feature film of Michael Mayer, a Haifa native and graduate of USC’s film school who now works and lives in Los Angeles.

Meshing a political thriller with a passionate love theme, the film centers on a little-known component of the Tel Aviv mosaic consisting of Palestinian gays who have fled their West Bank villages and towns and now live “illegally” in the permissive Israeli city.

Roy Schaefer, a handsome, well-connected Israeli lawyer, meets Nimr Mashrawi, a Palestinian psychology student, in a Tel Aviv gay nightclub, and almost instantly the two form a deep personal and sexual bond.

Nimr is in the fortunate position of carrying a permit from the Israeli authorities, which allows him to study at a Tel Aviv university and travel freely between the city and his family’s home in Ramallah.

The parents of both men, already embarrassed by their sons’ sexual orientations, are even more upset when they learn about their new love interests.

Roy brings Nimr to his parents’ home for dinner, and while the elders maintain a civil attitude, afterward the mother lets Roy know how deeply she disapproves of his relationship with a Palestinian.

Nimr’s reception in his own home is considerably worse. Nabil, his older brother, is part of a small terrorist band that executes Palestinians who “collaborate” with Israelis, and he hides a cache of weapons in his home.

Although Nimr argues that “you need more than guns to build a [Palestinian] state,” his mother tells him that he has brought shame on the family, and his brother threatens to kills him.

On the Israeli side, the film’s heavy is a state security official who tries to recruit Nimr as a spy, offering the Palestinian “a lot of freedom for a little information.” If Nimr refuses, his permit to study in Tel Aviv will be revoked.

Beset by all sides, the lovers plan an escape to a European country and the outcome of their scheme forms the tense closing segment of the film.

The actors portraying Roy and Nimr are almost as different as their screen personas. Michael Aloni, who portrays Roy, is a veteran actor and one of Israel’s most popular TV stars.

Nicholas Jacob, born in Haifa, is the son of an Arab-Israeli father and an Italian mother, and the role of Nimr is his first acting stint.

Director Mayer, 40, moved to Los Angeles after finishing his Israeli army service. He has produced the documentary “Driving Men,” but for the past 10 years has worked mainly on creating movie trailers.

He became interested in the theme of “Out in the Dark” several years ago, when a friend told him about the impromptu shelters and safe houses set up by Israeli gays —mainly in Tel Aviv but also in Jerusalem — to harbor Palestinian gays facing hostility and threats in their West Bank communities.

There are no precise figures on the number of such gay refugees, but Mayer cited a 2006 study that put the total between 300 and 350. He believes the number is about the same today.

During periods of relative calm, Israeli authorities have granted some study and work permits, but these are now harder to come by, Mayer said.

Israelis involved in setting up the shelters range across the political spectrum, and Mayer said he was careful not to focus his film on the warring ideologies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“There is a certain bond among gays, rooted in shared experiences as outsiders, that transcend ethnic and political differences,” Mayer said.

The director, who is himself gay, likens this bond to a certain camaraderie linking Jews throughout the world, regardless of different views and backgrounds.

In general, he believes, gays in the United States and other countries are more open to racial and social differences than their straight compatriots.

Mayer, together with his co-writer Yael Shafrir and co-producer Lihu Roter, raised about $400,000 to make their film, with about two-thirds coming from Israeli sources, mainly the Israel Film Fund and television Channel 10. The remainder of the money came from the United States.

The “small film,” as Mayer terms it, has done surprisingly well. It is being shown in some 45 countries, from Europe to Taiwan and Brazil, and has won awards at 20 different film festivals.

 “I’ve paid all my investors back,” Mayer said proudly, “and that rarely happens with independent films.”

Mayer, who professes to “love thrillers,” lists a murder mystery among his future projects.

“Out in the Dark” opens Sept. 27 at Laemmle’s NoHo 7 in North Hollywood.