Defusing the Israeli–Palestinian conflict with a love that dares to cross borders, Michael Mayer’s Out In The Dark is a powerful and intensely moving tale of underground romance.
Stuck In The Middle With You by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
With its story of gay love between a Palestinian student and an Israeli lawyer, Out In The Dark is both the story of Nimr’s irreconcilable fate (rejected by both states for being alternately queer and Palestinian), and a reflection of it, caught somewhere between the queer narratives of Israeli liberation of Eytan Fox’s The Bubble and Yossi & Jagger and the traditional patriarchy of Middle Eastern queer cinema. For Nimr, as much as the heroines of Circumstance and Facing Mirrors, emigration is the only answer – family, country and all hope of a peaceful, tolerant solution abandoned in order to stay alive and be true to oneself. For Michael Mayer, LGBT rights in Israel provide a kernel of tolerance between the warring territories, with young gay Palestinians seeking help reached out by Israel. But in many ways, Out In The Dark isn’t so much a film about same-sex love as a tragedy of irreconcilable political difference.
Scrambling across the border after dark, Palestinian student Nimr (Nicholas Jacob) goes to a bar in Tel Aviv where he meets Israeli lawyer Roy (Michael Aloni). It’s love at first sight, and with a permit in his pocket to attend the University of Tel Aviv, it’s the start of a beautiful relationship. There’s an underground scene of Palestinian gays living illegally in Tel Aviv, and their fate, like Nimr’s part-time drag queen friend Mustafa, is to be eventually caught by the secret service and either turned collaborator or killed at home on suspicion of it. When Nimr’s permit is revoked, his dreams of having it all – a boyfriend and a Princeton education – are dashed. And despite Roy’s legal connections, Israel refuses to grant Nimr asylum or protection from the homophobic honour killing that awaits him on the West Bank. The net begins to tighten, and Nimr and Roy are forced to take matters into their own hands.
Opening under cover of night and out of focus, Out In The Dark emerges from the darkness like Nimr, scrabbling over walls and under razor wire, his fate escaping out of Palestinian secrecy into the light. We don’t yet know if Nimr, hooded and shifty, is a criminal or a refugee, but Michael Mayer ramps up the tension, as Nimr, fearing for his life, runs from the all-seeing police and their garrulous radios. Apart from this and another moment towards the end where a helpless Nimr at rock bottom wanders alone through Tel Aviv – desperate after a quarrel with Roy and betrayed by a devastating “I don’t even know you” – Nimr seems to have it all pretty much under control; crossing into Israel as he pleases to live out his homosexuality and returning home to his unsuspecting family. There’s little in the way of emotional hopelessness, and the closest the straight director comes to the gut-churning confusion of the Muslim closet is Nimr’s anxiety to return home by 11 o’clock before anyone suspects.
There is nevertheless a refreshing absence of camp and cliché – both Nimr and Roy champions of slender masculinity (Michael Aloni already an established sex symbol in Israel), and even a challenge to outdated stereotypes of queers as spineless victims; Nimr and Roy chasing the men who call them faggots and jokingly threatening to terrify them by shouting in Arabic. But despite scenes of homophobic torture and a modest sex sequence, Out In The Dark doesn’t quite get under the skin of its characters, the intricacies of its cross-border romance played for thrills rather than psychological depth. In its early stages the romance feels too easy, but it’s in the political midsection that Mayer’s film really finds its feet, as Roy’s first-world self-assurance and God-given expectations collide with the secretive naysaying of national interest; the best the couple can hope for is a six-month permit. And with no hope of resolving state problems – either the Israeli-Palestine conflict or Islamist homophobia – it’s the individuals who are left helpless, caught in a trap, a limbo leading nowhere but into criminality and mutual suspicion.
With such hefty topics as homophobic violence and Israeli intimidation, there’s a lot to Out In The Dark that remains in its dusky penumbra. Even personal topics such as deserting home and country, love in the shadow of terrorism or Muslim tolerance (Nimr’s sister’s in comparison to his mother’s painful but resolute rejection) remain underexplored. And it’s unfortunate that Mayer chooses to end his film so openly, with Nimr escaping on a yacht to France within spitting distance of international waters, uncertainty hanging over whether Roy will give up everything to be there to meet him. Like Iran’s queer cinematic narrative, the only option is expatriation, but like Haim Tabakman’s Eyes Wide Open there’s no closure to this escape. It’s a problem exported, brought out into the light but unresolved. With no place for them within the (straight) binary of Israeli and Palestinian cultural obedience, their world is reduced to the intimacy of a relationship. A cinematic destruction of religious and political temples, Out In The Dark is a devastating rejection of the world and its laws, and an awe-inspiring affirmation of love. No matter what kind.
Out In The Dark is released on 5th July 2013 in the UK