The Invisible Men, an Israeli film by director Yariv Mozer, was one of the documentaries that screened at this year’s One World Human Rights Film Festival in Prague, Czech Republic. The film portrays the stories of three gay Palestinians and their struggle to create a tolerable life for themselves, free from persecution. Although their individual stories are different, the common denominator is that their sexual orientation has forced them all to leave their homes and families. Louie, 32, has been living illegally in Tel Aviv for eight years. He lives in constant fear of being discovered by the Israeli police and expelled. His everyday life is further constrained by the fact that he also has to be careful not to associate with Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, who might know his family and inform them about his whereabouts. Abdu, 24, escaped from Ramallah after his sexual orientation was discovered and he was detained, tortured and accused of being an Israeli collaborator. He is also living in Tel Aviv but has now been granted asylum by an undisclosed European country, and is about to leave. The third participant in the film is a 23-year-old man by the name of Faris, who is desperately trying to escape his family in the West Bank.
The state of Israel does not grant asylum to gay Palestinians, so individuals who find themselves in Louie’s situation require asylum from a third country. Israel did sign the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, and as such has some legal obligation to protect gay Palestinians within its borders (if these individuals can prove that they are being persecuted for belonging to a specific social group). However, the reality of the matter is far more complex and Israel does not grant asylum to gay Palestinians, on the grounds that it may jeopardize national security.
Louie knows that resettlement in another country is his only option at this point and although the application process is long and uncertain, he is tired of living in hiding and decides to take a chance and apply. Whilst waiting for an answer, he befriends Abdu and through him he becomes acquainted with Faris. Louie, who is quiet and pensive, is different from Abdu who is outgoing and social. Yet the men form a warm friendship which seems to spring from their common struggle and search for acceptance and freedom somewhere in the world. Eventually, Louie gets a positive answer to his asylum application and yet he finds the prospect of leaving Israel daunting. He expresses his sadness plainly: “I want to breathe my culture, my land.”
The documentary is an interesting examination of how the concept of identity can be challenged to the extreme. The men have, in many ways, lost their families, communities and sense of belonging and yet they find solace in each other’s company and do the best they can to help each other, united in the fact that they are Palestinians and gay. Mozer does in no way show the men questioning their past life choices or sexual orientation; instead he focuses on their every day struggle in an environment that ultimately deems their presence in Israel as unwanted.
The film has at times been criticized and perceived as controversial. In an interview with an Israeli newspaper, Mozer was asked a question, relating to why he made the film, to which he replied: “My intention is not to stir controversy for no reason. I wanted to make people aware of a political phenomenon.” However, it may be challenging, for a viewer who is unfamiliar with the political situation of gay Palestinians in Israel, to follow the stories on a deeper level, as the filmmaker never really provides the audience with explanations or any background information.
Tel Aviv has been voted as being the most gay-friendly city in the world and yet some critics say that this glossy image of being a gay-friendly and progressive haven is just a way for Israel to conceal the state’s treatment of Palestinians. The term critics often use to describe this phenomenon is “pinkwashing” and yet Mozer does not clearly focus on the irony which exists in the image that Israel is promoting internationally versus its treatment of gay Palestinians. Nevertheless it can be argued that the choice of subject matter does in itself challenge the idea of Israel being exceptionally gay-friendly and welcoming to all. In an interview published last year, the director was noted as saying: “My purpose was not to show how horrible the Palestinians are toward their people, but rather to show Israel what its responsibility is toward them.”
In the beginning of the documentary, Mozer states that he always wondered what it was like to be gay on the other side of the fence in the occupied territories. By focusing on a marginalized group which often remains in the shadows of society, he does manage to shed some light on the issue. The Invisible Men is personal, even intimate at times, yet it does not at any point seem obtrusive. This is a highly character-driven film which allows the audience to become acquainted with Louie, Abdu and Faris primarily as individuals caught in sociopolitical circumstances beyond their control. As a consequence of this directorial choice, the men are seen as real people, as opposed to being representatives or symbols of the Israel-Palestine conflict. This is one of the main strengths of the documentary.
Morvary Samaré is an Iranian born Swedish filmmaker/writer based in Prague.