The love between a well-heeled gay Israeli lawyer and a struggling Palestinian student serves to examine harsh realities in both communities in Michael Mayer's textured drama.
Los Angeles-based, USC-trained Israeli director Michael Mayer makes a gripping feature debut with Out in the Dark, a troubled gay love story between a privileged Tel Aviv lawyer and a Palestinian student that is by turns tender and tense, sensual and suspenseful. In Mayer's assured hands, a drama that could easily have become schematic instead pulses with urgency, longing and raw feeling, morphing smoothly in its final third into a lean thriller.
Having already notched up sales in key European territories, the film was acquired for the U.S. on the eve of its Toronto world premiere by niche outfit Breaking Glass.
Love across political, sectarian and geographic boundaries is a minefield rife with cliché, but Mayer and co-screenwriter Yael Shafrir mostly sidestep that danger with grace and intelligence. Their film benefits from the instant chemistry between attractive lead actors Nicholas Jacob and Michael Aloni, and from the detachment with which the script considers both Palestinian fanaticism and Israeli Security Forces tactics as dueling cancers. It doesn’t pretend to dig deep into the Mideast conflict, but it does make resonant points about the tentacle-like reach of that divide, even for people determined to keep politics out of their relationships.
Shooting digitally, wherever possible with available light sources, Mayer and cinematographer Ran Aviad take their cue from the film's title. They create a gritty visual palette of dark textures and murky nighttime scenes, making extensive use of closeups to probe the characters' hidden worlds.
That approach is evident from the outset as Nimr (Jacob) scrambles over the fence into Tel Aviv from his family home in Ramallah on the West Bank, dodging patrol cars along the way. His journey is sharply modulated through sections on foot and by bus – underscored by Mark Holden and Michael Lopez's moody ambient music – before making a sudden shift into club-scene mode as he enters a gay bar. Unfolding mostly through the title credits, the opening economically conveys a sense of constricted freedoms, with much at stake.
Dreamboat Jewish lawyer Roy (Aloni) hits on Nimr at the bar, sparking an easy rapport and mutual attraction that soon leads to romance. A psychology student doing his Masters at Birzeit University, Nimr around the same time is issued a partial visa to study in Tel Aviv, which he eyes as a stepping stone to a Ph.D. at Princeton. But that dream seems more precarious when his flamboyant Arab friend Mustafa (Loai Noufi) is discovered hiding illegally and sent back to the West Bank to be brutally beaten and murdered as a suspected collaborator.
Nimr's position is complicated by the fact that his brother Nabil (Jameel Khouri) is a member of the hardline extremist group responsible for Mustafa’s death. And while scenes with his mother (Khawlah Haj) and kid sister (Maysa Daw) have a lovely naturalness and warmth, it’s clear that the secret of Nimr’s sexuality is a ticking time-bomb.
He tries to save his relationship with Roy while being pulled between his fear over the dangers to which Nabil is exposing their family, and the cold manipulations of an Israeli security chief (Alon Pudt). But Nimr's options grow steadily narrower.
Particularly through the latter developments, Mayer shows admirable restraint in his use of music, keeping it low-key and brooding to sustain tension in strictly realist terms, rather than cranking it up to artificially heighten the thriller aspect. Much of the visceral impact comes from Aviad's nervy handheld camera and Maria Gonzales' mercurial editing.
Touching poignantly on the suffering of gay Palestinians rejected by their families and community, Mayer and Shafrir build a sturdy outsider drama that benefits from the shaded juxtaposition of Nimr and Roy’s backgrounds. Having absorbed the lessons of harsh reality, Nimr remains fatalistically pragmatic, allowing himself hope only in brief interludes. The product of a cushioned upbringing in a well-connected family, Roy persists in his somewhat naïve belief that they can work things out by going through authority channels.
Both leads tackle their roles with sensitivity and conviction. But first-time screen actor Jacob is particularly affecting as a persecuted man dealing with entrapment while grasping at the emotional lifeline offered by Roy. The scenes in which Nimr is ripped apart by the dishonor he has brought upon his family even as they behave monstrously toward him show how deep these conflicts cut.
The script has an occasional tendency to map out divergent points of view a little too neatly. But Aloni is effective in depicting the festering discomfort of an idealist constantly faced with the limits in his liberal parents' understanding of him.
It's a sign of how well Out in the Dark works that we are fully invested in seeing Nimr and Roy overcome obstacles and stay together. But it's also a shrewd choice of the filmmakers that they end instead on a note of somber ambiguity.
Source: David Rooney, Toronto 2012 (hollywoodreporter.com)
Out in the Dark (2012)
Directed by Michael Mayer
Screenplay by Yael Shafrir and Michael Mayer
Produced by Michael Mayer and Lihu Roter
Nicholas Jacob..........Nimer Mashrawi
Michael Aloni..........Roy Schaffer
Jamil Khoury..........Nabil Mashrawi
Loai Nofi..........Mustafa N'amna
Khawlah Hag-Debsy..........Hiam Mashrawi
Maysa Daw..........Abir Mashrawi
Cinematography by Ran Aviad
Film Editing by Maria Gonzales
Music by Mark Holden and Michael Lopez
Art Direction by Sharon Eagle
Costume Design by Hamada Atallah
Makeup Department: Keren Assaf, Ann Hasson, Gal Michael
Countries: Israel, USA
Languages: Hebrew (modern), Arabic
Running Time: 96 minutes
Production companies: M7200 Productions, Israel Film Fund, Channel Ten
Distributed by Transfax Film Productions
Release date: 7 September 2012 (Toronto International Film Festival), 28 February 2013 (Israel)
The film has been accredited with 25 awards throughout its creation, which includes the Audience Award at the Berlin Jewish Film Festival in 2013, along with the FilmOut San Diego in 2013.
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With English, Greek, Spanish and Portugese subtitles
Love, Forbidden and Persecuted in "Out in the Dark", an Israeli-Palestinian Affair.
"I don't care about the Jews, the Palestinians, Fatah or Hamas", Nimr (Nicholas Jacob), a closeted gay Palestinian, declares to his thuggish older brother, Nabil (Jameel Khouri), in "Out in the Dark".
He'd better care, because those defiant words will come back to haunt him. A psychology student who secures a temporary academic permit enabling him to travel between Ramallah, in the West Bank, and Tel Aviv, Nimr has a bright future.
Not the least of the obstacles he faces is his homosexuality, which if discovered by his family would bring disgrace and exile. His circumstances become more perilous when he falls in love with Roy (Michael Aloni), a handsome, well-to-do Israeli lawyer he meets in a bar.
Roy works at his politically connected father's law firm. Although Roy is out to his family, their acceptance is grudging. When he brings home his Palestinian boyfriend, it is all they can do to be polite.
The movie, much of it shot in semidarkness, portrays the Middle East as a hotbed of paranoia, where everyone is looking over a shoulder, and a secret is hard to keep. Especially when cultural boundaries are breached, it is virtually impossible to separate the political from the personal.
"Out in the Dark" tries not to take sides, and the Israeli security operatives come off as unscrupulous and bullying. They are not half as scary as Nabil and his band of incipient terrorists. One of the first targets of Nabil's group is Mustafa (Loai Noufi), a Palestinian drag performer and friend of Nimr's who has been secretly living in Tel Aviv. Seized as a suspected spy, he is brutally murdered.
The weapons cache is discovered shortly after Nabil learns of Nimr's homosexuality through a photo someone has shown him. He immediately tells the rest of the family, and Nimr is thrown out of the house and told never again to show his face. He has nowhere to go but to Roy's. By then the security force knows about their relationship, and Roy's reputation is at risk of being tainted.
For all the tenderness and passion on display, the relationship of the lovers at the heart of the movie is too young to seem solid. Roy is the prettier but less likable of the two. Until he makes a sudden, unconvincing gesture of nobility, he registers as a spoiled brat who imagines that his father's connections can solve any problem.
Nimr's neglecting to tell Roy about his brother is a serious lapse of judgment by someone who should know better. Even though the plot defies credibility at several points, "Out in the Dark" is gripping, and Nimr's tearful exile from his family breaks your heart. As outside forces threaten to destroy the affair, you may think of Humphrey Bogart's famous observation in "Casablanca" that "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world". Nimr and Roy are two little people playing with matches in a tinderbox.
Source: Stephen Holden (The New York Times, September 2013)
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