A trio of Israeli films focused on different aspects of gay life in the country aim to change perceptions at Philly's LGBT-themed film festival.
The QFest, Philadelphia’s festival of LGBT-themed films, has always had a strong international component to it. This year, though, the event will have a distinctly Israeli flavor. The 10-day festival, which celebrates its 19th year of showing the best in LGBT-themed cinema, will feature three films from Israel. Out in the Dark, which was first shown in Philadelphia during this year’s Israeli Film Festival, is a drama about a Palestinian graduate student and an Israeli lawyer who fall in love and then have to deal with the fallout from their families; The Invisible Men, a documentary by Yariv Mozer that tells the story of gay Palestinian men who run away from their families to hide in Tel Aviv while they seek asylum in foreign countries; and Undressing Israel: Gay Men in the Promised Land, the first mainstream film by one of the biggest names in gay porn, the Russian Jew turned Israeli citizen Michael Lucas.
For the outspoken Lucas, who has made as much a name for himself writing columns on topics like supporting Israel and advocating against unprotected sex for publications like Huffington Post, The Advocate and Pink News, the country’s strong representation at QFest is no surprise. He says that people outside of Israel have little to no idea of how gay-friendly and progressive the atmosphere is there. “The only information people get about Israel is in papers like The New York Times, about the conflict between Israel and its neighbors.”
Lucas says that ever since becoming an Israeli citizen in 2004, he knew that he wanted to show a different side of Israeli life than the rest of the world was used to seeing. “The majority of movies that get placed in festivals are about this problematic side of Israel, the occupation. If you are showing the good side of Israel, that it is a good place to go, then this movie is practically impossible to get into film festivals.”
Lucas' observation is shared by Thom Cardwell, the development director of QFest. As one of the founding volunteer members of the Philadelphia International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival (Cardwell says that the name was shortened to QFest in 2010, partly to make it more media-friendly), he has decades of perspective on gay cinema from around the world. He says that in his experience, "the Israeli filmmakers are less intimidated than queer filmmakers in America. They're not afraid to take on controversial issues and present other sides of life in Israel to their audiences. They always want to present the human side as well."
To avoid the frustrating slog of trying to secure funding for such a difficult subject, Lucas himself paid for the making of the film, which explores everything from Tel Aviv nightlife to openly gay members of the Israel Defense Forces to same-sex weddings. When asked why Israel has become one of the standard-bearing nations for equality, Lucas doesn’t hesitate to answer. “When it comes to Israeli society, I think that because the Jews were persecuted for so many years, it resonates. It is easy to explain there that discrimination is discrimination, whether it’s by ethnic backgrounds or sexual orientation.”
Elad Strohmeyer has a very similar take on the issue. Strohmeyer, the deputy consul general to the Consulate General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region, which is sponsoring the Israeli films' showings, believes that the country’s polyglot population has made its society an accepting one by necessity. “I think that the fact that Israel is friendly for the gay community is because we are a country of many different groups,” he says. “We understand that there are different cultures and we need to coexist with them. We need to live and let live.”
Strohmeyer, who is openly gay, is quick to add that things are not perfect in Israel, which is why the country’s LGBT Task Force is working so hard to improve the rights of the LGBT community there.
Still, he says, the very fact that Israel is so much further along on equality issues than the United States (“In Israel, you can see many mainstream films made dealing with LGBT issues even eight to 10 years ago”) is a major factor in the number of Israeli films at the festival. While admitting that he has only seen Out in the Dark so far, he emphasizes that the increase in representation at QFest — in addition to the three feature films, there will be five shorts shown as well — means that “first and foremost, they are good movies.” He says that this should come as no surprise. “Israel is an open society, a democracy where people are free to express their voices. What better way to do that than in artistic media?”
The Invisible Men, July 16 at 9:15 p.m. at Ritz at the Bourse
Undressing Israel: Gay Men in the Promised Land, July 14 at 2:15 p.m. at Ritz at the Bourse (Michael Lucas will participate in a Q&A after the showing)
Out in the Dark, July 14 at 7:15 at Ritz East 2; July 16 at 5:15 p.m. at Ritz at the Bourse
www.qfest.com; 267-765-9800, ext. 4