As coming out stories go, Saar Maoz’ is tough. The focus of a new documentary by filmmaking brothers Barak and Tomer Heymann, Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?, the 39-year-old former Israeli army paratrooper was forced out of the kibbutz he grew up on when the deeply religious community discovered he was gay.
His family, rather than standing up for him, viewed him as having brought great shame on them, causing a deep rift that saw Saar leave them behind and start a new life in London. Maintaining a shaky connection, when he was diagnosed as HIV-positive, it proved another stumbling block in their already strained relationship.
Saar finds solace of the kind that Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin dubs the “logical,” rather than biological, family in his membership of the London Gay Men’s Chorus, but the tug home remains strong even as he denies it to himself. His family, also conflicted, feel his absence just as keenly.
Scooping the Panorama Audience Award at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? will screen in Australia as part of the AICE Israeli Film Festival opening this week. Layered with emotional complexity ranging from hope to heartache via hearty laughter, it’s a compelling story that almost wasn’t told.
“It all started about 20 years ago when Saar was a young, handsome sexy boy in Tel Aviv and my brother was the same and they met in a gay party,” Barak reveals. “They had fun together and the morning after, when Saar put the yarmulke on his head, Tomer found it strange and surprising, because he didn’t think he would be religious.”
Sparking a friendship, Saar slowly began to reveal his complicated relationship with his extremely orthodox religious family. The filmmaker in Tomer (Mr Gaga) knew he had a great story to tell. A few years later, the first attempt, as part of a TV series exploring Tomer’s own life, ended with Saar requesting his friend delete what they had already recorded. “It’s too much for me and too much for the family,” Barak relays of Saar’s reaction.
It wasn’t until many years later when Tomer ran into Saar in London that he agreed to try again. Barak interviewed him on the phone to sound out his background. “It was funny, from the first sentence he told me, ‘I have the best family in the world,’ and I was like, ‘oh mate, this is so boring, who wants to make a film about perfect families? Who wants to watch that?’
“Then for three hours he kept on bitching about them and telling me how homophobic they are and how much he wanted to be away from them and how much they are hating that, but at the same time how much he loves and misses them. Then it started to feel really interesting.”
While at times Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? is tough viewing, it’s also laced with a dry humour shared by Saar and his family. The soaring choral scenes are magnificent and Saar’s connection with his youngest brother in Israel and a wise ex in London exceedingly sweet. As Barak jokes, the term, “emotional rollercoaster,” may be a cliché, but it’s one that fits well here.
Some of the on-screen clashes are quite confronting, particularly as the extent of the family’s ignorance on about HIV/AIDS sees his siblings questioning his loyalty to the family and demanding to know whether or not their children are safe around him. His tough guy army father, as mean as he is strangely amusing, asks if there’s a pill Saar can take to stop being gay. His mother breaks down in tears repeatedly. Saar doesn’t know if he wants to build a bridge or burn it down.
“In the beginning, every time we asked him, ‘is there a possibility that you will go back to live in Israel?’ he was like, ‘ah man, what a boring question, read my lips, it’s not going to happen.’”
While the answer to that one is best left for the film, Barak says the message is clear. “The film is not about HIV or homosexuality,” Barak says. “It’s about the need and the possibility of communicating with each other, of understanding that the only way to solve problems is by listening to the person that you have conflict with. I wish our politicians would watch this film and get the message.”
Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? screens at Cinema Nova in Melbourne and The Ritz in Sydney as part of the AICE Israeli Film Festival. Book tickets here.