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'Out in the Dark': The Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name Dares to Challenge Borders

Photo of Jacob Combs By Jacob Combs | Thompson on Hollywood September 24, 2013 at 3:17PM

Michael Mayer came to the topic of "Out in the Dark," his debut feature which had its world premiere earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival, through a combination of chance and unexpected passion. The Israeli-born filmmaker was eating dinner in Los Angeles with a friend from Tel Aviv who mentioned his work with gay Palestinians living in Israel and told Mayer about their legal, political and emotional uncertainties. "It kind of blew me away," he told me in a phone interview last week. "It was the first time since film school when I was like, 'oh shit, I want to tell that story.'"
'Out in the Dark'
'Out in the Dark'

That's not surprising coming from a man who states without prompting that he doesn't want to go into his own personal political views. But it's also testament to the film's capable and compassionate screenplay, co-written by Mayer and Yael Shafrir, a writer friend Mayer knew from high school in Israel.  And though Mayer and Shafrir fall on opposite ends of the political spectrum, Mayer says--"She's very much to the right; I'm very much to the left"--they agreed together to focus foremost on the romance and to write the politics from their two divergent viewpoints, with the aim of creating a sense of balance.

This isn't a film that sets out to 'tell both sides of the story,' per se--after all, how would it ever truly be possible to do so?--but rather incorporates the stories of those on both sides without editorializing.  For example, Mayer met the film's costume designer, Hamada Atallah, a member of the gay Palestinian community in Tel Aviv who has organized the kinds of parties like the one where Nimr and Roy first meet, before Mayer even had a script.

Mayer doesn't speak Arabic--although it is similar to his native Hebrew--so he relied on the many Arabic-speakers in his mixed Israeli/Palestinian crew as he directed what is essentially a bilingual film.  Astonishingly, the film's editor, Maria Gonzales, an American, cut "Out in the Dark" without a knowledge of either Hebrew or Arabic and with the help of a translator for only a few of the film's pivotal scenes.  Working outside of one's linguistic comfort zone, Mayer told me, "really makes you concentrate on performances."

"Out in the Dark" won Best Picture at the Haifa International Film Festival last year, opened on 18 screens in Israel and played for 10 weeks in Tel Aviv.  The reaction in Israel was mostly positive, Mayer says, with one repeated criticism: it should have made more of a political statement.  Some Palestinian audiences have seen the film in Haifa and Jerusalem, although Mayer's been told there's no operating theater in Ramallah.

The film opened to strong notices in Toronto, sold over 45 countries and nabbed a North American distributor, Breaking Glass Pictures. In Canada and the U.S., to Mayer's surprise, audiences were much more interested in the politics presented by the film than in Europe.

In between promoting his current film, Mayer's at work on his next one: a murder mystery adapted from a novel.  He's been taking a break from his previous bread-winning work in trailers--"right now," he tells me honestly, "I'm doing nothing"--and he hopes to make that a permanent sabbatical.  "Hopefully I'll just move on to the next feature and I won't dabble again in trailers.  But we'll see."

This article is related to: Out in the Dark, Gay cinema, Politics, Toronto International Film Festival, LGBT, Independents

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.