“If I’m successful in raising people’s awareness even a notch, I think that’s more than I could ask for.”
Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, director Michael Mayer smiles with pride as he tells me about his debut film, Out In The Dark, which is now showing in UK cinemas, writes Francine Wolfisz.
Receiving critical acclaim following its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Out In The Dark has been making waves for its controversial storyline, which follows the gay romance between a Palestinian and an Israeli.
The plot, which Mayer co-wrote with Yael Shafrir, revolves around Nimr (played by newcomer Nicholas Jacob), an ambitious Palestinian student who dreams of a better life abroad. One night, while socialising at an underground club, he meets Israeli lawyer Roy (Micahel Aloni) and they fall for one another.
But as their relationship deepens, the pair realise they must face some harsh realities. While his sexual identity eventually forces Nimr to leave his family and home behind, his Palestinian identity means moving to Israel and living with Roy is not a long-term option.
When Nimr’s friend Mustafa (Loai Noufi) is caught hiding illegally in Tel Aviv and sent back to the West Bank, where he is brutally murdered, they both become caught up in a situation that not only threatens their relationship, but also their lives.
Mayer, who moved from his native Haifa to study film at the University of Southern California, tells me he was inspired to make Out In The Dark after a friend told him about a centre in Tel Aviv which offered support to gay Palestinians.
“I was immediately intrigued,” he tells me. “The idea of women and men from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict collaborating and helping each other, not out of a specific political agenda, but rather an experience of being outsiders in their own communities, really moved me.”
While keen to stress Out In The Dark was not intended to be a political film, Mayer agrees that in some respects that was an inevitable outcome.
“I would be a fool to believe I could make a film about that specific part of the world and not have it be political, and in some ways controversial.
“That being said, it was important for me not to make an “issue-film”, but rather a human drama about love, family and loyalty that is set within a charged reality.”
Despite these good intentions, Mayer reveals that even at the scripting stage he was aware his story could divide opinion.
He explains: “We tried to present a balanced view and in fact we didn’t paint anybody in too favourable a light. But even when we were casting, one Israeli actor who auditioned came in, threw the script down on the table and pointed at me before shouting, “You’re an Israeli?!”
“There was also an actress who we really wanted, but she felt the film portrayed Palestinians in a negative light so she didn’t want to do it. We began to realise that people are going to read different politics into this.”
He adds with a smile: “Some people are saying its anti-Israel, some are saying its anti-Palestinian, but someone once told me you know you’ve done a good job when you’ve managed to upset both sides – I guess we have!”
For as much as Out In The Dark was accused of causing division, Mayer tells me that the production of the film in fact brought Palestinians and Israelis together.
“It was important to my producer, Lihu Roter and me that not only the cast, but also the crew be made up of both Israelis and Palestinians,” he reveals. “Our first assistant director, script supervisor, costume designer, wardrobe team, location scouts and others were Palestinians, which is not very common in Israeli productions.
“We felt it was not only important because of the film’s subject matter, but also for our own experience as people of the region.”
The two lead roles are also played by actors with very different backgrounds.
Michael Aloni, who plays Jewish lawyer Roy Schaffer, was born and raised in Tel Aviv and is well-known to Israeli audiences. He was nominated for an Israeli Academy Award for portraying a platoon commander in Infiltration (2010) and is the host of the Israeli version of The Voice.
By contrast his co-star Nicholas Jacob, who plays Nimr, grew up in an Arab-Italian family and had been the only Arab student in all-Jewish school.
“He grew up straddling multiple national identities and was no stranger to being an outside in both the Arab and Jewish communities,” explains Mayer.
But more interesting is the fact that Jacob had no acting experience before landing the role. He only auditioned after his girlfriend, who was also trying out for a part, asked Mayer if they would see him.
“It was a gamble,” says Mayer, “but from the first time we saw Nicholas and Michael in the room together, the chemistry was there. From a director’s point of view that was a great gift.”
Following the film’s opening in the UK, Out In The Dark will also be released in Germany, France, Taiwan, the United States, Brazil and Spain – and Mayer has high hopes that audiences will be “moved” by his work.
“I hope that we are able to tell a touching story. It’s one of those situations where everyone will have an opinion, but if it inspires people to view this conflict in a slightly different light, or to find out more about groups that are active on gay rights, then I will be very happy.”
Out In The Dark (15) is in cinemas now.