The pinkwashing of ‘Out in the Dark’

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Almost every year on college campuses it happens, the queer jewish student group or the pro-Israel student group hosts a showing of an Israeli movie featuring two gay men, one Palestinian and one Israeli.  The movie isn’t political, it’s about love triumphing over all.  The most recent of these movie is Out in the Dark, directed by Michael Mayer, an Israeli based out of Los Angeles who also co-wrote the script with Yael Shafrir.  The movie follows a gay Palestinian from the West Bank as he meets and falls in love with a well off Israeli lawyer.  And this all sounds wonderful until I remember the poem “We Teach Life, Sir” by Palestinian activist and poet Rafeef Ziadah where she describes how she is told by journalists:  “Just give a story, a human story you see this isn’t political we just want to tell people about you and your people don’t mention that word apartheid and occupation this not political…this is not a political story.”  Ziadah’s words compel us to remember that the personal is political, as long as Palestine is under Israeli occupation there is no apolitical story, Palestinian existence is resistance and resistance is political.

In the case of Out in the Dark we are told by Michael Mayer that the film is about personal stories and not intended to be primarily a political story and it is my intention to explore how that cannot be the case because all stories are rooted in the politics and history, in this case the politics and history of Israeli violence and occupation.  Specifically Out in the Dark engages in the politics of pink washing Israel under the guise of telling a simple love story, we must challenge ourselves to push beyond the simple love story and see how it overtly and covertly perpetuates racism, apartheid, and the excusing of the Israeli occupation.  This piece will focus on two portions of the film, the opening scenes where we first encounter Nimr and see him meet Roy as well as the interactions between Nimr and his brother.

Before we begin engaging with the film we must understand how the film came to be, specifically who made it and funded it.  For those unfamiliar with the film here is a summary of it from the website for the movie:

“Nimer, an ambitious Palestinian student in the West Bank, dreams of a better life abroad. One fateful night in Tel Aviv, he meets Roy, an Israeli lawyer, and the two fall in love. As their relationship deepens, they are both confronted with the harsh realities of a Palestinian society that refuses to accept Nimer for his sexual identity, and an Israeli society that rejects him for his nationality. When Nimerʼs close friend is caught hiding illegally in Tel Aviv and sent back to the West Bank, where he is brutally murdered, Nimer is forced to choose between the life he thought he wanted and his love for Roy.”

Needless to say that the summary is incredibly loaded with racialized homophobia in its claims that Palestinians society does not accept people because of their identity and lacks the context of why his close friend is murdered or what causes the woes of life in the West Bank, but more on that later.  Looking at Mayer’s comments about LGBTQ Palestinians, such as “the fact of the matter is most of these guys are rejected by their families and by their communities because of their sexual orientation”, and it becomes clear he is basing his information on a preconceived notion and his biased and uninformed point of view is reflected within the film.  Beyond the director we need to note that the film was funded in part by the Israeli government, which recently engaged in a brutal attack on all Palestinians in Gaza, LGBTQ Palestinians included.  When we attempt to analyze this film we must evoke Toni Morrison’s groundbreaking idea that “the subject of the dream is the dreamer”.  This means that when we look at the Palestinians and Israelis in the film we do so through a zionist Israeli gaze.  When we are given a Palestinian man being portrayed as a terrorist who murders his own people we must understand that this is not reality but rather a story being told by an Israeli man who is receiving support from the state of Israel, a state that systematically violates human rights, international law, and kills Palestinians to further the zionist settler colonialist project that is Israel.

The movie starts with Nimr, a Palestinian student, entering Israel by slipping through a fence and then heading to a gay bar where he quickly meets Roy, and Israeli lawyer.  The movie progresses like any love story, they chat, Roy buys him a drink, Roy meets Nimr’s friends who quickly approve of him, and then they are leaving the bar walking the street together.  Once on the street they are called a homophobic slur and begin to chase away the men who said the slur.  Right off the bat we must ask why did Nimr have to slip through a fence to get into Israel and the answer is that Israel has been building an apartheid wall that goes through Palestinian land in the west bank, sometimes separating villages, all of which is against international law.  Within the first moments of the field we have the wall reduced to a pesky little fence that is easy to get around, before someone has even spoken in the movie we have the apartheid wall being normalized and brushed aside.  When we look at Nimr and Roy the movie tells us not simply that there are two men quickly liking each other and wanting to see more of each other but that this can only happen in Israel.  We are being sold the idea that in Israel two gay men feel so safe and accepted that they can chase down a group of men who say homophobic slurs, this is of course untrue.  We have Israel and an Israeli writer and director portraying Israel as this haven for LGBTQ people and showing that Nimr feels more at home there than in his real home in the West Bank.  Haneen Maikey of Al Qaws and Professor Saadia Toor have described this as two different types of pinkwashing, positive and negative.  Positive pinkwashing aims to prop up Israel as a haven for LGBTQ people while the negative makes Palestine and Palestinians out to be homophobic.  In the movie we see positive pinkwashing when Roy and Nimr chase the men who said homophobic slurs and negative pinkwashing in the way the LGBTQ Palestinians potentially risk their lives and freedom to travel into Israel just to go to a gay club for a night because the movie portrays the West Bank as homophobic or not accepting.   Maikey notes that this negative pinkwashing is rooted in racism and Islamophobia, and the reason it is believable is because of existing racism and Islamophobia.  When people watch the movie they might not question that Palestinians are presented as inherently homophobic because they already have a preconceived notion of Arabs, and by extension Palestinians, and Muslims as homophobic because that is what mainstream media and culture has told them.

When we move on and look at the interactions between Nimr and his brother, Nabil, it becomes clear that this instance only compounds the idea of the “dreamer” with negative pinkwashing.  Nabil is portrayed as angry, militant, and homophobic, the opposite of Nimr.  When we learn that Nimr wants to go to school in Tel Aviv, Nabil is unsupportive and angrily notes the call for academic boycotts.  Nabil then says that Nimr will get into a good university because “Allah put a good head on his shoulders” and “not because of any favors from the Jews”.  Again this is not reality but a story being told by an Israeli, Nabil’s evocation of “the Jews” giving out favors is intentional and perpetuates the idea that what is occurring in Palestine is due to an ancient religious conflict rather than one of modern colonialism.  The audience is being given the impression that those resisting Israel’s occupation and it’s policies are anti-Semitic and homophobic.  In giving the audience only two options of Palestinian men, Nimr engaging with respectability politics and believing that good behavior will lead to a better life away from the West Bank and Nabil who believes in resisting occupation and colonialism (though little of that context is given in the movie), the movie makes Nimr out to the the hero, the one you are supposed to root for.  This reduces Palestinian men to two stereotypes, the violent militant homophobic terrorist who hates Israel and the passive gay man who loves Israel and needs its protection from his own people.  These stereotypes, like all stereotypes, are misrepresentations of a people created and used by those in power to continue tot excuse oppression.  The movie constantly centers Nimr as the protagonist to rally behind whether it be in his love for Roy or his efforts to be seen as “reasonable” and respectable.  In doing this the movie normalizes Israel’s occupation and dictates the proper ways Palestinians should conduct themselves in their interaction and beliefs surrounding Israel.  When we apply these ideas further along in the film when Nabil and his small resistance group come across Mustafa after Mustafa is dropped off in the West Bank by Israeli forces it becomes clear that the movie is merely perpetuating existing stereotypes of the homophobic Palestinian Muslim who kill LGBTQ people because they are collaborators.  This becomes especially clear when Nimr is instantly labeled a collaborator because of his relationship with Roy.  His family, particularly Nabil, don’t just question Nimr’s loyalty and actions but instantly assume he is a collaborator and subsequently told to get out.   In discussing the intersection of LGBTQ and collaborator it is important to understand the historical context, which the movie leaves out entirely because context would wake us from the “dream” we are being immersed in.  In multiple talks Haneen Maikey explains the ways Israel has a long history of targeting LGBTQ Palestinians in an attempt to divide them from the rest of Palestinian society.  Israel’s tactics of blackmailing and threatening LGBTQ Palestinians can be seen in the movie but we must also contextualize why these threats of being outed are effective.

We must first remember that Palestinians and Muslims are not inherently homophobic and if there is homophobia present it is no small part due to the long history of the conflation of collaborator and LGBTQ as a result of Israeli targeting and tactics.  The homophobia that exists in Palestine is in large part due to outside influences from the West, of which Israel must be included.  If we take all of this into account it becomes incredibly clear that when Nabil kills Mustafa and is supposed to kill his own brother Nimr, instead exiling him and then telling everyone he is dead, we are being given Israeli propaganda and negative pink washing meant to make the audience believe that LGBTQ people are not safe in Palestine and that Palestinians kill and exile LGBTQ people.  The audience is being implicitly told that Palestinians make the correlation between LGBTQ people and collaborators when in fact Israel is the root cause of that correlation and Palestinians only make that connections in response to Israeli divide and conquer tactics (for more see alQaws Statement re: media response to Israel’s blackmailing of gay Palestinians).

Is Out in the Dark a love story, of course we have two men falling in love.  Is Out in the Dark a political story, without question.  Any story including LGBTQ people is inherently political because it is offering a representation of LGBTQ people, often played by straight people.  When we then take such a political story and entrench it within the context of the Israeli occupation it becomes not only more political, due to added layers of oppression and privilege, but also more complicated.  In the case with Out in the Dark we see don’t see that complicated political story entrenched in struggle but rather we are being given a love story that covertly perpetuates and normalizes systemic oppression.  We as an audience are being told to look at the surface, look at the love that these two men share and how they fight for that love, because when we dig deeper, when we pull back the zionist curtain, we see this movie for what it is, pinkwasing propaganda aimed to defame the Palestinian people and misinform the audience.

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In tepid defense of the film makers the idea of presenting the Palestinian befriended by the kind Jew is a staple of many Israeli movies. This makes them more palatable to the public there which like to see itself as bringing “civilizing” influences to the natives. How many films here, set in the Civil Rights era, featured white characters helping the downtrodden black masses. For anyone interested “Jihad for Love” is a good documentary on… Read more »

thanks for the excellent article brady. especially relevant now after the recent exposure from snowden re blackmailing gay palestinians

. so is the movie worth a view does the love story hold it together or is it total rubbish i won’t pay to watch it anyway since it’s funded by Israel at least not until Israel starts treating every & all as ‘they’ would hope to be treated by others most movies/stories reflect one point of view and by that measure are bias some try to brainwash and are blatant while others are better… Read more »

An excellent article, exposé and critique.

Thanks Brady!

RE: “Almost every year on college campuses it happens, the queer Jewish student group or the pro-Israel student group hosts a showing of an Israeli movie featuring two gay men, one Palestinian and one Israeli. . . The movie starts with Nimr, a Palestinian student, entering Israel by slipping through a fence and then heading to a gay bar where he quickly meets Roy, an Israeli lawyer.” ~ Brady Forrest SEE: “Israel’s Treatment of Gay… Read more »