Saar Maoz, 44, grew up on a religious kibbutz in northern Israel. Today, he lives in Tel Aviv and works for the Israel AIDS Task Force. He is the subject of Tomer and Barak Heymann's new documentary, Who's Gonna Love Me Now?, which tells the story of Maoz's attempt to reconcile with his Orthodox family after coming out as gay, and then contracting HIV. He talks about the documentary and his life.
How did you meet Tomer Heymann for the first time?
"I first met Tomer Heymann in 1995 or '94, about six months before I left to go to England. We met as young people, in a club in Tel Aviv. We had a “discussion” throughout the night, and then the next morning I got up, and I put a kippah on, and I said I'm going to visit my family in the kibbutz and things are not resolved there. That kind of put a red light in his head.”
Then what happened?
“We stayed in touch, and around 2004 I was in Israel for a visit, and during that visit I bumped into him in the street, and he said to me, 'Hey, I'm shooting this documentary about my own family and would you mind coming and answering some questions?' So I did that and during that interview I told him I was HIV+. For him that was a big deal because he said nobody ever said that to him in that way before."
Was it something that wasn't discussed very much in Israel?
"No, not at all. Up to now it's not in the news very much or there is not that many people out there talking about it. So, you know, definitely not then. The next morning I said, 'Hey, you can't put it out because I don't want my family to have to deal with that and all the publicity. I'm not ready. They're not ready. And I don't want it.' Ever since then, like every six months, I'd get a phone call from him saying, 'Are you ready to go with your story now?'”
So what changed?
"In 2011, Tomer Heymann came to England to receive a Human Rights in Cinema award for his movie Paper Dolls, and we met for coffee. Basically, he told me about his family and I told him about mine, and the Gay Men's Chorus and how amazing it was to be with so many gay men in one room and nobody killing one another [laughs]. And then he said, 'Well maybe it's time.' I said that I was ready, I'd had enough."
When you first met in the 90s, where were you at in your own life?
"I was still a soldier, I was just finishing in the army. I was in Tel Aviv for a few months and then I left to London, basically."
Why London rather than Tel Aviv?
"[Laughs] I finished the army, and in Israel it's pretty normal that after the army you go around the world or you go to the Far East, or South America. Now I didn't have any desire to go and look for myself on some mountain, but I had a couple of friends who said they were off to London for a couple of weeks before going to South America, and I said, 'Oh, London sounds like a place with a shower.' It seemed more appealing to me. So I went to London, and I got to London in the 90s, and I completely fell in love with the city, from the freedom to be out and everything that London has, the sites, and I felt very, very free in a way that I hadn't felt before."
It gave you room to breathe, given you'd come from?
"I grew up in a kibbutz. Imagine it's a small country with a fence around it. That's the physical sense. And then you have religion, so it's another kind of fence. And then you have parents, and I think everybody that age have their parents on their head. And then the army, which is a whole other fence in your life. So it was a point where I just wanted to be me. I just wanted to be free."
And you couldn't be in Israel?
“There was a lot of homophobia at that time in Israel. It was way before the gay revolution that happened in Tel Aviv. And suddenly arriving in London, living by Hampstead Heath, and having huge wide parks and places to be, nobody seemed to care."
How much were your family's views about sexuality shaped and defined by religion?
"I think it's a mixture. I think there is a big mixture between religion and also being Israeli. Or what was then Israel, which was very like men should be a certain way. We should be here to work the land and to make sure that we have a country. My dad was this big General in the army, very patriotic, and, you know, this kind of mixture between one and the other was a lot to take on. So they were influenced by all off that, I think."
Your father in the film seems to embody the patriotic values that Israel is founded on. Did his rejection of you ever cause you to question your own identity as an Israeli, or what it means to be Israeli?
"As an Israeli? I don't know. But in my High School and then teenage years, and then my 20s, I kind of did a lot of thinking about my identity. Because I think when you find you're gay, it's part of the fabric of this identity crisis. Who am I? Why am I not like everybody else? What does it mean for me? How can I design, so to speak, my own identity in a way that I am proud of myself? That I am at peace with myself? And also I think it's quite Jewish, to examine. I'm saying in a good way. It's a nice Jewish trait not to accept things just because they are. That's the kind of Judaism that's been around my home, anyway."
On the kibbutz, did the religious aspect of life ever feel constricting? I mean as you got older?
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was constrained by it from a very young age. I mean there is an age where it's all like Seder nights and candles and nice songs, and then at some point it starts to limit you. At that time it was limiting my freedom. There were things that I wanted to do. So I started to look at it a bit like that. And then, you know, this is not like a family in the city that makes its own rules and goes with the flow of what occurs in their life. This is even more constrained by community rules. In a kibbutz the basic agreement of people is that everybody is equal and everybody is doing the same, and the rules are being voted on in a democratic way. But once they're made, that is how one should act and what one should follow. So if your path is on the middle of the road, then you are fine. But if your way is on the side of the road, then you have a bumpy ride."
So how much more complicated did that make it for you when you were 14 and you realised that you were gay? Did that create a bigger internal struggle than if you weren't in such a community?
"Absolutely. I didn't say anything for many years, and I think my mum got upset with that. So, from 14 to 19, almost 20, I didn't say anything, because I didn't feel like I could. And the very thing, at the end, I was kicked out of the kibbutz on the grounds of not being religious ... To everybody I was a very friendly teenager and kind of with the group. But I spent a lot of time in my room crying, or writing, or doing things that were giving me some kind of way to express what I feel."
It is often said you were thrown out of the kibbutz because of your sexuality. It doesn't sound like that was the case.
“No, I was kicked out because I did not keep Shabbat. You are not meant to go out driving, drinking or smoking.”
Was there anybody to confide in as you were struggling with your feelings?
"Not really. Towards the end, when I got to 18-19 I told a couple of people. But no, I didn't have anybody. I didn't tell anybody, really, until I was 19. It's around that time, because I was kicked out of the kibbutz, I arrived in Tel Aviv, and I started making connections there and started talking to other people who were gay and seeing how they did it with their family, and drew inspiration from that.”
Were there any other people that you knew about who'd come out on your kibbutz before you, and you'd seen what had happened to them?
"I personally haven't. I'm absolutely certain there must be some . . . like I know one other guy that's gay, from my kibbutz. He was two years older than me and we've kind of found out about it at a later time, when we're adults. I was away, I wasn't really around, but I'm sure there are others, absolutely."
Has the situation changed in the 30 years or so since you came out?
"Things have changed for gay people in Israel. Even in kind of religious environments, I think things have changed, although I don't know if they've got to the point where Orthodox Jews are pro gay people. I think the major thing that changed in the kibbutz is that their attitude towards people that are different in general is completely changed. How I can see it is because people in the kibbutz saw the film and they've been really good and positive about it. My mum and my brother still live there, have good friends there, and nobody has ever said anything bad as a result of this film. I feel absolutely welcome on the kibbutz when I go to visit. So I think things have changed there, for the better."
The honesty and frankness of everyone in the film is bracing. Was everyone at a point where they were ready to talk?
"Yes, but it was really, really heavy at times. I think we all came to the project thinking that we are fine. And I think, for me, that's kind of the message of the story. We all have these kinds of relationships with our family where we are fine. We really are fine. We go into Christmas or Passover and we sit around the table and we don't touch the subjects that we think are going to be explosive, and we kind of muddle through this thing, or sail through this thing, and then we go home and then we deal with our lives by ourselves and that's it.
"I think what this film, and this project, for me, on a personal level shows you, is what happens when you dare to scratch the surface, and actually have the courage to say what we want to say. And have the courage to listen to what the other person has to say, because I think listening needs a lot more courage than talking. I think in many parts of the film, this is what it's about. It's about daring to talk. Daring to listen.”
It feels like part of the progress for you in the film as well is learning to love yourself, because you are very hard on yourself at times. When you talk about having contracted HIV, you talk about karma. That seems very hard.
"First of all, spot on. I'm very good at being hard on myself. That is correct and true. I'm working on it, what can I say? I think especially the last year since the film came out I have definitely learned to enjoy myself and be a bit more proud of myself. The thing with the karma thing people don't really get what I'm saying. I'm not saying I deserved what I got. I think what I'm saying is more from a spiritual point of view that, generally, if you are going to be dealing with bad people, do bad actions, and not have integrity with yourself about how you want to live your life and who you are in the world, then probably - not because you deserve it - just probably when bad things are happening, more bad things happen. I think that's how I'm saying it. I absolutely don't think that anybody who contracted HIV, in any way, [deserved it].”
You are very frank in the film about your lifestyle at the time you contracted HIV. Were you that open about it with your family?
"Yeah, most of what they saw about me in the movie, they knew before the movie. I had told them. It took me many years to tell them the story, or what happened. And you know what? It's exactly the point that I really do have a very special and unique family - I often say that they are the best family in the world - because my mum and my dad could quite easily say to me, 'You shouldn't do this' or whatever. I don't feel that, especially not since I came out with HIV, because I've never heard them say that. There's a lot of compassion there in our conversation, and a lot of space to tell the truth - now. Now that we are telling each other the truth, there is a lot of space for it."
And was that the journey of the film, it created that space?
"Absolutely. I think the journey of my contracting HIV, the journey of me being gay, and the journey of making this film, that, for me, it kind of took the last bit of, call it poison, and just made sure that it's out of the way."
Your relationship with your father seems to have been especially strained, especially after the letter he sent you on your 23rd birthday, in which he said you should come home because there was no place for you. Did you talk much after you came out?
“We always talked. Mostly it was like a 'Hi, Dad. Is Mum there? Can you pass her the phone?' kind of relationship. I don't think we had a meaningful conversation from the 90s till 2003, when I was diagnosed."
When did you tell your dad about your diagnosis?
“I told him about 4 months after [receiving it], and it made a massive difference to our relationship. I think that this was really a turning point. From there on, we started to bridge the gap of the years that were lost."
You moved back to Israel after living in the UK for 18 years. It does feel at points in the film like you torn between London and your old home.
"There is something interesting, and I have been thinking recently about immigration, and I think being an immigrant of any kind is kind of like a life sentence, because you have home, where you grew up, and then you go to another country and you try to make it your home, and the first few years it is almost impossible, it feels like an impossible task. And then 18 years later this is your home. I lived in the UK more than I lived in Israel altogether. Or now it's like half and half. So which one is home? Like I'm going to London soon and it feels like I am going to go back home. So I think I'm screwed, basically, because I'm always going to have half a heart in a place, and that's okay.
“At one point I just decided I wanted to make a big change in my life, and I wanted to be around my nephew and nieces as the grow up, and I wanted to do something that has meaning, and that's what I decided to do. At the end of the day, you have to choose."
What is your relationship with Judaism today? You're taken into a mitvah van and you put on tefillin for the first time since you were 14. How did that feel?
"First of all I live in Israel and Judaism isn't a choice. You're kind of soaked up with Judaism wherever you go. So I'm very proud of being Jewish. I'm very proud of our long-lasting and incredible traditions, and ways of thinking and our understanding of what it is to be human. I'm an atheist, and I don't believe in God or that kind of thing. But I would say, though, that in my last two or three years I was in the UK, I was welcomed by one of my best friend's family's to the West London Synagogue, a Reformed community, and I just found something really, really beautiful over there. Apart from them being really, really welcoming, I also found this kind of like stream of our faith that is accepting, preaching diversity, equality, and pride in our thoughts and human feelings, and I felt very connected to it. So I don't know what that means.”
Who's Gonna Love Me Now? opens today