Beyond bonding

Nitzan Gilady’s new documentary offers viewers a glimpse of his struggle for acceptance as a gay man in a Yemenite family.

Nitzan Gilady (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nitzan Gilady
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘It's the Yemenite genes,” Nitzan Gilady says sheepishly when quizzed about his youthful appearance.
Trim and fit in a black tank top and sweat pants, the 42-year old filmmaker is a busy man these days. Having just debuted his latest documentary, Family Time, he has been hard at work promoting the film, which is sure to have a major impact on the public perception of homosexuality and its place in society.
“Knock on wood, it’s a good problem to have,” he says while sipping on a beverage at a Tel Aviv café.
Raw, honest and unvarnished, Family Time is his first-person video account of a family vacation that veers into an odyssey of self-discovery and acceptance. The Gilady family – second-generation Yemenite immigrants in Israel – spends a Passover holiday in a motor home bound for the Grand Canyon, a bonding experience in which three brothers and two parents bear their emotional scars and psychological wounds from turbulent years spent in search of their identity.
“At first, I was petrified [about people’s reaction], because this is a very personal film about my family,” Gilady says. “It premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival, where friends and family got a first glimpse. But I was wondering what would happen when regular audiences would view the film.”
As it turns out, he needn’t have worried.
“The responses have been unbelievable,” he says. “The formula works for everyone. Everyone finds themselves within their own family unit regardless of the issue that is the main bone of contention. That’s what makes watching the film a very potent experience.”
The film focuses on the volatile relationship between Gilady’s old school, battle-scarred father Shmuel – the son of a Yemenite mother who died on their journey to Israel when he was three years old and a father who was determined to set his son on a path away from the crime and drugs that seemed to engulf many Yemenite youths in Israel – and his three sons, each with his own set of baggage.
Nitzan, 42, is a filmmaker who yearns to gain his loving family’s approval of his homosexual lifestyle, though he finds this task difficult in the face of their prejudicial beliefs about samesex relationships. His younger brother, Yizhar, 39, is the ironwilled, mischievous one who defies his father’s traditionalist norms and has admittedly relocated to California so as “not to live my parents’ life.” The youngest brother is Yariv, a 37- year-old former combat medic who is unable to shake off the effects of battle trauma he incurred during his military service in Lebanon.
Gilady’s mother dons the role of a passive spectator who can only stand on the side and watch as her husband and children negotiate the tricky minefield of ego-driven stubbornness and an unconditional love that allows for an open airing of views, even if they often lead to argument and tension.
“There were many difficult moments [between me and my parents] until they slowly came to understand who I was,” the filmmaker says. “But they love us so much that it doesn’t matter [if I’m gay or not], and they would do anything for us. They will say what’s on their mind.
My father is very stubborn, and he will not relinquish his opinion in his way, but he would do anything for us.”
GILADY IS not shy about taking on taboo topics in his films. He is best known for his groundbreaking work Jerusalem Is Proud to Present, an award-winning documentary that gave audiences an intimate, behindthe- scenes look at the tense political and cultural battle between the city’s gay community and the religious establishment that has fought to marginalize it.
Family Time, though, was a much more personal endeavor for him. At first, he was reluctant to make a documentary out of the footage he had accumulated in the motor home, since he still had trouble reconciling the issue of his gay identity.
“I had to go through a process of introspection,” he says. “For many years, my father’s voice would always echo in my head. I would constantly hear, ‘This is not okay, this is not okay, this is not okay.’ Unfortunately society doesn’t really offer much in the way of support. When you live in the Tel Aviv bubble, things look really good. But you don’t have to go far outside of Tel Aviv – you could even see this in the periphery of Tel Aviv – and you will see that we still have a long way to go.”
His trepidation was compounded by his parents’ views on his homosexual lifestyle, which are made so agonizingly clear in the film. Still, he is quick to point out that their willingness to allow their intimate family discussions to be put on film is a sign that they have come a long way toward seeking to understand their son’s life choices.
“If you had asked me a few years ago if they would ever agree to be in a film like this, I would’ve told you there was no chance,” he says.
“Conversely, if you had asked me a few years ago if I would ever agree to have this film made and released, I would’ve said no chance.”
It was one year after the trip that Gilady, with funding and support from the Makor Foundation for Israel Films, the Yona Foundation, Noga Communications and Channel 8, began to work on the project, which he introduced at the Jerusalem Film Festival this summer. The movie is now poised to become a word-ofmouth phenomenon.
“People have told me how at Rosh Hashana dinner with their families, they couldn’t stop talking about the movie, and you also see how it works,” he says. “We don’t have a lot of PR behind us. It’s a documentary film, and we don’t have much in the way of budget to promote the film.
But you see how people are responding and buying tickets and talking about it. It’s really moving to see that it is having an impact on people.”
The wrenching family dynamic is just part and parcel of the Giladys’ upbringing, which they experienced against the backdrop of a society that pigeonholed Yemenite immigrants as uneducated kushim (a derogatory term for black people) destined for a life of crime and poverty. The double burden of growing up an immigrant of Mizrahi origin and leading a homosexual lifestyle within a Yemenite society unaccustomed to dealing with these trends eventually led the filmmaker to flee Israel and temporarily move to New York, where his sexual identity came into clearer focus.
“It would be stereotypical to say that [acceptance of homosexuals] is a hard thing for the Yemenite community,” he says. “For the religious, regardless of which community it is, it’s a hard thing to accept. But to say that there is wholesale rejection [of gays is wrong]. There are amazing stories of acceptance that are 1,000 times more moving and potent, not just in the Yemenite community, but in others that are also religious. It’s because of the traditionalist nature of these societies that it takes longer.”
He says the film is a cautionary tale against the unquestioning acceptance of stereotypical views of Yemenites as irredeemable homophobes who are incapable of challenging long-held perceptions, as his parents did.
“I fell into the trap of the stereotype,” he admits. “People have always repeated ad nauseam about what the Yemenites are like. It’s as if society has brainwashed me and had me believing in those stereotypes. At the end of the day, my parents are the ones who came out of the closet in the most public way imaginable.”
Family Time is playing at the Haifa Cinematheque on October 19 and at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque every Monday and Saturday.