When the 1970 Stonewall Riots were happening in New York City and Gay Pride was taking off in other cities globally, in Israel, the situation was very different. In a remarkable documentary currently screening at the New York Jewish Film Festival 2022, in We Were the Others, filmmaker Hadas Ayalon interviews six gay men in order to slice open the discriminatory cultural mores and attitudes in 1960s and 1970s Israel. Importantly, with her pointed interviews that delve into the souls and emotions of the men, we understand the very human experience of negative acculturation. And in understanding how these men grappled with their sexual identities and finally accepted who they are, we note incredible human emotions, with which all of us may identify.
Ayalon organizes her documentary around themes, and filters through her subjects by having them discuss how they understood what their sexual identity was at an early age. Interestingly, all admit there was no language, nor was there any frame of reference in Israel for being attracted to the same sex. Indeed, these men were born in the days of the establishment of the State of Israel. Culturally and religiously, the classical values of marriage and children were an imperative to a newly forming state, though the rest of the world was changing. Nevertheless, the religious foundation for marriage and children excluded gay men and women. Indeed, gays were “the others.” They were like alien creatures that needed to be “cured,” and “corrected,” after they were jailed.
As her subjects discuss that they grew up and realized that they were attracted to the same sex, the external culture was nightmarish; they were alone. They couldn’t dare reveal the lifestyle they wanted. One individual states that walking down the street, he always keep his eyes looking at the ground, afraid to “give himself away” if he looked up at another man and showed interest.
In each instance the subjects discuss that they were forced to go underground when they found out that there were others like them sexually. To have brief, silent encounters there were looks, signals and gestures as codes. There was a language being conveyed, but without words or speech. Most refer to a walkway along the beach in Tel Aviv that they frequented, but eventually the police patrolled, arrested and ousted the “criminals.” Then they went to a park where they were able to communicate and form a community eventually that led to organization, advocacy and freedom.
However, like in the U.S. in the 1940s-1950s, in Israel in the 1960s and 70s cultural mores insisted that homosexuals were perverted. In familial circles, gays were ridiculed and rejected. As many gays did, one subject, who was made fun of by his family for being effeminate, sought “normalcy.” He wanted desperately to be like other males, who were with women. He went to therapy, got married and had children. However, he was miserable; none of this stopped his desire for men. Eventually, he divorced and when the culture righted itself and being gay was no longer illegal or a great joke to laugh at, he enjoyed his life and was accepted by his family.
The documentarian makes it a point to include a few subjects who founded the Aquda, Israel’s pioneering LGBT organization established in 1975. Yotam Reuveni, journalist/author/poet, when confronted with his own fear and hypocrisy about gays revealing their preference for same sex relationships, discusses how he had a heart to heart with himself. Throwing caution to the winds, which seems like a nothing burger now, he came out in Yediot Ahronot. In a weekly series of articles, he described the how and why of his being gay and he advocated for human rights. Considering the taboo associated with homosexuality, it was a brave, necessary act that changed lives and allowed others to come out and not feel like they were monstrous in their clandestine sexual affairs and encounters.
In another instance of the repression involved, two of the subjects discussed how they were forced to go to another country to live without their rights being violated. One was a distinguished army officer and an aviation engineer. When it was discovered he was gay, he was summarily discharged. He emigrated to Canada. Another subject discusses his decision to leave the oppression of Israel, seeking not to live in the shadows of fear and isolation.
In order to enhance the viewers’ understanding, Ayalon uses tasteful reinactments and inter-edits archival footage from that period of time in Israel, which is superb. She also uses Amos Guttman’s gay films from the 1970s and 1980s. What is most heartbreaking is each of the men’s stories about their inner emotional sorrow and aloneness which brought some to the brink of suicide. The culture was a tormentor and after a while, living with torment daily and enduring the negation of who they were was a form of death. Thus, it was difficult to overcome the culture’s emotional brainwashing and former behaviors. Each of the men discuss how they struggled with love and intimacy after years of having to express their sexual desires in places that offered brief clandestine encounters.
It was only until 1979 when homosexual men and women formed advocacy organizations and went public, that the pressure began to be relieved. With mass demonstrations for their rights, the oppression lessened. As people identified, more joined, happy to be done with the nihilism, denial and hypocrisy of hell that the culture made them endure for so long.
Ayalon’s film is an important retrospective indicating how far we have come regarding the LGBTQ community. However, there are still nation states and even parts of the United States that are abjectly retrograde. Thus every film, every documentary, is a step in the right direction to uplift the human rights of all citizens.
We Were the Others is screening virtually. For tickets go to their website: https://virtual.filmlinc.org/tv/alone-together-followed-by-we-were-the-others/1