Saar Maoz sounds like a man who’s had a weight lifted from his shoulders. The subject of Tomer and Barak Heymann’s documentary, Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?, Maoz lives with HIV, but no longer worries about what his family and the Orthodox community he grew up in think about his sexuality and condition.
It was different when Maoz, 44, was 14, and realised he wasn’t attracted to girls. The eldest of seven siblings living on a religious kibbutz, Sde Eliyahu, in northern Israel, he was terrified of coming out.
“My big fear was my family would kick me out, or the kibbutz would kick me out, and I wouldn’t be able to stay around my friends, my family. It was a very scary thought. So how I dealt with it was to hide it.” He kept his secret for five years, “and gradually got more depressed. To everybody I was a very friendly teenager. But I spent a lot of time in my room, crying.”
Religion offered no comfort. “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. That’s how I experienced it.” The kibbutz (“Imagine a small country with a fence around it”) demanded conformity.
Maoz was eventually expelled, although not because of his sexuality — “I was kicked out because I did not keep Shabbat.”
While he was still at the kibbutz, his mother discovered he was gay. In the film, she describes it as “a crisis… There were elements of grief, one of which was anger. . . In a religious society it’s totally unacceptable.”
She was “disgusted by the thought of what two men do together”, and saddened by the idea that her son wouldn’t have children. “Part of the big argument,” Maoz tells me, “[also] was that I kept it from her for five years.” His father, an army officer, laughed and told him: “Take two pills and it will pass.” At the time, an ideal Israeli man would “work the land and to make sure we had a country”, says Maoz. “There was a lot of homophobia.”
He asked himself many questions. “Who am I? Why am I not like everybody else? How can I design my own identity in a way that I am proud of myself?”
He visited London after army service as a paratrooper, and was “charmed” by what he found. “I just wanted to be free.”
He found love with a man, which he thought would last forever. But when the relationship ended after three years, Maoz spiralled into a reckless life of unsafe sex and drugs, that ended with his contracting HIV, making his relationship with his family even more difficult.
For years, Tomer Heymann had wanted to make a film about Maoz, but he’d always refused. By 2011, though, Maoz had built a secure network of friends in London, acquired an alternative family as a member of the London Gay Men’s Chorus, and finally felt the time was right. The result is a compassionate study of a family striving to overcome their prejudice and pain, in encounters that are raw and painfully honest, but always underscored by love.
“I think we were all at the point where we were ready to say the things that there was to say,” Maoz suggests. “But I also think if we’d had any idea what it’d bring out, then maybe we wouldn’t have done it.”
To the film-makers’ surprise, Maoz decided to move back to Israel, giving them an unexpected ending. He wanted to be close to his nephew and nieces (his hope for kids of his own was thwarted when he contracted HIV), he says, and to do something meaningful with his life.
Joining the Israel AIDS Task Force allowed him to return on his own terms, and gave him a “massive boost” because of their work’s social significance. This doesn’t mean going back has been easy.
“But I had been in England for 18 years, watching things in Israel, and saying, ‘this is good, this is not good,’ and passing comment. And I thought: ‘If you want to change your country, then you have to be in your country.’”
‘Who’s Gonna Love You Now’ goes on general release on April 7