Finding Love Beyond Identity Differences


One new film has taken the Israeli-Palestinian debate and stripped it to a bare-naked conversation — quite literally.

Israel vs. the Palestinians, falafel versus shawarma, the “occupied territories” — they’re all pretty contentious subjects in the Middle East.

One new film has taken that debate, minus the falafel, and stripped it to a bare-naked conversation — quite literally.

As part of qFLIX Philadelphia, the annual LGBTQ film festival running from July 5 to 10, Gary Kramer, who has previously curated the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, curated three collections of short films exploring different themes. One in particular, TWO GUYS: Eight Romantic Shorts, comprises short films centered on different relationships between two men.

One film, Occupy Me, features two men who meet up after a mutual Tinder-esque app swipe right. They just happen to be an Israeli-American and an Arab-American.

The film, a quick 16 minutes, opens with a shot of the mezuzah outside of David’s apartment door as he opens to face his digital soulmate of the night. After some banter debating whether Sam looks like his picture (he does, crisis averted) the two go, uh, right at it.

Soon after, however, David suggests playing a song he thinks Sam will enjoy, a heated conversation erupts from what was previously a flirty discussion into an argument about power and who inherently has that power. You soon get the idea they aren’t just talking about who was on top, though that was certainly part of it.

What works with the discussion is that once you’re in it and it’s seemingly resolved, it’s over and the credits play. That’s the beauty of a short film for Kramer, who curated the collections for the first time this year.

“What I like about short films is what I like about short stories,” he said. “They hook you, they carry you through a story and then it’s usually a nice little payoff. One of the things I think is important with short films is because they’re sometimes not usually more than 20 minutes long, you don’t have a huge emotional investment in the characters so you can actually have more focus on what’s happening because you’re not focusing on motivation.

“It’s not that I have a short attention span,” he added with a laugh. “It’s more that I think you can pack a lot more drama when you’re focused on something really specific.”

That lack of a foundation where you get to know the characters a bit more as you would in a feature-length film came into play, especially in Occupy Me for Kramer.

But you do get to know them during their argument, if only for a brief time.

“It’s interesting to me that in the moment of passion you say and do things, and your mind is one place and when you analyze it after the fact, it’s perhaps another,” he said. “The film shows that really well because you really understand the characters fully as they have their discussion after because you only know them from the moments before that.”

It also leaves room for thought afterward. As the credits play, you think to yourself, “Who was right? Was anyone right?”

“The discussion is far more complex than you might expect,” Kramer noted. “It’s an open ending if you will — I don’t want to reveal too much — I liked that about it because it makes you think who’s right, who’s wrong, is anyone to blame and how do you apply that to a real situation?”

Especially such a political situation.

For Max Rhyser, who plays the Jewish character, the film made him think about the conflict and his own Jewish identity in a new light.

David and Sam didn’t really talk about their backgrounds until the end, during an argument, but their conversation made Rhyser think differently.

Rhyser, who was born and raised in Amsterdam and moved around before coming to New York about 12 years ago, knew this role was written for him, as he is friends with the writer and served as a producer as well, but the character made him think about his own Jewish identity in a different way.

“There was something about the script that really made me think about being Jewish,” Rhyser said.

“I have a huge amount of family in Israel. I didn’t grow up being a Jew in America, so I think being a Jew in America or at least in New York is different from being a Jew in Europe — the fact that people take off for the Jewish holidays, there’s a huge culture around it here that wasn’t really present the way I grew up.

“It made me question for the first time what it means to me to be Jewish and is that part of my identity, like an idea or belief system that I’m carrying around with me?”

He grew up culturally Jewish, he said, but his family background was something he turned to when getting into character for this film.

Taking into account his differences with his character and finding what were important values to him, Rhyser turned to his own lineage.

“While I identify as a Jew, I grew up in very international communities abroad,” he said. “I’ve always grown up with friends who were from all over the Middle East and lots of different races and religions, and I really had to look at the older generations of my family, especially the ones in Israel, to see how they react to things like, I don’t know, an Arab lover. The thinking process it inspired was quite touching.”

The short was shot in two days, so Rhyser and onscreen partner Jaspal Binning had little time to complete a big scene for a 16-minute short.

Having these two characters have such a heated discussion in a short time period was a challenge, in addition to the fact that the subject matter is difficult to address in itself even if it were a two-hour film.

“As much as the characters are playing with these ideas and belief systems and judgements with one another, I think the same thing is happening in their minds,” Rhyser said. “They’re catching themselves feeling things, thinking things, experiencing things as not fully themselves.

“They’re doubting themselves and questioning themselves as much as they are questioning each other.

The message of the film for Rhyser is about connection, and what can tarnish something seemingly pure into something resentful.

“True connection and true love are so rare. What a shame to throw it away on an idea or belief system not of your own,” he said.

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