When 39 year-old Londoner, Saar Maoz was diagnosed with HIV, he had to tell his religious parents back in Israel. The resulting documentary, Who’s Gonna Love Me Now, charts an ordinary family’s sudden confrontation with the reality of HIV, as well as exploring the nature of reconciliation. Words by Jarlath Gregory.
This article about Saar Maoz was originally published in GCN Issue 328 which is available to read online here.
Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? is a documentary which follows the progress of Saar Maoz, a gay 39 year-old ex-Israeli army paratrooper, as he attempts to reconcile with his traditional Jewish family after contracting HIV. While Saar’s ex-boyfriend wonders: ‘Who’s gonna love me now?’ when he gets his diagnosis, Saar’s reaction is: ‘How can I tell my Mom and Dad?’
The result is a heartfelt and emotional journey in which Saar returns to Israel and tries to piece together a meaningful relationship with his parents and siblings, despite their ignorance and judgment around his HIV status. Even worse, his father has not completely come to terms with the fact that his son is gay – at one point he laughs and says, “Take a couple of pills and get over it!”
Saar’s frustration is evident, but through perseverance and good humour, the family reach a place of greater understanding. Along the way, it becomes clear that being gay and HIV positive in a strictly religious environment is fraught with difficulty – but the greater part of the conflict is rooted in Saar’s past, and the family issues he fled in favour of London’s party scene, and a loving but dysfunctional relationship which ultimately led to his contracting HIV. Both family values and living with HIV take equal billing in the documentary.
“My purpose was to raise awareness about living with HIV, the day-to-day struggle of what we’re dealing with,” Saar says. “But ‘who is your family?’ – that’s the question at the beginning.”
Saar’s family come across as close-knit, loving, and conservative, but through some telling backstory, Saar’s sense of alienation from the religious expectations of his youth becomes apparent. We learn that he was expelled from his kibbutz as a teenager for sneaking out to a party, and still feels aggrieved that his family did not stand up for him. His younger brother is uncomfortable allowing their uncle near his kids, as he feels that Saar’s life is ‘irresponsible’. Saar’s father does not understand that his own attachment to Israel, and to the Jewish faith, are not necessarily shared by his son. The other members of his family often talk of HIV as a death sentence. But when Saar finally calls them out on what he sees as their hypocrisy – talking of being close while never asking him, for example, how his new meds are working out – they begin to understand that the distance between them works both ways.
To the family, Saar lives elsewhere by choice. To Saar, the family is a unit he has never been fully welcomed into, initially because of his homosexuality, but more recently because his HIV status made him ‘dangerous’. This insight into one ordinary family’s sudden confrontation with the reality of HIV is one of the most fascinating aspects of the film.
“The combination of sex and death is a complicated mixture,” Saar says. “They are the two things we’re most afraid to talk about. We evolved over millions of years and we still haven’t cracked it. We still feel guilty about it. If you contract any kind of sexual disease, especially HIV, people immediately perceive it like a sentence you’ve got in return. It’s difficult for people. My mama asked me not to play with the grandkids and I thought, yeah, okay – but when I came back to England, I was like, what was that about? I think my family is no different than the average, and then suddenly, it’s on their doorstep.”
Although his family obviously love him, there is a gap between Saar’s identity and his family’s expectations that seems insurmountable – one which many gay people will probably recognise. One of the most poignant moments in the film is when Saar reads an old letter from his father, written after his move to London. The letter makes Saar’s return to Israel sound like a duty, and later, when his father rereads the letter, he shakes his head. “There are no loving words in it,” he says. It’s a watershed moment for their relationship, as Saar recognises.
“We came full circle. We thought everything was fine. You come to Christmas or Passover, and you smile and say the things you’re supposed to say, and it’s fine. But what happens when you get the courage to go beneath the surface?”
One of the most inspiring aspects of the film, which his family struggle to understand, is Saar’s involvement with London’s Gay Men’s Chorus. When they practise songs like ‘Go West’ by Pet Shop Boys it provides a sharp contrast to the military stories so beloved of Saar’s father, and it’s not a big stretch to see the symbolism in the choice of song. The Gay Men’s Chorus offer Saar a sense of belonging, which has been absent in his life for too long. “We call it a gay community,” he says.
“I came from the kibbutz, which was very community-based, and I looked and looked in London. I found the gay but I didn’t find the community. Then I found the Gay Men’s Chorus.”
The crux of the story comes when Saar explains to his brother that he needs to sing in a choir for gay men “because of people like you” – people whom he never feels entirely comfortable around, for fear of being judged. It’s a powerful moment, made all the more powerful when it’s clear that Saar has finally made his brother understand.
If there’s an overall message to the film, it’s one of honesty, openness, and talking through your differences, rather than pretending everything is ‘fine’ and simply going through the motions. Saar seems aware that in an era of great political turbulence and growing enmity, this sentiment is sorely lacking in public discourse. At a time when the lines between news, information, and entertainment have been dangerously blurred, there is a refreshingly unapologetic message to the whole documentary.
“Equality is not static,” Saar tells me. “You have to work on it. Things can go backwards. If you don’t continue making sure rights are equal, then they won’t be. A lot of people are confused because they think the gay rights movement is over. If you think about it, most governments are letting people contract HIV, saying that it’s people’s individual responsibility, but it isn’t. We have statistical proof that PrEP works, but we still have to fight for our health. We’re not marching in the streets as we should be.”
As well as being an uplifting documentary about one man’s journey into self acceptance – and the acceptance of his family – Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? is a timely reminder that while things might be ‘fine’ for most of us on the surface, there is always work to be done to promote the mental and physical health of those in the LGBT community, and that our greatest source of strength is each other.
© 2017 GCN (Gay Community News Ireland). All rights reserved.