Michael Lucas isn't shy--and that goes for his successful pornography industry, as well as his ardent support of Israel. But he may surprise many who know him for his adult titles when he turns a bit more serious in the documentary he's produced, Undressing Israel, in which a gay soldier, a drag queen, a young Arab-Israeli journalist, two dads raising a family, and an out member of Israel's parliament all tell their stories.
Lucas didn't do it alone: He teamed up with documentarian Yariv Mozer, who previously directed the gay-Palestinian doc Invisible Men (along with Adam Rosner). The film explores the rise of LGBT rights in the country, the only one in the Middle East to have such a track record, and seeks to shed a light on the way many men (yes, it's only men) live their lives in Tel Aviv and nearby. We caught up with Lucas to ask why he decided to make this film now.
Out: After doing porn films set in Israel, were you concerned that people would be confused or relate this film with that previous enterprise?
Michael Lucas: Not really. Aside from the title, which is a wink to my adult-film career, this movie is obviously very different from my earlier porn ventures like Men of Israel and Inside Israel. Undressing Israel is not pornographic in any way, and has been playing at mainstream gay and Jewish film festivals. Hopefully, the cover makes that clear. But if some of my porn audience sees this movie by mistake, then who knows? Maybe they'll learn something. (And of course, if someone looking for the documentary ends up with one of my porn films, they'll probably learn something, too!)
Why do you think it's important to show these representations of gay men in Israel married, with children, etc?
Most of Israel's coverage in the media is almost always--unfairly, in my opinion--related to the country's conflict with the Palestinians. That can give a misleading impression of Israel's core humanist values. When it comes to gay rights, as this movie illustrates, Israel is one the most progressive countries not just in the region but in the world. I tried to cover as many aspects of Israel's diverse gay male community as possible, from gay fathers to gay politicians and artists.
Why only men? Do you think it's more difficult for gay men in Israel as opposed to gay women?
Since this was my first mainstream project, I wanted to limit its scope--to "write what I know," as they say to writers who are just starting out. Because of my own history in Israel, I had a stronger understanding and stronger personal connections to the gay male community there, so it seemed like to a good idea to focus on that. But in retrospect, I do wish that we had included women in the film. Israel has an extremely strong, vibrant and active lesbian community that deserves to be explored in greater depth.
When I spoke with filmmaker Eytan Fox about his film Yossilast year, he made the point that much of the gay culture in Tel Aviv has become "superficial," and he even shows hookup site ATRAF in the film. Do you think this online culture has helped spread gay visibility or is hindering the gay culture of Israel?
Of course gay men in Israel can be superficial, just as they can be anywhere else. They like to have fun and they love to have sex. At lot of the guys there use Grindr (which was invented by an Israeli-American), and yes, there are hook-up sites, just as there are in America. But there are still plenty of other places to meet in person, like clubs and gyms. I don't think gay visibility is a big problem there at this point--and a lot of the men there are certainly eye-catching.
After visiting Tel Aviv, I feel like it's one of the gayest cities on the planet: Why do you think your film is essential? is it to educate Americans or people in Israel?
I agree--I'd actually say that Tel Aviv may be the gayest city in the world. But some people know that, and many people don't. A surprising number of people lump Israel in with other Middle Eastern countries, where gay life is vastly more secretive and dangerous, and where gay people are subject to harassment, assault, imprisonment and worse. Israelis don't need to be educated about this, but others around the world do. That's why I made this movie.
People have accused Israel government of "pink washing," focusing on the positive aspects of gay rights, and ignoring other human rights violations. Do you worry that people will view Undressing Israel as propaganda?
The truth is not propaganda, and LGBT rights were not some gift that the government sneakily gave its people in order to cover up anything else. Progress on gay equality in Israel was achieved by people who fought for it for years, and that fight still continues. The "pinkwashing" idea, unfortunately, plays into a long history of conspiracy theories involving secret Jewish plots to manipulate the media. Yes, Israel is embroiled in a long conflict with the Palestinians, and yes, Israel has an impressive record on gay rights, but those two things are not connected. To assert that they are is as ridiculous as saying that America dismantled "don't ask, don't tell" as part of a secret plan to distract the world from Iraq and Afghanistan, or that New York legalized gay marriage because it wanted people to forget about the banking crisis. It's a patently false idea.
My intention in Undressing Israel is not to give a false impression of Israeli's commitment to human rights. Rather, it is to contribute to a fuller and truer understanding of that commitment than the media's focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict generally allows.