Blood is thicker than water, but blood is also the problem that flows through the veins of Barak and Tomar Heymann’s sincere, moving documentary that won the Panorama Audience Award in Berlin. Now around 40, Saar Moaz is a genial, charming, gay Israeli who has for years been a central member of the London Gay Men’s Chorus. He is also HIV-positive and experiencing all the challenges not only of his illness but also of his long-term expat status. He has built himself a good and happy life, but it is far away from the family, traditions and home whose tidal pull he has never stopped feeling.
At 21, he was expelled from the kibbutz that is still home to four generations of Moazes, including his six younger siblings, devoutly religious mother and militaristic, patriotic father. For the latter especially, Saar’s sexuality has been difficult to accept; for all the others his disease is the hardest thing to come to terms with. Whether it’s his sister’s fear that he could inadvertently infect one of the children; his mother’s grief at their separation and the likely shortening of his life span; or Saar’s own deeply ingrained shame at the “karma” of having contracted the disease (which happened during a drug-and-sex bender following a failed relationship), his HIV-positive status is a burden three times over: physically, spiritually and psychologically. The surprise of the Heymanns’ documentary is that although the issues it tackles are troublesome and heartsore, the film is anything but morose, as though it emanates from the engaging Saar himself, like a song.
The doc is a little uninspired formally but tells its story with clear-eyed compassion, and what it lacks in elegant compositions it makes up for in the all-access frankness that the filmmakers get from Saar and his far-off family members. It’s the telling details that the camera picks up that give it texture: the kosher pot noodles that are all his mother will eat when she visits London restaurants; the rosary Saar has to use as a prop during singing practice at one point; the gay anthems the choir sings that punctuate the film’s heavier moments with bursts of color and happy noise.
There are certain moments when a clever edit or a visual echo suggests a symbolic parallel between the old life and the new — his somewhat reluctant participation in the Jewish practice of tefillin, in which a leather strap is wound seven times around the left arm, follows close after we’re shown the medical procedures of measuring blood pressure and drawing blood, which also require such binding. In one of the most moving scenes, Saar reacts with horror when he cuts himself while grating potatoes to make latkes with his visiting mother. Yet afterward, when she is crying and embracing him, he sneakily gives the sizzling pancakes a stir to make sure they don’t burn. The contradictions of family, and the complex choreography of love, disappointment, loyalty and betrayal, are felt in almost every interaction Saar has with them.
The Heymanns do not try to make any sweeping political points. Saar’s visit home may partially take place at the war memorial where his father, a proud paratrooper, still guides tours, but the ideals of patriotism and national service here are mostly delivered in the abstract, as are those of Jewish piety and religious observance. That feels appropriate because this is not a film about Judaism, or nationality, or even about sexuality or the burden of living with a stigmatized disease. It’s most overridingly a portrait of Saar and as such has as much joy and friendship in it as it has melancholy or regret.
If you love something, set it free, the old adage goes, and if it comes back to you, you will have it forever. Saar’s story is almost like a two-decade-long Jewish riff on the Amish practice of Rumspringa or the Aboriginal ritual of walkabout, where you go out into the world a while and bring the wisdom and experience you gain there back with you. That makes “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?” essentially the tale of an extended homecoming, where going home is not a retreat but the bravest and most necessary thing you can do.