Berlin Diary: Only you

Posted on February 16, 2016


A love story about a gay man and his family. Plus, the love story of a straight man in war.

Sometimes, the synopsis in the festival brochure doesn’t tell you the real story. Take the Israeli documentary Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?, directed by the brothers Barak and Tomer Heymann. (The title refers to the first question that comes up when a gay man is diagnosed as HIV-positive.) This is the official synopsis: “Singing in the London Gay Men’s Chorus gives Saar the courage for reunion with his estranged family in Israel.” For a while, it does seem to be Saar’s story. We feel for him when he says he wishes his family had stood up for him when he was sent away from the kibbutz. (“They did not say we will leave too.”). He had to go to London to find another family in the Gay Men’s Chorus. And what a rainbow family it is. One of them wears a kurta-pyjama. One of them wears a kilt. Saar, of course, is seen with the yarmulke.

But the film is more than that – and it doesn’t take sides. It’s a deeply felt cross-generational tale of a large clan trying to come to terms with the fact that one of them is leading a life that, according to the Torah, is punishable by death. We understand (even if we do not empathise with) the sister who fears that her children might get infected, the father who wonders why Saar cannot marry a woman and still be gay, and especially the mother who says, sorrowfully, “It’s awful to feel a leper is coming, and this is my son and these are my grandchildren.” At the end, this isn’t a gay story. It’s a family story. After the screening, members from the Chorus (who were in the audience) came up and performed, to rapturous applause, an a cappella version of Yazoo’s Only You. All I needed was the love you gave / All I needed for another day / And all I ever knew / Only you. It’s a love song – but not necessarily about the kind that’s celebrated on Valentine’s Day. It could simply be Saar singing to his sisters, brothers, parents.

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A different kind of love is manifest in Ivo M Ferreira’s Portuguese drama Cartas da Guerra (Letters from War), which narrates, in epistolary form, the experiences of a young doctor in the military, Antonio Lobo Antunes (Miguel Nunes), who had to leave his pregnant wife when he was posted in Angola, during the Portuguese Colonial War in the early 1970s. The details are unimportant. It could be Vietnam. It could be Afghanistan. What’s important is that Antonio is a writer (he’d go on to become a famous novelist), the quintessential Byronian brooder, and the screenplay, with  strong echoes of Miguel Gomes’s Tabu, is adapted from the letters he wrote. I couldn’t get enough of the film, which has everything I love: the shadows of black-and-white cinematography, the intoxicating sweetness of ripe language (it would be fascinating to compare Antonio’s novels with those of Márquez), and the unshakeable conviction that, when in love, when in longing, there is no such thing as over-the-top.

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It’s almost impossible to get the film at one viewing, simply because you keep wanting to re-read the subtitles. This is another kind of war – the beauty of words versus the beauty of images. Over visuals of barbed wire, a soldier who dies from a bullet in his back, over sounds of exploding landmines and screams of men being operated on without morphine, over images of exotic celebrations by the locals, we participate in the writer’s yearning. I love the dignified solemnity of your pouts… I’m sorry for the moments we argued and I feel like apologising to you with my tear-filled eyes… I remember our farewell as something that took place under a general anaesthetic… I would never wish you to be tied to a dead man, if I die, or a living man, if I cease to interest you… I’m burying here the best years of my life, and maybe the best years of my old age, this eats you up like a cancer… Find a big bed so we can die on it together, bodies glued to each other.

But war has a way of splashing ice-cold water on the most fevered romanticism, and slowly, Antonio’s tone changes. My life has opened my eyes to things that cannot be told in a letter… I’m beginning to understand what made Che Guevara tick: there’s something genuinely exciting about this, really, and even the hard, cold touch of the rifle feels nice… This is what war turns us into: insects. Fighting for life in a frenzy of legs and antennae. In the most astonishing passage, which would have been shot through intense purple filters had this film been in colour, Antonio tosses about at night, dreaming of his wife: I adore you, my January cat, my black, my white, my glass of water, my mirrored castle room, my bird on the highest evening branch, my departing ship, my sand between my fingers… Cut to the next morning: He’s seeing off a patient. “Here’s medication for a week, and then you should be okay.” Ice-cold water. War isn’t always what happens between nations, races, peoples. It’s also what happens in the mind. Cartas da Guerra is the most poetic examination of the mind-altering effects of war since Apocalypse Now.

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