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Filmmaker Malachi Leopold to tell gay uncle’s story of lost love

by Joseph Erbentraut
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Monday Jun 27, 2011
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Growing up, Chicago filmmaker Malachi Leopold didn’t have much of a relationship with one of his uncles. In an Evangelical family, his gay uncle was an outcast of sorts, and Leopold knew little about his story.

As an adult, however, Leopold began to ask questions of his uncle, "Alex," particularly surrounding a romance he experienced while volunteering with the Peace Corps in Iran during the 1970s. The story that unfolded from those conversations inspired his latest film, currently in development, titled "I Am the Water, You Are the Sea."

That line is lifted directly from a letter exchanged between Alex and the man he fell in love with while in Iran, "Ali." While they have been separated for over three decades, due largely to the difficulty of a single Iranian man being granted a visa to visit the U.S. as well as a gay American man’s struggles to travel to Iran alone, Leopold hopes to reunite the men this fall. He is in the midst of filming that experience in an effort he is aiming to fund mostly through a Kickstarter campaign. His goal: to raise $25,000 by July 1.

With the fundraising campaign currently just under $10,000 away from meeting its target and quickly approaching its deadline, Leopold spoke with EDGE about how he chose the topic of his latest film venture and what opened up about his hopes and goals for the project.


Close to his uncle?

EDGE: Were you close to your uncle prior to working on this project? What had you known, going into it, about his time spent in Iran?

Malachi Leopold: The long story is that I really didn’t have much of a relationship with my uncle for, I would probably say, the first 20 years or so of my life. Me and my four brothers weren’t really allowed to have much of a relationship with him because we grew up in an evangelical environment. He was my uncle but he was kind of the outcast of the family because he was gay.

When I went to college, there was a lot of information about how the LGBT community was viewed and treated in the church that bothered me because it seemed like there was tolerance for people that were seen as sinners in the church, from alcoholics to drug addicts to gang members and so forth, but it you were gay, you were shunned. It didn’t feel right. My freshman year, I got involved in student government and went to a training seminar in Michigan that featured a breakout session focused on building relationships between gay and straight students on college campuses. It was really the first time I was in an environment where it felt safe to talk about the questions I had in terms of how my church treated and viewed the LGBT community. Out of that, the shorter version is that I got into a fight with the pastor of my church over the questions I had and I left the church and faith altogether. I moved from a place of not being tolerant and being homophobic to a place of not just support and advocacy but it opened up an opportunity for me to begin to get to know my uncle.

We started working on this together about two years ago and prior to that I’d known that he had been in Iran during the ’60s and ’70s and knew he had a relationship with someone that was very significant for him but I didn’t really know much more than that. I sent him some initial questions about his experience and the story really blew me away. I felt not only was it a beautiful love story but it was also a story that felt very timely and relevant to the issues people are grappling with today. That’s everything from marriage equality and immigration equality to how Islam is perceived by the West and what Americans’ relationship is like with Iran.

EDGE: What was your initial reaction upon reading some of the letters your uncle Alex had exchanged with Ali over the years and slowly unpacking such intimate details? I’d imagine you feel a lot closer with your uncle because of this project.

ML: Of course our relationships has really developed. It’s become a very close relationship and something I really value and enjoy now. I really had not thought about the secrecy and danger involved with having any kind of gay relationship in Iran and I was struck by the beauty of their connection. There’s drama there, like any relationship, but there has always been this beautiful connection they shared and what really grabbed me was how that connection has continued after all this time. For two years, it was what really inspired me to continue working and unpacking until we had the whole thing.


Story grabbed him

EDGE: At one point in talking with your uncle about his relationship with Ali did you decide to pursue this project more specifically, rather than a more general exploration of the topic?

ML: When we initially began, I would send my uncle maybe a half dozen or 10 questions and he would write back as I got more details on the story. I think it was the first round of questions I had sent him which were very basic and centered on how he learned about the Peace Corps, what made him choose Iran and his first impressions upon arriving there. Then I asked how he and Ali met and what it was like when they first sort of expressed to each other that they liked each other or had a crush. It was that story that really grabbed me.

At any given point in time, the production company I run has a lot of stuff in development but no matter what, if two or three months would pass in between my uncle getting responses back to me, when I got the new round, it was like the poignancy of the story developed even further. Once it grabbed me, it never let me go.

EDGE: What attracted you to filmmaking and to documentary filmmaking in particular?

ML: I would say my interest in film in some ways came out of my love for nature. I was big into National Geographic and Discovery Channel when I was growing up and when I was in high school, I would sometimes go outside with a video camera and try to find deer or interesting nature things to film. I loved it. I wound up going to school to pursue a law degree, decided I didn’t want to go to law school, and went into finance and investments. When I was fired from my last finance job in 2007, I was 28 at the time and figured when else in my life would I have an opportunity to really make a go at this? I saw a value in bridging the creative and business worlds, which inspired the name of my company, Left Brain/Right Brain Productions.

The first documentary I wound up doing was about architecture and ended up premiering on PBS and, though I hadn’t considered myself as a documentary filmmaker, that process helped me fall in love with that form. After that, the next big project was the film in South Sudan and the projects just kind of kept coming after that.


Overcoming intolerance

EDGE: The Sudan documentary, as is the case with ’I Am the Water, You Are the Sea,’ is also a reunion story. What is it that interests you about that sort of experience?

ML: I would say that what drives me is this desire to inspire others to overcome adversity. Whenever I come across stories that have these real people who’ve gone through incredible challenges, that kind of stuff really grabs me. With the Sudan film, when he told me his story, I was blown away by everything he’d gone through and I wanted to share it with others. Plus you can only reunite with someone once, a one-time thing in the history of the world, so it’s a special moment. With this film, I think the challenges Ali and Alex faced and are overcoming to be together is an inspiration for people to keep working on issues like marriage and immigration equality and developing a peaceful relationship between America and Iran. There are many challenges that can be overcome if people connect with each other and overcome the barriers erected through politics, hatred and intolerance, or even ignorance and misunderstandings.

EDGE: What has the response been like to the film? I understand some people wonder why Ali and Alex have been separated for so long or why they haven’t chosen to reunite before now.

ML: There have been some people I thought would be supportive of the project who told me no because they don’t agree with some of the issues, which has just reminded me why I’m doing this project to help create positive social change. As for that question, when you look at the situation it’s not so simple. Because Ali is a man and not a woman, there’s no straightforward process for them to be married and immigrate to the U.S., have a visa and become a U.S. citizen. Another reason, which wouldn’t be as obvious, is that Ali basically dedicated himself to working several jobs to support and raise his nieces and nephews when his two brothers both died. Also, it is very dangerous. It would not have been safe for my uncle to travel to Iran alone, especially to visit a single Iranian man. Given the relationship between Iran and the U.S., it is extremely difficult for especially a single man to get a visa to come to the U.S.

EDGE: Is there a fear that Ali might be endangered by the exposure this film and experience will create? How are you dealing with that?

ML: First of all, we wouldn’t be doing the things we are doing if we felt it would jeopardize him. We’re not using his real name and no current photos or information about where he lives, so we’ve taken precautions that way. As far as the release of the film is concerned, that’s another thing where we would not put out the film in a way that would jeopardize him. That said, the ultimate plan is for them to be reunited permanently, so the way to do that is to be able to navigate that process to bring him to the U.S. or to another country where he is able to be safe.

EDGE: The Kickstarter campaign only has a bit over a week to go. What will you do if the $25,000 goal is not met?

ML: I’ve always been confident in the story’s ability to really inspire peoples’ support. This is a project that’s about more than making a movie. We’re bringing people together who have been separate for 34 years, making sure people in the future have the ability and freedom to be together as well. It also helps that this isn’t my first film, so not only do we have a great story, but we have the ability to tell the story well. But the story is the core and it wouldn’t matter how talented we were or what kind of a campaign we built if we didn’t have that.

Visit the Kickstarter Campaign to learn more about Leopold’s film and consider helping to make "I Am the Water, You Are the Sea" a reality.


Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.

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