’Alex & Ali’ :: New Doc On Relationship Divided by Decades, Politics, Culture
In 1967, a passionate love affair began. Alex was in Iran as a Peace Corps volunteer when he met Ali, an Iranian Muslim. He was instantly captivated. For ten years, they carried on a relationship in secret; Alex was even embraced by Ali’s family as a friend who needed special care because he was foreign. When the Islamic Revolution forced Alex out of Iran, they sustained correspondence from afar.
In 2012, thirty-five years after they last saw each other, Alex’s nephew, filmmaker and human rights advocate Malachi Leopold, helped arrange their reunion in Istanbul, a trial-of-sorts to see if the two could live together again. Out of that effort comes "Alex & Ali," Leopold’s engrossing and emotionally tumultuous document of a cultural divide and a challenged love that is nevertheless indomitable. It’s a fascinating journey borne out of good intentions, but fraught with complications.
Director Malachi Leopold took a few minutes to discuss the film, which plays on June 26, 2014 at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco at 6:30.
A remarkable story
EDGE: This is a remarkable story, and you capture it wonderfully. You are quite fortunate, simply as a person, to have this story in your family; to a filmmaker it must have seemed like gold. At what point did it occur to you that your uncle’s love story needed to be told in documentary form? How did it fit in with your other filmmaking work and Left Brain/Right Brain, the social change-oriented production company that you started?
Malachi Leopold: In 2009, I approached my uncle about documenting the story of his time in Iran. As I had grown up in an Evangelical home, where I was taught that being gay was the worst thing a person could be, my uncle Alex was an outcast, and I had very few opportunities to speak with him or get to know him. When I first approached him in 2009 with the idea of learning more about his time in Iran, it started as a simple email exchange of questions and answers. At the time, I intended to use what I was learning as the basis for a screenplay and narrative film. But in 2010, when I asked Alex directly if he had ever considered reuniting with Ali, he looked at me as if I’d insulted him and said - ’Ali and I have told each other that the only reason why we’re still alive is because of the hope of seeing each other again one day.’
Not long after that conversation, they decided to make a reunion happen, and I decided to make a documentary about their relationship, the reunion, and whatever would happen following their reunion. My personal dream was a permanent reunion, and wedding bells.
As a whole, projects I take on are about social justice - with ’Alex & Ali,’ my goal for the project has always been about motivating viewers to take action that furthers equality. For me, telling the story of my uncle’s experience was something that I believed would inspire action - donations to organizations fighting for equality, new resources for LGBT refugees, policy changes recognizing equality in more countries, and so forth.
EDGE: Did it take convincing your uncle or Ali, or were they instantly on board?
Malachi Leopold: It was truly their choice to make, and once the discussion around a reunion began it wasn’t at all ’Do we want to do this?’ It was simply: ’How do we make it happen, and as fast as possible?’ When they decided to reunite, they both talked about how planning the reunion gave them new hope, new energy, new motivation. They were excited and happy. And there was no hesitation about making the documentary from either of them.
EDGE: Did you have expectations about where the story was heading when you began? It is an emotional story and one with quite a bit of high stakes uncertainty. Did you dare to imagine what the ending might be, or where the reunion of these two men might lead?
Malachi Leopold: When the decision to reunite occurred, the activist in me went into high gear, learning everything I could about the process of becoming a refugee, seeking asylum, and various laws on immigration for LGBT couples. I talked to everyone I could, individual activists like Lavi Soloway, organizations like ORAM and UNHCR, as well as individuals who had gone through the process themselves of either seeking asylum or obtaining refugee status as an oppressed minority. We knew the process wasn’t going to be easy, and nothing was guaranteed, but there was never really a question in my mind that Alex and Ali didn’t want a permanent reunion.
That said, if during the reunion, they did decide on another course of action - for example, meeting once or twice a year in Dubai, Turkey, or even Europe - that would be OK, too. After all, even though their relationship had been maintained all this time, and their phone conversations were lovely, connected, and warm, who knew exactly how they would feel once they were finally together again? But, once reunited, if Ali did decide to seek a permanent reunion with Alex, I was under no illusion that the process of becoming a refugee would be grueling for him. But we believed that the pain of that interim time would be well worth the reward of spending the rest of their lives together.
EDGE: I don’t want to give too much away, but during the reunion of the men in Istanbul, there are some considerable bumps in the road. We have two related conflicts in this story: Ali’s plight in relation to his country - his safety there as a man who might be identified as gay and/or as critical of the regime, and then the actual reunion of the two lovers/friends, who have not seen each other in 35 years.
Regarding the latter, one would hope for a blissful convergence, but the reality is more complicated. Can you say something about what it was like filming their interaction? Were there moments in which things became emotional or awkward to a point that it made shooting difficult? Was there discussion about what should be recorded and included, or were Ali and Alex completely at ease with everything being captured? Watching, it is hard to grasp exactly what Ali’s grievances in the friendship are. Was it similarly arcane or private for you, or were there elucidating exchanges that you weren’t able to capture?
Malachi Leopold: Filming their time together in Istanbul is singularly one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do as a filmmaker. No matter what it entailed, I was responsible to capture everything that was happening, and to be true to their story and experience. But it was extraordinarily challenging to balance the responsibility of capturing what was unfolding, while living with the intense emotions and the situation they were grappling with.
There were moments between them that we didn’t capture - we weren’t with them at all times, and many of their conversations at the end of each day were not recorded. I never liked to stop recording, but it was necessary to give them a little bit of space as well.
EDGE: In what ways did the fact that one half of the couple being filmed was your uncle make the process easier or trickier?
Malachi Leopold: Truth be told, the experience as a whole was probably much, much more difficult because he is my uncle. I think it can be that way for many things - joy and pain are often most intense when experienced with the people we love.
EDGE: When the possibility of seeking asylum comes on the table for Ali, what was your role and Alex’s role in that consideration? I imagine you had established a relationship with ORAM (Organization for Refugees and Migrants) prior to the trip, right? Did you guys learn much about that process along the way?
Malachi Leopold: I spent a significant amount of time educating myself on what Alex and Ali would need to deal with in order to be permanently reunited, as did my uncle. We shared stories and articles, did phone calls with experts. I also spent quite a bit of time keeping my uncle in good spirits when he would come across stories of how difficult the time would be for someone waiting to be resettled. By the time of their reunion, I had assembled a ’dream team’ of people with decades of experiencing working with LGBT refugees from Iran, and felt ready to deal with any challenge that presented itself. It was heartbreaking and humbling to then find ourselves in a situation that really nothing could have prepared us for.
EDGE: Though in one sense it seems simple or obvious to talk about culture differences and the fact that the US and Iran deal with homosexuality quite differently, it truly is interesting to see how this difference in attitudes and policies plays out in the film. When you conceived the film, were you thinking in terms of illustrating the cultural divide between the two men? Were you wondering about how this shaped their relationship over the years?
Malachi Leopold: This is a very interesting question as I didn’t set out to highlight differences between cultures - I truly set out to tell an intimate love story of one couple’s struggle to be together. If anything, I would have hoped that a viewer would see how ’people are people,’ regardless of where they come from. I would have hoped to illustrate that ’love is love.’ I’ve traveled enough at this point in my life to affirm my belief that, while there are significant differences in culture, the basic things that motivate people, how people go about making decisions and so forth, are fundamentally the same. Whether it’s for love, or a sense of honor, or commitment to family or country or religion - it’s all human nature, and human nature has no borders. That said, sure, the audience will see cultural differences manifest on screen as the two interact, but ultimately I don’t believe it was ’culture’ that drove the final outcome.
EDGE: As far as the visualization of the film, Istanbul is quite a visually striking locale. Were you familiar with the city? How did you go about deciding where you would shoot and how you would capture the setting for this momentous occasion filled with both anticipation and uncertainty?
Malachi Leopold: We really let Alex and Ali take the lead on where they wanted to go, what they wanted to do. It was their reunion, after all. I didn’t come up with an itinerary, beyond ’We need to be at the airport at this time for Ali’s arrival!’ After that - where they ate, where they visited, was truly up to them. But as you said, it’s a visually striking place, and we had no lack of beautiful surroundings in which to film them. For me, it was my first time in Istanbul. I believe my uncle Alex had been there many years prior. And it was Ali’s first time out of Iran.
EDGE: What has the reception been like so far, and where do you plan to/hope to take it now?
Malachi Leopold: The response has been overwhelmingly positive, with audiences being highly affected by the story - very emotional. It grabs them, they can’t stop thinking about it, talking about it with others. They contact our team days or weeks after watching it, and ask how they can get involved. Sometimes, they just want to talk about how the film affected them.
My hope for the film is that it becomes as visible as possible - I want to make a lot of noise, to bring people’s attention to the realities of what LGBT face right now. I want to make it easier for LGBT refugees to get resettled in safe countries - but I also want this film to help bring more support to grassroots activists who are living in countries where they are risking their lives in the fight for equality. Supporting these activists means more equality, and more equality means fewer individuals who are forced to seek refugee status or asylum. Equality means being able to live and love wherever you are in the world.
We do plan to give the film an Academy campaign, and get it shown at as many festivals as we can. We’re also organizing private screenings of the film with social action partners, many of which are focused on the plight of LGBT refugees; and we aim to bring the film to policymakers who can help advance equality at that level.
We’ve also engaged a sales agent, and hope to secure distribution on a bigger platform relatively soon.
"Alex & Ali" will be screened on Thursday, June 26, 2014 at World Affairs Council’s International Forum Film Night, 6:30 p.m., World Affairs Council Auditorium, 312 Sutter Street, Suite 200, San Francisco, CA. For more on the screening visit this website. For more on the film and news of upcoming screenings the film’s Facebook page.