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Local filmmaker tries to get gay love story off the ground
MOVIES
2011-06-15

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BY CONSTANCE RUHOLL

I Am the Water, You Are the Sea is a documentary by Malachi A. Leopold about the love of two men that survived political upheaval and continental distance. In Leopold's words, it is a story about breaking down various barriers, including those of religion, politics and hate. The documentary follows the story of Alex and Ali as they try to reunite after 33 years of longing separation.

Windy City Times: Where did the idea for the film come from?

Malachi A. Leopold: I've been working on I Am the Water, You are the Sea for two years. We were wrapping production on another documentary at the time (22 Years From Home, which airs on WTTW Sunday, July 10, at 1 p.m.) and I was looking for my next project. I had been working on a number of possible stories which, in one way or another, were addressing how the "West" views and behaves towards Islam and Muslims.

Given the rising tensions with Iran, and the efforts within Iran itself for reform, I felt a story about Iran could be great way to show what the everyday people of Iran are like, versus the constant crap we see about their political leadership—their leadership which is not representative of who Iranians are, what they believe and what they want their lives to be about.

I knew my uncle (Alex) had served with the Peace Corps in Iran, so I approached him about his story. What he told me was astounding. A secret gay love relationship in 1960s and 1970s in Iran, during the rule of the Shah—a relationship which was interrupted when he fled the coming Iranian revolution. And a relationship which has survived to this today, despite the distance. After the revolution had sort of leveled out, they'd found each other again (via mail), and have now kept in touch (and in love) for years. So my uncle and I spent the last two years working on getting the full story of their time in Iran together down on paper.

Windy City Times: Where does the film's title come from?

Malachi A. Leopold: The film's title comes from a love letter from Ali to Alex.

Windy City Times: What does filming his story mean to you?

Malachi A. Leopold: In one sense, what this film means to me is that I simply get to continue doing what I love most—making a positive impact on the world around me. A few years ago I stopped asking myself what I wanted to do, and started asking what I wanted my life to be about. And what I knew was that, regardless of what I actually did on a day-to-day basis, as long as I was aligned with my values, as long as my time was spent being about what was most important to me, then the details of the doing could really be anything from being a financial advisor (which I was for several years) to making movies—although I much prefer making movies.

This project also means that I can share with others my personal story of moving from a place of homophobia and intolerance to a place of support and advocacy for the LGBT community. In other words, as much as I want to create positive social change in the world, I have to be adamant about making sure I'm being the change I want to see, not just encouraging others to do it.

Windy City Times: What about filming do you enjoy most?

Malachi A. Leopold: On a personal level, I feel like I'm doing what I should be doing with my life; I'm very fulfilled doing this work. [It's] not so much because it's creative or about "making movies," but really because I see my life as being about making the world a better place—and how I do that is through producing and directing films which further positive social change.

On another level—when it comes to the actual filming itself—I love the unique access a camera gives you. Access to people and places you would just never be allowed if you weren't filming something. It's so cool sometimes! I can only imagine what that moment is going to be like filming Alex and Ali seeing each other again for the first time in more than 33 years.

It's one of those things you really have to prepare for, because the emotion of that moment—something that literally will and can only happen once in the history of the world—that moment can so easily overwhelm you. And instead of being focused on making sure you're capturing the moment on camera with proper light and sound and angles and so forth, you're dabbing your eyes and wanting to hug everyone around you. Moments like that are very challenging, because they're so beautiful to witness, but my job being there is to capture it, not dissolve into tears. The tears usually have to wait until we finish a film.

Windy City Times: How is the film being funded?

Malachi A. Leopold: We're funding the filming of the reunion through our Kickstarter campaign. We need $25,000 for a small crew to accompany Alex from the U.S. to the Middle East where he'll be reunited with Ali—we'll be on location there for a few weeks this fall.

Windy City Times: Will the film be produced if you do not find enough funds?

Malachi A. Leopold: Well, yes and no. Look, where there's a will there's a way. I am determined to tell this story no matter what. But I truly believe there are enough people out there who will be inspired by this story and what it means, what it represents, and get us to our goal. If the "worst" happened—well, I guess I'd figure something out. But one way or another, I'll be there to film the reunion. This is a story that has to be told.

Windy City Times: How are you raising awareness about the project?

Malachi A. Leopold: A combination of individuals within my network, outreach to media (blogs, TV, newspapers, magazines, etc), and connecting with organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign, Human Rights Watch, Immigration Equality and GLAAD as we build and roll out our social action campaign.

Windy City Times: What kind of audience are you hoping to reach with the film?

Malachi A. Leopold: Like I say in my pitch video—at its heart, this is a love story, and I think the tenderness and beauty of it will really touch people. I think anyone can connect to the feeling of wanting something so bad, but having a hard time getting it. There is, of course, a natural, built-in sort of audience within the LGBT community because of the film's themes and our social action efforts. But I am the Water, You are the Sea is about breaking down barriers—barriers of fear, intolerance, misunderstanding, hate. Barriers of politics, religion, laws. Barriers that, for me as I was growing up, were rather formidable. But I was able to change.


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