Take a road trip with gay activist Citizen Nawi

Israeli filmmaker Nissim Mossek spends so much time riding in Ezra Nawi’s car, his unflinching documentary “Citizen Nawi” feels like a road movie.

It’s those tension-filled excursions — through checkpoints, into the West Bank and around soldiers and settlers to visit a handful of Palestinian villagers — that give this raw and occasionally wrenching film its discomfiting power.

A character study with an acute political backdrop, “Citizen Nawi” screens June 23 at the Roxie New College Film Center as part of Frameline32, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.

Nawi is a gay, chain-smoking plumber and contractor in his 50s who lives in the genteel Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia with his younger Palestinian lover, Faud. Faud is an illegal alien, so the police — tipped off by less-than-tolerant neighbors — are often parked in front when Nawi gets home.

A fearless and outspoken Iraqi Jew, Nawi isn’t intimidated by the cops or anyone else. He launches himself into the fray when army bulldozers are leveling Palestinian homes, then lectures soldiers less than half his age as they drag him away in handcuffs.

At least the army, for all its authority and might, has to observe some regulations. But no code of law or honor seems to apply to the settlers in South Hebron Hills, who go so far as to chop down the Palestinians’ olive trees in an ongoing campaign to chase them away.

There’s a certain cognitive dissonance, frankly, to seeing Nawi threatened and insulted in the crudest terms by religious Jewish settlers and embraced as a trusted friend by a Palestinian family living in a tent.

Nawi’s brand of citizen activism is based on humanism, not ideology; his hands-on commitment is to people rather than causes or beliefs. He takes special pride in a clinic the villagers build over the course of the film, for it will directly impact people’s lives.

One just assumes that Nawi has always been a liberal, and that his treks to the West Bank reflect a longstanding empathy for the Palestinians. It comes as a shock when he remarks well into the film that he wasn’t particularly aware of or concerned about their day-to-day hardships until he got involved with Faud.

The sequences filmed in the South Hebron Hills are extraordinarily potent, but a great deal of “Citizen Nawi” deals with Ezra and Faud’s relationship. Faud isn’t allowed to live legally in Israel; in fact, if Nawi is caught simply giving a ride to a Palestinian his car will be impounded for 30 days with a trial and potential jail term to follow.

At the same time, Faud can’t go home. His family disowned him because of his homosexuality, and it’s likely some nasty faction will decide that he’s an Israeli collaborator.

Nawi’s grit, wit, persistence and optimism carry us through this sobering film, abetted by the occasional buoyant friend and his own colorful mother. She declines to be filmed at first when Ezra shows up for a visit with Mossek, then comes out on the street to give the director a nosh. Oddly, she repeatedly expresses her desire to have grandchildren, as if she’s in denial about Ezra’s sexual orientation.

“Citizen Nawi” is a rough-hewn profile in courage that diligently tallies the cost of conscience. At the same time, the filmmaker deserves props for matching Nawi’s bravery by taking one ride after another into the hot zone with him.

Mossek’s gutsiest move, however, is that he made a film that doesn’t aim to inspire us with platitudes but instead tries to shock us with the hard business of building a road to peace.

“Citizen Nawi” screens at 9:15 p.m. June 23 at the Roxie New College Film Center, 3117 16th St., S.F. Tickets: $9-$10. Information: www.frameline.org.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.