|Filmmaker Eytan Fox continues to ask tough questions.|
I never will forget the time when I was asked to introduce an Israeli film to a group of women at the convention of a national Jewish organization.
The film was Moshe Mizrahi’s “I Love You Rosa.” At one point in the film an actress is seen bare-breasted, although just for a few seconds. Within moments, I was stunned to see about 20 women quickly leave their seats, not to return. At the conclusion of the film program I saw several of the women waiting outside, and I asked them why they retreated from the hall. They told me that they were appalled to see nudity in an Israeli film.
I asked them whether such nudity would bother them if the film were French or Italian. “Certainly not, but to see it in an Israeli movie is reprehensible,” they answered.
To be fair, that incident took place a quarter of a century ago, but many of us still hold Israel up to a different standard.
More than a century ago, the Zionist thinkers dreamed of a country complete “with criminals and prostitutes,” a country that would be like any other. Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote of his desire for “a nation that lives a normal national life on its land.” Along with the special character that makes Israel so dear to most of us, the country indeed has achieved normalcy.
But as Israel has become “am kechol ha’amim,” a nation like all the nations, it has allowed for diversity and difference, particularly over the last two decades. Today, Tel Aviv is known as “the gay mecca of the Middle East,” where one of the world’s grandest gay pride parades takes place each June. An American Airlines survey published in the Gay Cities website hailed Tel Aviv as the best city for gay tourists in the world.
So how do we react to homosexuality in Israel? And what about a film about a gay man in Tel Aviv?
Amos Guttman made “Nagua” (“Drifting”) in 1983. It was a bold independent effort that garnered little interest except for the fact that it was the first Israeli film to tackle homosexuality. Guttman, an openly gay man, was a pioneer who went on to deal with gay or “fringe” characters in his next three films, but unfortunately he died of an AIDS-related illness in 1993. He was 38 years old.
The very next year, American-born Eytan Fox would make his first film, “Song of the Siren,” the story of a young women seeking love with the first Gulf war playing out in the background. That sense of disorder and searching seemed to be a central characteristic of Fox’s work; he created the fast-paced television series “Florentine” about the struggles of a group of twenty-somethings in pre- and post-Rabin Tel Aviv. Probably the most powerful episode had a young man rejected by his high-powered, high-ranking Army officer father when he comes out to him to be gay.
That scene was inspired by the moment when Fox told his father – Seymour Fox, a highly regarded Jewish educator from the Hebrew University – that he was gay, something the elder Fox was not ready to hear. The big question when the movie came out was whether the country was ready to listen.
This time, it wasn’t a few hundred people watching a low-budget Guttman film at the art house. It was hundreds of thousands of Israelis watching TV and beginning a discussion about gays in Israeli society.
In 2002, a year after Sandi Simcha Dubowsky raised the subject of homosexuality and Orthodoxy in his groundbreaking film “Trembling Before G-d” and years before “Brokeback Mountain,” Fox took the giant step of making “Yossi and Jagger,” a film about two male soldiers serving in Lebanon who fall in love with each other. To see two men in IDF uniforms kissing on screen was not something most Israelis were ready to see, but the film moved forward the discussion of inclusion in Israel. As film scholar Robert Sklar noted, “the nature of the content and control [of cinema] helps to shape the character and direction” of the culture.
Three years later in this country, Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” broke all kinds of box-office records. Millions of viewers apparently were ready to watch Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger kiss. These films were pushing Israelis and Americans to thrash out their views on homosexuality, opinions that have changed dramatically over the last decade.
Eytan Fox ends “Yossi and Jagger” with Jagger’s death in a skirmish. As Yossi grieves alone at his lover’s funeral, Jagger’s parents want to know more about their son’s life, and they wonder who might have been his girlfriend. In a powerful moment, they go up to one of his comrades, a woman soldier, wanting to believe her to have been Jagger’s lover.
The Yossi and Jagger relationship would remain secret for a decade, until Fox decided to break it wide open in “Yossi,” a sequel to his previous work. It is 10 years later, and Yossi still mourns his loss. He has exchanged his army uniform for hospital whites and become a successful cardiologist, and he has chosen his work to be his companion. He still is closeted. Yossi’s co-workers, seeing how lonely he is, frantically but unsuccessfully try to get him to meet women. Why is a nurse who attempts to get close to him rebuffed?
Much has happened in Israeli society and the question that Fox seems to be pushing is why Yossi hasn’t simply come out as a gay man. A key moment seems to be when Yossi accidentally meets Jagger’s mother. What has to happen to free this talented and dedicated physician? Why does his loss and grief have to be contained and kept secret? These are questions that Fox clearly is asking not just of Yossi, but of Israeli society as a whole.
Two years after “Yossi and Jagger” Fox made “Walk on Water,” a brilliant narrative study of the machismo of a Mossad officer who is asked to search out a former Nazi official and assassinate him. During the course of his quest, the officer meets the Nazi’s grandson and befriends him, only to learn that this man is gay. The macho agent, at first homophobic, learns to accept his new friend, but can Israeli society?
In 2006, in Fox’s “The Bubble,” two gay men on the periphery of Israeli life, one an Arab from the west bank and the other a Tel Aviv Jew who has served as a soldier at a border checkpoint, meet and fall in love. Is there a place for both these men in their respective worlds? The highly talented Eytan Fox seems continually to ask tough questions in his films.
Ohad Knoller, who won the Best Actor award for “Yossi and Jagger” at the 2003 Tribeca Film Festival, returns to his role as Yossi and does a fine job. The always remarkable Orly Silbersatz plays Jagger’s mother. “Yossi” brings us to a different level in how we perceive Israel. Are we ready yet to accept that Israel is a nation with criminals, prostitutes, and yes, gays and lesbians?