Five minutes into Yossi & Jagger, two Israeli soldiers out on patrol are kissing and cuddling in a snowy field somewhere near the Lebanon border. Is there snow in Israel? Are there queers in the Israeli Defense Force? “Is this a rape, sir?” riffs the cuter of the two (TV teen heartthrob Yehuda Levi), nicknamed Jagger for his pop-star looks.
A zoom-happy little item, shot in handheld DV, Eytan Fox’s feature greatly displeased the IDF and not just because soldiers are shown digging ditches in which to bury rotten food and then chowing down on spam sushi. Made without army cooperation, the movie is populated by horny young people living in close quarters in a state of physical discomfort. Everyone would clearly prefer to make love than war. As company commander Yossi (Ohad Knoller) frisks with platoon commander Jagger in the field, a pair of pretty young women soldiers drop by the base looking for action. The more extroverted of the two is banging the thuggish colonel; the more demure has a crush on Jagger: He’s “not like the other guys,” she tells her friend. “He’s different.”
Yossi & Jagger, which was featured earlier this year at the New Festival and won the stoical Knoller an acting award at the Tribeca Film Festival, has an agenda. Although the IDF is relatively tolerant of sexual inclination, a society as militarized and macho as Israel’s would naturally tend toward homophobia. Indeed, as Diaspora Jewish men were regarded as passive and feminized, Zionism itself might be considered (as Daniel Boyarin puts it) a “heterosexualizing project.” Fox’s film is most subversive in homosexualizing the leadership. IDF officer training encourages commanders such as Yossi and Jagger to consciously inspire personal devotion in their men, a seduction that bonds the company and their leaders in a chastely erotic brotherly love.
Planning a career in the army, Yossi is hopelessly smitten and largely unconscious. His reluctance to risk his men’s safety by taking them, insufficiently rested, out on a routine ambush precipitates some rote annoyance on the part of his colonel: “Have you become a faggot? Don’t be a sissy!” Yossi’s caution also irritates Jagger, albeit for different reasons. More at home with his sexuality, Jagger would be pleased to declare their love. His insistence serves to panic Yossi, who attempts to reinforce the reality principle: “This is not some fucking American movie.”
That Yossi & Jagger continues on a tragic trajectory will not surprise anyone familiar with movies, American or otherwise. (What’s striking is that, as in many Israeli movies, the Arab enemy is conspicuous by his absence.) Yossi & Jagger, which has enjoyed considerable success in Israel, has a touching denouement and an effective postscript. At 71 minutes, the movie is scarcely more than an anecdote. But vivid as it is in establishing a specific milieu, its economy is its strength.
“The Normal Heart: A Tender Gay Romance Takes Israel by Storm” by Richard Goldstein