Take a tragic gay romance, set it in the Israeli army, and you’ve got a recipe for outrage—or so it would seem. But Yossi & Jagger, which opens at Film Forum this week (see review), sparked a very different response in Israel, to the delight of its director, Eytan Fox. Though the military refused to support the film, a unit requested its own screening and Fox apprehensively complied. “Four hundred soldiers came with their guns,” he recalls. “And when the lights came up afterward, they were holding each other and crying.” When the film opened, Fox noticed that soldiers, accompanied by their girlfriends, were a significant part of the audience.
There was another unexpected demographic, sparked by the sultry Yehuda Levi, who plays Jagger (so called for his rock-star looks). Israel’s largest teen mag invited its readers to a screening, but neglected to mention the film’s subject. “I was really nervous,” says Fox. “There were thousands of girls sitting there with cameras—and they didn’t know what it was about.” When Yossi and Jagger kissed, “the girls were laughing and screaming. But by the end, when Yehuda came onstage to answer questions, they wanted to know all about being gay and what it’s like to be a soldier living in secret.”
These two incidents reveal something about the meanings that attach to homosexuality in a garrison state like Israel. It’s one of the world’s more macho societies, and the rules of queer theory dictate that in such a setting intense homophobia (accompanied by furtive homo trysts) ought to be the norm. But this formula doesn’t consider the association between gay culture and the West. The same perception that drives Islam to reject its own homoerotic tradition also pushes Israel to be the region’s most gay-friendly state. Homosexuality is a marker of the boundary between fundamentalism and secular modernity—and not just in Israel. Yossi & Jagger has been well received in Europe (and it won an award at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival) partly because it shows a tender face of Israel that many Westerners yearn to see.
“Israelis are very aware of how ambivalent the world is about us,” Fox says. “There’s this big campaign saying, ‘When you are abroad every one of you is an ambassador.’ But I don’t want to be a fig leaf for Israeli policies. This is an anti-war film.” The young men and women in the unit it portrays live in fear and cling to love. The gay tragedy is framed by a climate in which male love—and for that matter feeling itself—must be confined. This is why the soldiers cried. They reacted to the film’s depiction of queer desire as an emblem of everything human that war distorts and permanent war destroys. In this context, homosexuality becomes a metaphor for normalcy, and the closet represents the current Israeli identity.
“We are so stuck as a community,” says Fox. “We’re so afraid of change—and of peace. I grew up with this idea that the Holocaust must never happen again, and I really believe young people don’t have that crazy thing in their soul. But the intifada brought that genie out again—all the bullshit I grew up on.” Can a drama that prompts people to embrace the sexual other spark a far more difficult opening? Fox’s next film is about a Mossad agent whose assignment is to track down an elusive Nazi by befriending his German grandchildren. “Through his relationship with this sister and brother, a sweet gay man, he changes,” says Fox.
As for the future of gay culture in Israel, Fox notes, “We have these two gay soldiers tumbling in the snow, but we still don’t have Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Maybe this should be my next start-up. We’ll take an Israeli officer.”
“And teach him to use an electric nose-hair remover,” I offer.
“Yeah, and he needs it,” Fox replies.
J. Hoberman’s review of Yossi & Jagger