Man, Woman, and Everything in Between

A film project seeks to explore gay and lesbian perceptions of sexuality, but the final result may be stunted by local conservatism, some fear.

An old man with a thick white beard and ritual fringes peeping out of his shirt enters the Femme Fatale lesbian bar in South Tel Aviv one evening this week. A shabby bag hangs from his shoulder, and he holds knit skullcaps in his hand. "Skullcaps?" he offers, hocking his wares to the few young people leaning against the bar. He provokes bewildered stares, but continues to make his determined way further into the bar to a cluster of potential clients congregating next to spotlights and camera equipment. "Skullcaps?" he repeats, trying his luck again.

But the young people here barely notice him. They are gearing up feverishly for a film shoot. Temporarily thwarted, the skullcap purveyor adjourns to watch them. Some of them are wearing leather jackets, some have shaved heads, and the apparent gender of others is unclear. The peddler remains planted in place for many minutes, but finally understands that he will make no sales here. He abandons the bar. A short while later, someone yells "Action!" and filming begins on the "Fucking Different Tel Aviv" queer film project.

Abolishing stereotypes

This will be the third installment of the international "Fucking Different" project. The first two were produced in Berlin (2005) and New York (2007). Hundreds of lesbians were invited to create short films that depict their perception of male gay love and sexuality, and gay men were invited to produce short films about lesbian sexuality and eroticism. The 14 short films produced in each city were assembled into one work of art.

After he visited the annual Tel Aviv International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival last summer, German producer Christian Petersen decided to invite local artists to take part in an Israeli version of the project. Filmmakers were asked to suggest ideas for three- to seven-minute shorts, to be produced on a very low budget of up to $200. Seven films by female directors and seven films by male directors were chosen from among the proposals. All the filming is slated to be completed by the end of the month; directors are supposed to wrap up editing this week, and then the films will be sent to Berlin. There they will be consolidated into one feature-length film that will open at the Tel Aviv LGBT Film Festival in June.

"The original project in Berlin addressed existing cliches of femininity and masculinity, stereotypes that lesbians have of gays and vice versa, and it tried to abolish those stereotypes," says November, director of the film shot at the Tel Aviv bar this week. She says she decided to examine the concept of masculinity through her film. "But not just gay masculinity - masculinity in general," she says.

She is an American citizen who lived in Berlin for 23 years and came to Israel only a few months ago. "As a newcomer in Israel, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at local masculinity and understand how people here view masculinity," she says. "People in Europe have been talking about a new type of masculinity in recent years, and people in gay communities particularly like to play with that concept, change it, and make it more flexible. But I've gotten the impression that most men here are still macho," she says with a smile.

Her film, temporarily titled "Non-Existing Night," follows a gay choreographer who engages in casual sex with multiple partners. "I wanted to take the biggest cliche about gays - that they have sex with many partners - and investigate it. I think that pattern conceals fear of intimacy and falling in love."

The regular debauchery of the attractive choreographer (played by Ofer Regirer) is unexpectedly undermined when he finds himself attracted to a new French dancer who has joined the troupe. When he discovers that the dancer is actually a transgender man who was once a woman, the main character is forced to reexamine his own sexuality and modify the definition of masculinity that he searches for in his partners.

The director cast a multitalented, French-German artist named Ocean Leroy as the French dancer. The transgender artist came to Israel to appear in the film. "When you are transgendered, the challenge in a film like this is to be man enough - especially when a guy like that is your co-star," laughs Leroy in an utterly feminine voice while pointing to the gorgeous Regirer sitting at his side.

Regirer says his curiosity about Leroy was roused a few months ago when the director invited him to her home and showed him pictures of his co-star. Regirer admits that he senses remnants of femininity in Leroy, but the stubble that adorns his co-star's face leaves no room for error, requiring him to challenge his own perceptions of gender.

"I have acted alongside women and men, but this time it's confusing, because it's neither this nor that," he says. "He looks entirely like a man, but yesterday, for example, when we were rehearsing one of the scenes, when I was very close to him I suddenly felt something slightly feminine - something about the proportions of the waist, and then I was totally confused."

Leroy appears to be amused and accustomed to coping with embarrassing moments of this type. He says the attraction and passion he and Regirer must display for the camera forces both of them to go through a new experience.

"I told Ofer that I am attracted to women and to transsexuals, but I have never been with a biological man. So this is new for both of us. But I think it's actually nice, because it makes our interaction in front of the camera something crispier," he allows with a mischievous grin.

Not free enough

While the German version contained explicit sex scenes that bordered on pornography, and the New York version leaned even more toward the avant-garde, the Israeli version is notably more conservative, confessed Israeli LGBT film festival director Yair Hochner, who is also directing a film for the project.

Hochner says most of the locally produced films will not contain graphic sex scenes.

"The original concept was to give Israeli gays and lesbians an opportunity to create anarchist queer films, but most of our films actually emphasize the stories and the characters, and they focus on plot and atmosphere," he says. "They went wild in New York and Berlin, but Israelis apparently still are not free enough."

Despite that conservatism, it will be interesting to note whether filmmakers will succeed in blurring the limits of traditional perceptions of "masculine" and "feminine"; whether "Fucking Different Tel Aviv" will manage to loosen and transform our concepts of those terms, or whether it will actually enshrine the way in which we view them.