Yossi is still mourning for Jagger. Ten years after the love story between Yossi (Ohad Knoller), commander of an outpost in South Lebanon, and one of his officers, Lior (aka Jagger, played by Yehuda Levi), was cut short in a 67-minute film that was a surprise hit worldwide, director Eytan Fox returns to examine Yossi’s situation in “Yossi” (“Ha sippur shel Yossi” in Hebrew).
Yossi, once again played by Knoller, is still in the closet an issue that in the previous film was a source of friction between him and Jagger, who had wanted to publicize their affair. In the end Jagger is fatally injured and dies in the arms of his lover. Today Yossi is a physician whose entire existence is dedicated to his work in a hospital; he has no other life. His coworkers know he has experienced some sort of loss, but don’t know what it is. One of them even tries to fix him up with a woman.
One day in the hospital he sees Jagger’s mother (played by Yael Pearl in the previous film and Orly Silbersatz in the present one). She doesn’t recognize him, nor is there any reason why she should in the first film, Jagger’s parents were not aware of the sexual identify of their dead son; they thought he had a girlfriend, and that Yossi was simply an officer who, as is usual in such cases, had come to visit the parents of a soldier who had been killed.
Shaken by the encounter with Jagger’s mother and recognizing the fact that his life has been in a rut for a decade, Yossi now decides to take a vacation apparently the first since his lover’s death. The destination is Eilat, and on the way he gives a ride to a group of soldiers. One of them, an officer named Tom (Oz Zehavi), is gay and has come out of the closet; his friends accept his sexual identity. Will this encounter between the doctor who seems estranged from his life and the young and lively soldier lead to a new beginning for Yossi? Perhaps even to redemption that begins with acceptance?
I met with director Fox to discuss this pair of films, as well as the issues raised by the other movies he has directed in the interim: “Walk on Water” (2004) and “The Bubble” (2006). Before “Yossi and Jagger,” Fox had also directed the short film “After,” which was his final project when studying cinema at Tel Aviv University; his first feature, “Song of the Siren” (1994); and the television series “Florentine” (1997). Between “Yossi & Jagger” and “Yossi,” he also directed the TV series “Always the Same Dream” (aka “Mary Lou”).
Even when I had objections to Fox’s films, sometimes very harsh ones, I have always been interested in his place in the local cinematic, social and cultural landscape, as well as in the questions presented by his films in that context. The encounter with Fox was an opportunity to examine the validity of these questions in his body of work.
“It’s frightening to deal with characters you’ve dealt with in the past, to return to materials with which you were able to create something worthwhile that touched many people,” says Fox, in reply to the question of what made him want to create a sequel to “Yossi & Jagger.”
He goes on to say that he and Itay Segal, the scriptwriter of the new film (the previous one was written by Avner Bernheimer), spent a long time discussing the reasons for making it, which direction to take this time and whether they had anything new to say about Yossi’s story a decade later and which would also reflect what has happened to the filmmaker and this country during those years.
In spite of his fear, says Fox, there’s something nice about the idea of playing around with a character that you created, and who has some kind of virtual existence in your consciousness and that of the public. He adds that in the past decade he has often been asked what happened to Yossi, a character who at the end of the previous film remained very hurt and mired in a problematic situation. At a certain point the director decided to try to answer the question.
“The characters in my film are all variations on me and who I am and my life,” says Fox. “And that’s why if Yossi in 2002 was an expression of me, just as the hero of ‘After’ is a previous expression of me, making the present film is a kind of return to myself, to see what happened to me.”
Fox does not mean that there are autobiographical elements in Yossi’s story, either in the previous film or the new one, rather that Yossi’s character gives him the opportunity to examine his own attitude toward his life and himself over the years. “Yossi is in a posttraumatic situation,” Fox explains. “He has in effect substituted one army for another, the hospital, where he also wears a uniform and deals with questions of life and death.”
Becoming involved again with the character of Yossi reminds the filmmaker of difficult incidents in his own past incidents that either spur him on, hold him back or leave him stuck in a rut. For a long time, says Fox, he tried to conceal his sexual identity by means of various masks and disguises. Like Yossi, he used defensive and survival mechanisms, and unintentionally even became “the type of person in whom it isn’t obvious. There were times when I was stagnating terribly, when I didn’t know how and why, and how to extricate myself. I could have remained in this state of stagnation, I could have dealt with it, but it’s a very bad thing. I decided at some point to deal with the causes of the situation, and to extricate myself from it.”
Your film connects with many movies that describe how a person who’s become divorced from life is dragged back into it because life is stronger than anything else. Do you identify with this viewpoint?
“Yes, but that can’t happen if the person doesn’t have within him a desire to reconnect to life. It begins with the desire.
“Yossi” is very different from Fox’s previous full-length feature films, because there is no death in it. In “Yossi & Jagger,” “Walk on Water” and “The Bubble,” there was violent death. In “Yossi” there is at most a symbolic death of the life that Yossi experiences. In “Song of the Siren” there was no death, but there was the Gulf War in the background.
Fox laughs when he is reminded of this, as though surprised. First he says that for him “Song of the Siren” is an “extraterritorial” work in his cinematic corpus mainly because it is an adaptation of a book and not based on an original script. But “Yossi & Jagger” presented the story of two characters, one of whom is killed while the second remains in limbo.
Fox: “The tragedy of ‘Yossi & Jagger’ is not only the loss of a handsome and successful young man in battle, which connects to the Israeli myth of the dead soldier, but that at the end of the film Yossi can’t say ‘I’m a war widow look at me.’”
In one of the new film’s main scenes, Yossi visits Jagger’s parents and reveals to them that he was their son’s lover at the time of his death (I asked Fox’s permission to mention this scene, so I wouldn’t be accused of being a spoiler, and permission was granted. “Overall it’s a film without a lot of surprises,” he says). In effect Yossi “outs” Jagger to his parents.
Why does he do that, and for whom? For himself or for them?
“The mother in this scene also asks Yossi: ‘Why are you doing this to us?’ I believe he’s doing it for them. I believe he’s doing them a favor of sorts. I believe that truth sets you free. They actually understand that they didn’t know their son. It’s possible that what Yossi reveals to them is too difficult for them to accept, but I believe that when parents are able to deal with such a truth, it can lead to a process of discovery and strengthening.”
Fox adds that Yossi is also doing it for himself, because he has to deal not only with the loss of his lover but with everything connected to their relationship: the denial, the fear, the unwillingness to commit, and to move heaven and earth for his lover everything that is still causing him distress and leaving him in a rut.
“In order to deal with this trauma,” says Fox, “he has to return to the ‘scene of the crime’ where the previous film ended, the place where he didn’t tell, and where he lied about the nature of his relationship with the dead son. So that he himself can come out of the closet, he has to reveal the truth to Jagger’s parents.”
This scene is reminiscent of the one that concludes Ang Lee’s film “Brokeback Mountain.” Fox says he was aware of the similarity, but notes that the two films he had in mind when he made “Yossi” were Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” (2009) and the Dardenne brothers’ 2002 film “Le Fils” (“The Son”); he tried to place himself between them. When he saw “A Single Man” he was alarmed at the similarity between the two films in terms of the main situation and subject matter but there is a basic difference between them. As opposed to the main protagonist in “A Single Man” (played by Colin Firth), the hero of “Yossi” chooses life. He overcomes his fear of revealing the truth to a man who is both younger than him and long ago confronted his own sexuality.
And how does “Le Fils” connect to all this? Fox suggests Yossi is a kind of variation on the hero of the Dardenne brothers’ film: an uncouth type, who has no sense of aesthetics, and grapples with a terrible trauma in his life via the relationship that develops between himself and a young man who was involved in that trauma. Like “Le Fils,” “Yossi” is also a film about a man who is stagnating, whose life is permeated by lies and who learns, almost against his will, how to extricate himself from it.
Does “Yossi” also ask how we have changed in the 10 years that have passed since “Yossi & Jagger”?
“Consciously or not, I try in all my films to tell a personal story, and to extrapolate from it to the society in which it is taking place. The films say something about where I was and where I am today a place where I’m more accepting of myself, and which has more light and happiness. Yossi still lives in the closet in a tough and limited macho world; Tom lives in an entirely different world. He is both a combat officer and a proud gay man, and there’s no contradiction between the two. When I served in the army in a combat unit, such a combination was not even conceivable. It wasn’t in our lexicon. In ‘Yossi & Jagger,’ Yossi’s situation reflected that of Israeli society; in the new film, Yossi remains where he was but the society around him has changed, and Tom represents the change.”
No role models
Eytan Fox was born in New York in 1964. His parents immigrated to Israel when he was aged 2 and he grew up in Jerusalem, which plays a central role in the shaping of his personality and the nature of his work. His was a typical New York Jewish family, he says, which lived in a clean Jewish world where the roles of the man and woman were well defined. It was a world of concealment and lies, he says, where it was clear what could and couldn’t be said.
In the Jerusalem in which he grew up, recalls Fox, there was no such thing as being gay; there was no homosexual community, no role models in the movies or on television.
“I felt very very alone,” he says. “I remember how I felt when I arrived in Tel Aviv and went to see Amos Guttman’s film ‘Drifting’ [‘Nagu’a’] at the Paris Cinema an Israeli film with a gay hero. But when I left the theater I said to myself: ‘Is that how my life will look? Will it be conducted in dim bars? In public parks, with unstable relationships?’ I emerged from that screening with a terrible sense of anxiety. That world scared me.”
It was also a world with almost no connection to his own: “I was in the Scouts, I was in a combat unit, I was a student at the university, I didn’t travel to India,” he says, laughing. “I decided I would be the next gay director. I would show the Israeli flag at the opening of my short film ‘After’; I would show soldiers, I would describe more mainstream families. I wanted to have stability in my life, I wanted a family and to be surrounded by people of all types. In my films I would share my world with the viewers. I would give authentic expression to my life.
“Today we’re living in an entirely different reality,” Fox adds, “and there’s already a generation of young people that thinks I’m old because I’m still preoccupied with these subjects. ‘Forget it,’ they tell me, ‘it’s no longer an issue.’”
Fox says that on the one hand he understands what those young people are talking about, but on the other, the change that has taken place in Israeli society is still confined to very limited areas, and gays who come out of the closet still face difficult experiences, like dealing with their parents. So it may be less difficult than it was, but it’s still not simple.
“As I matured and as my work developed and I became increasingly aware, I realized that I try in my films to convey ideological messages, such as that there are many gays who have stable and long-term relationships. Today I feel almost out of it when I discuss it, because almost all my friends have children. One of the things I like about ‘Yossi’ is that it’s a story about an older man who turns for help to a younger man; an older man who is aware of the fact that the young man has an ability that he lacks, which is why that young man may be able to rescue him.”
On to Eurovision
There was a time when openly gay directors, like Jean Genet, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, John Waters and Pedro Almodóvar, all created cinema that was very far from the mainstream. At the time I believed and although I don’t entirely stand behind this belief anymore, I’m still trying to make up my mind about it that in order to describe an alternative lifestyle, you have to create alternative cinema, as each one of those filmmakers tried to do.
And then I saw “Yossi & Jagger” at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, in a packed theater with an audience that spent the last 15 minutes of the film sobbing aloud with a feeling of togetherness, the likes of which I hadn’t seen for years and there’s no cinema more mainstream than that. At the time I was put off a bit, and I ask Fox what he thinks.
Fox claims that both choices, alternative or mainstream, are legitimate. He admits that he has been accused, mainly in Israel, of trying to create an easier connection with the audience than the above-mentioned filmmakers, of making American-style cinema and of being manipulative.
But he grew up on American cinema; that’s what he knows, and that’s the world he knows. The reality in which Guttman or Fassbinder worked has changed, Fox observes, and with it the opportunities open to a gay movie director; just as a gay man can choose his lifestyle, and decide whether he wants a mainstream life, a gay movie director can choose his own cinematic path.
In a way I believe that Fox is saying, even if not in these very words, that, according to my argument, the filmmaker who wants to deal with the gay experience is confined rather than liberated, as is the goal in alternative cinema. The story of the community is the story of a dialectic process that is constantly developing, says Fox. There are gays who offer an alternative to the ethnic or religious groups in which they grew up; there are gays who offer an alternative to the gays who preceded them; and there is also cinema that just by being mainstream offers an alternative to the gay cinema that preceded it.
There are all types of gays, says Fox, and there is room for all. “There are gays like me, who have chosen to live in a long-term relationship, who have chosen to situate themselves at the heart of Israeli society rather than on its margins. Then there are those who say that Eytan Fox is just a bourgeois old man and we young people will do things differently. But when you mature you become more moderate, you develop perspective and understand that there are many alternatives.”
Many of the films by Fassbinder and Almodóvar are about women. In your films the main protagonists are men, and often men in very masculine roles. Where does that come from?
“I grew up with that man, with that myth. He’s on my shoulder, on my back, he’s connected to me from all directions. Not to enlist in the army, for example, was not an option where I grew up.”
It should be noted, however, that Fox’s next movie, on which filming has already begun, will be about women five young women who travel to represent Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest.
In “Yossi & Jagger” you present a tragic love story between two soldiers, and in “The Bubble” you took the formula of a love story between two people who come from opposite sides of the barricades and turned them into two men. Could that be considered subversive, in your opinion?
“Yes, definitely. I understand how the films I make are perceived, how they can influence and arouse debate, but I really don’t try to think that way. I try to give the most authentic reflection of reality.”
If in 2002 you had made “Yossi & Jagger” about a man and a woman rather than two men, do you think the film would have worked as well?
“No,” replies Fox. Not, he says, because that sort of story which has already been presented in Israeli cinema in films such as “He Walked Through the Fields” or “Siege” is false, and not because what is described in those and other films is false, but because the national and historical narrative it represents is false. It’s a narrative that claims we are a strong, just nation that embarks on defensive battles in which the men protect the women who remain at home.
That story is no longer true, Fox declares: “We’re a strong nation that is occupying a weak one; we have become stiff-necked and hard-hearted people. Who are those men who, in those films, are always victims? My defamiliarization of that story [i.e., his way of forcing the audience to see familiar things in a strange way, in order to enhance perception of the familiar] by changing the two heroes to men, makes it possible to reconnect to the national and historical narrative, only from a different place a more authentic place, because it undermined the myth on which it is based. People in Israel have a need to mourn, and ‘Yossi & Jagger’ enabled people to mourn once again in an authentic way.”
Fox adds that, in his opinion, “The Bubble” presented a story that was too difficult for the Israeli audience: “Two Zionist men in the Israel Defense Forces, that’s something the Israeli audience can accept. But an Israeli man and a Palestinian man? That was too much.”
Do you consider yourself a movie director with a mission?
“Yes, I won’t be evasive with slogans such as ‘I only make movies.’ Yes, I think that things filter down slowly, but I’m proud to be participating in the change that is taking place in Israeli society. I think that by presenting role models for gay love, I have brought about some kind of social change.”