Israeli Men Are Coming Out of the Closet and Onto the Screen

Israeli film has given more prominence to gay characters in recent years, and allowed for a more diverse, and less stereotypical portrayal of them, concludes a new scholarly survey of the topic.

Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

Those who follow Israeli cinema have probably realized in recent years that local filmmakers, including quite a few who are heterosexual, are increasingly choosing to include gay characters in their movies - not rarely in principal roles.

Jonathan Sagall's "Lipstikka," Doron Eran's "Melting Away," Veronica Kedar's "Joe + Belle," Haim Tabakman's "Eyes Wide Open," Dan Wolman's "Tied Hands" and Yair Hochner's "Antarctica," as well as Avi Nesher's "The Secrets," Eytan Fox's "The Bubble," and Yuval Shafferman's "Things Behind the Sun" - all these films made in the past six years are joined by a respectable harvest of documentaries, shorts, student films and of course television series starring gay characters.

"Eyes Wide Open" (2009), a love story between two ultra-Orthodox men.

This is precisely the subject of Nir Cohen's recently published book "Soldiers, Rebels and Drifters: Gay Representation in Israeli Cinema." While this English-language book (published by Wayne State University Press ) largely deals with male homosexual characters and leaves the lesbians to other scholars, it offers several interesting observations concerning the history of homosexual representation in our local cinema, and the trends that have been prominent in it.

During the first decades of Israeli cinema, gay characters had no place whatsoever on the screen. Pride was the domain of the Zionist characters - warrior types, patriotic and straight. The infiltration of gay characters into local films began as a slow trickle. Cohen's starting point for his study is the cinema of the 1970s, when the so-called bourekas films reigned. The introduction to his book mentions, for example, "The Bull Buster" (1973 ), directed by George Obadiah, and "Beautiful Troubles" (1976 ), directed by Assi Dayan - two of the first movies to feature gay characters.

Cohen emphasizes that "The Bull Buster" portrayed homosexuality stereotypically through minor characters, in a handful of scenes; in Dayan's film the subject crops up in the form of an Italian hairdresser who speaks no Hebrew. In both cases these characters were secondary, Cohen notes, and as in other films from the same period, the homosexual community was depicted in a grotesque, marginalized and frivolous manner.

Avi Nesher's film "The Troupe," which was a critical and box-office success here in 1978, also gave us a problematic representation of gays. In one scene, Benny, the character played by Menahem Einy, comes out to his friends during a game of Truth or Dare, but Cohen argues that Benny's character actually undercuts the claim that this was a liberal film for its time: Not only is the gay soldier the least developed character in the movie, but also in contrast to his fellow members in the army entertainment troupe, whom we see involved in all sorts of complex heterosexual relationships - we hardly know anything about Benny's personal life.

Only in 1983, seven years after Amos Guttman's short film "Drifting" (1976 ) was banned for broadcast on local television, did his first feature-length film of the same name appear. The feature-length "Drifting" ("Nagu'a" in Hebrew ), about a young gay man who works in his grandmother's grocery store and dreams of making movies, became an important landmark in the history of local gay culture and of Israeli cinema in general.

Guttman, the first Israeli filmmaker to treat the gay subject matter seriously, is one of the two main directors that Cohen's book discusses, the other being Eytan Fox; indeed, up until a few years ago, pride of place in this realm belonged to these two filmmakers. Like Guttman, Fox dared to place the gay experience at the center of his work, and to rebel against the traditional approach that preferred to ignore the existence of gays in Israeli society or to present them in a stereotypical and warped fashion.

"Walk on Water" (2004), the gay men were a Palestinian and a German.

Cohen devotes an entire chapter to each man. "I call them 'the founding fathers of gay and lesbian cinema,'" he says in a telephone interview from London, where he teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies. "I find it quite interesting that Guttman and Fox are the ones who serve to anchor the book and are given this title, because really the filmmaking of each is very different from that of the other, and likewise the political statement that each makes, as I perceive it."

Cohen, 35, left Israel for London 11 years ago. His book is an expansion of the doctoral dissertation he wrote at University College London. "My aspiration was to present a cultural history survey of the evolution of gay and lesbian cinema in Israel since the late '70s, and to look at the connection formed between it and the gay community or movement in Israel," he says.

"I grew up in the '80s and personally experienced this movement's changing status in Israel, the gay culture's breakthrough, in film and generally, and the place that gays began occupying in the cultural-social sphere," Cohen adds. "My study is based on cinematic representations of those same social-cultural changes."

'Courageous and bold'

The first chapter of the book discusses the link between the growth of the gay and lesbian community in Israel, and the urban renewal that took place in Tel Aviv during the late 1980s and early '90s. Through the films "Life According to Agfa," "Tel Aviv Stories" and "Song of the Siren," Cohen examines the way in which these two phenomena were intertwined.

From there, he goes on to deal with the trailblazer of local gay cinema, Amos Guttman, who was born in 1954 and died of AIDS at age 38. Guttman directed three short films and four full-length features. The latter are "Drifting" (1983 ); "Bar 51" (1985 ), which is about a brother and sister who move to Tel Aviv and become acquainted with several characters from the local nightlife scene; "Himmo, King of Jerusalem" (1987 ), which was based on Yoram Kaniuk's book and is set in a hospital that treats soldiers wounded in the War of Independence; and "Amazing Grace" (1992 ), about a young man who moves to Tel Aviv to live with his partner and is drawn to an AIDS patient from New York who comes home for a visit.

Amos Guttman, the trailblazer of local gay cinema, died of AIDS at 38.Credit: Dan Lachman

"Even in his early films, Guttman's cinema was very courageous and very bold," Cohen notes. "It was the first time an Israeli filmmaker had devoted nearly all of his work to representing a culture that was very marginal at the time.

"Guttman began his creative work in an era that was difficult and challenging to the gay and lesbian community, in nearly every respect - self-definition, visibility in society and culture as a whole, the roles that members of the community could fill in society, and the representations they were accorded in culture. And the alienation and difficulties are definitely evident in his films. The characters are always forced to contend with a deep inner conflict, which at times even gets to the point of self-loathing.

"In those years there was a fierce desire in the community to create a rosy picture of it and to try and get closer to the Israeli mainstream. Back then it was important to a lot of gays to prove themselves as creative people who can be a part of mainstream society, and Guttman had a problem with that. He preferred in his films to draw marginal characters and another reality, and I think this is why a great many people, including gays and lesbians, are reluctant to embrace his films."

There is a duality to Guttman's films, continues Cohen: "On the one hand, a great deal of courage, which doubtless was greatly appreciated by gays and lesbians at that time, and on the other hand, he held up to them a very harsh mirror." He says that, "The choice to cast particular actors for his films also reflected this estrangement, the alternative reality he tried to draw. In the case of 'Bar 51,' for example, Guttman cast Juliano Mer-Khamis, whose Jewish-Arab identity aroused clear conflict, and alongside him Ada Valeria Tal, who only posthumously turned out to have been one of the first transsexuals in Israel."

Gays and the mainstream

Cohen notes, among other things, the evident attempt in Fox's films to get closer to the Israeli mainstream. Many of them deal with a military combat experience, which is a macho, heterosexual, very Israeli experience, he says, citing "Yossi & Jagger" (2002 ) and "The Bubble" (2006 ). Those films may deal with homosexual issues and the characters in them are gay, but they still convey a desire to belong to the Israeli experience as we tend to conceive of it. Homosexual culture gets pushed to the sidelines in these films.

'Yossi & Jagger' (2002), homosexuality mixed with the macho world of combat.

Cohen: "Fox's films give themselves over to the traditional concept of Israeli masculinity. I think there is a great wish there to be part of the military combat narrative, to let the gay characters prove themselves in a space that has traditionally been perceived as straight. And when there is a striving against this, as in 'Yossi & Jagger' the problematic character simply disappears."

In "Yossi & Jagger," Cohen sees an attempt to contrast the figures of the two main protagonists. Yossi (Ohad Knoller ) is the commanding officer, his appearance and conduct seem straight and he insists on keeping his sexual orientation a secret. Whereas Jagger (Yehuda Levi ), who is of course a chiseled and brave combat soldier, displays more feminine, slightly softer, tendencies: He wants to be discharged from the army, he wants to declare his love for Yossi publicly - and he wants them to go on vacation together to Eilat and stay in a hotel room with a queen-size bed.

"There is therefore something a little dangerous about Jagger's character," Cohen says. "It seems like at certain moments he is about to topple this illusion that both of them are 'straighter than straight.' And ultimately his character disappears, he dies. To my mind this end is problematic, because I think there is something representative about it - a desire to be part of some kind of straight value system."

About Fox's "Walk on Water" (2004 ), Cohen says: "There are decidedly gay themes in this film, but it was interesting to me to discover that actually the only two gay characters in the film are the German guy and the Palestinian guy. Obviously, there is more than one way to interpret the film, but to me it seemed like an attempt to shove the entire discussion of homosexuality outside the boundaries of the Israeli discourse. By contrast, the Israeli character, who occupies the central position in the film, is straight and ultimately attains blissful fulfillment in marriage and in giving birth to a child."

At the center of "The Bubble" is a love story between an Israeli and a Palestinian, and here too the film ends tragically. "Despite the fact that Fox's films celebrate some sort of homosexual identity, he does not permit a happy end in them for the gay characters," Cohen observes. "In 'The Bubble,' too, the promise of a future of some kind, of continuity, is reserved for the heterosexual characters."

Unlike Fox's films, with Guttman, the preoccupation with the military and Israeliness hardly exists. The military experience is barely mentioned in his films, with the exception of "Himmo, King of Jerusalem."

"But even in that film, Guttman portrays the soldiers as having been rejected by the Israeli mainstream," Cohen says. "In the long version of 'Drifting,' the army received momentary mention, but it is clear that Robi [the protagonist] did not serve in the army, and there is an antithesis there to the Israeli myth of [the] army, of masculinity, of contributing to the country."

Guttman's films have a decadent quality to them - an attempt to distance themselves as much as possible from Israeliness. For example, many characters in his films have non-Hebrew names, names such as Thomas, Robi and Mariana, and most also have a connection of some kind to overseas, or an ambition to leave the country, Cohen points out: "In the feature-length 'Drifting,' for example, Robi's mother lives in Germany and sends money from there; in 'Bar 51,' Smadar Kilchinsky's character has an affair with an American dancer who promises to take her there; and in 'Amazing Grace,' Thomas comes from New York, the character played by Gal Hoyberger wants to go there, and so on. The yearning to leave Israel always hovers in the background. "Fox's films try to show that gays are just like your average Israeli," adds Cohen. "They can be found on distant military bases on the Lebanese border, at checkpoints, and also on a kibbutz - in 'Walk on Water.' Guttman's cinema, on the other hand, takes place within a limited urban framework."

Cohen's book also explores the connection between Fox's films and their characters, and what he terms "the Zionist left, the supposedly liberal mind-set of mainstream Israel, which is prepared to accept the homosexual, but only so long as he does not pose too great a threat to its values and its cultural concept."

Although Fox's films ostensibly celebrate the gay experience, argues Cohen, the satisfying homosexual relationship is withheld from the characters, due to death or other things, "and therefore the gay experience in them is fairly limited. This pretty much corresponded to the thinking until recently. The gay community really did get the recognition it deserved, but there was a feeling that it had better not be too much of a threat. Suddenly gays no longer had to conceal their sexual tendency, could serve in the army like anyone else, and could have children like anyone else - in other words, the community's greatest achievement was that its members were permitted to be like anyone else. And I think that this definitely finds expression in Fox's films."

Founding fathers

Despite the critical reading of Guttman's and Fox's cinematic works, Cohen stresses that he has great respect for the activity and work of the two founding fathers of Israeli gay and lesbian cinema.

His book also devotes chapters to documentary films that have dealt with the gay experience, and to other filmmakers who tried to permit more diverse voices to be heard. For example, he mentions the documentary film "Say Amen" (2005 ), director David Deri's personal account of the process of coming out to his traditionally observant Jewish family in Yeruham.

"It is a moving, interesting film, and also unusual and rare," Cohen says. "It breaks through the narrow boundaries that Guttman's and Fox's films examined, and addresses the question of what it's like to grow up as a homosexual and come out of the closet in a much more conservative, non-Ashkenazi society, on the country's periphery, rather than in the center."

Among feature films of recent years that Cohen examines are "Eyes Wide Open," Haim Tabakman's film from 2009 that portrays a love story between two ultra-Orthodox men, and "The Secrets," Avi Nesher's 2007 film about a love story between two students at an institute for ultra-Orthodox women.

"You could look at the chronological axis and say that we have reached a point where we feel comfortable talking about sexual identity that is not necessarily related to a particular place and a particular segment of society, but rather exists in all communities," Cohen says. "In these films, for example, there is an examination of sexual identity within the Haredi community. That is an interesting direction in which cinema is headed, and I understand that [the TV series] 'Srugim' also has a gay subplot that is set in the Orthodox community, so that it is overflowing into television as well. It is interesting to see how the cinematic discourse about gay and lesbian identities is continually expanding, and makes it possible to find them now also in outlying areas, also in families that are not Ashkenazi, and even in Orthodox and Haredi society."



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