New Documentary Asks and Tells About Being Gay in the IDF

Eyal Goldberg’s new documentary 'Powder' takes a look at the pressures of doing reserve duty as a gay, liberal, Tel Avivian.

Guy Erlich
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Guy Erlich

The Israel Defense Forces recently published an image of two soldiers in uniform holding hands. It immediately made headlines and provoked strong reactions, including excitement at the army’s gesture, disgust and opposition – even within the gay community – to what some perceived to be playing the “gay card” for public relations.

Eyal Goldberg’s wonderful film "Powder" also features a uniformed solider embracing his gay partner, but not in the same tranquil context. In the film – which won best debut film and best editing at the Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival and appeared at the international LGBT film festival TLVFest – the army is a source of anxiety, frustration and moral dilemmas. Leaving the army, it turns out, isn’t easy—not just bureaucratically, but also psychologically. There are social pressures, pangs of conscience, the sense of belonging mingled with that of not belonging and moral dilemmas on all sides.

The struggle over leaving the army, or staying in it, isat the center of the movie. Goldberg is repeatedly called in for reserve duty, and each times feels he no longer has the strength to continue. Against the backdrop of the little emotional deaths he undergoes on being called up, real deaths occur in his family. One after another, Goldberg's father, grandfather and grandmother pass away, and Goldberg –along with the movie and its viewers – is tossed back and forth between the literal and metaphorical axes of death.

“The film was made over ten years, and it wasn’t an easy experience,” says Goldberg. “I started filming during reserve duty in 2001 and at first only filmed when I was called up to serve. At the same time lots of things started to happen at home in Metula. My first film, “Hamavri,” was about my family and the sense that its demise was growing more palpable. Part of the material I filmed during that time, which wasn’t included in the first film, made its way into the current one. My need to film stemmed from the desire to document what would soon no longer exist – my grandparents were ill and so was my father. At first I didn’t think this film would include my family. I assumed it would focus on reserve duty and the accompanying difficulties. But when I arrived in Metula during my service – at the time of the most recent Lebanon war – I suddenly realized everything was linked. So from then onward, I started filming my family again.”

Haaretz: The film is about the military, and also about homosexuals, the occupation, death and families. It touches on many subjects and cannot be reduced to a single one. Was this thematic diversity something you planned in advance?

“No. Like I said, at first I thought I would focus solely on the topic of reserve duty, but I knew I didn’t want to make ‘another reserve duty film,’ says Goldberg. "When the family aspect became part of the movie it also became the root of all the thematic diversity you mentioned. And only then did I feel the film was truly mine. It seems like the movie isn’t organized in a chronological, linear timeline, but as a sequence of reflections on family deaths and calls to duty. And in fact, the two things aren’t that different, because death is also present in the call-up notices – in a literal sense – the risk of dying in combat – and a metaphorical one – the mental suffering that accompanies the experience."

So the one thing the film revolves around is the theme of death.

“Yes," says Goldberg."This is something I only came to understand during the work process. At some stage in the editing, I suddenly saw it, and it was a difficult moment. It was difficult for me to put death at the forefront. The presence of death is not only expressed in the family moments, but also in the repeated calls to duty, because the call to duty carries with it the risk of death. I started filming before my father passed away, and I thought the dialogue would take place in opposition with him. But then he died, and immediately afterwards my grandfather died, and suddenly there was a feeling that all the men in my family had disappeared.

I thought after they were gone, it would be easier to deal with the issue of reserve duty, but it seems there was something in the role they filled, the ‘manly’ role, that was passed on to me in an unconscious way. Even if I didn’t want to be a soldier any more, I felt that I couldn’t suddenly throw it away. I felt the full force of this when I served in Metula, near my house, during the war. I felt it despite my ‘leftism,’ I had suddenly stepped into my father’s shoes. And I think in a sense, the movie is also about that.”

In one of the scenes, you tell your friends in the reserves you’re gay. The scene is somewhat comical, maybe because it includes some very clichéd reactions, like "You don’t look that way" and “I don’t want people like that to be part of our gang,” and also because it doesn’t look like you're at all bothered by the reactions. But do they reflect the wider reality? Have you encountered many similar reactions in the army?

“It’s complicated. What I find interesting is that alongside these sayings – which are very homophobic – the relationship between us, as friends, stayed warm and strong. Coming out of the closet gave me a lot of strength. When I started filming, I knew there'd be a moment when I’d tell them, and I thought this step would hasten my decision over what to do regarding the issue of reserve duty. I assumed after I told them I would no longer be able to continue in the reserves, the decision would be clear. But the opposite happened, and our relationship only grew stronger.”

Why didn’t you tell them earlier?

“It took me a lot of time to reach that place. You have to remember I meet them once a year, or once a month, so it’s very easy to feel it’s not particularly urgent to tell them at a particular moment. It actually happened as a result of the film.”

In one of the scenes, your mother says she is worried the film will be something like B’Tselem. Does the fear of automatically being labeled as another gay, leftist, Israel-hater concern you as well?

“I don’t think I was worried about that, but I did want to bring a greater level of complexity to the subject. When I started filming, I thought the very act of filming – which has an inherent active dimension that forces you to acknowledge things and deal with them – would bring up the dilemma of serving versus objecting. But it also made everything more complex. I didn’t want the film to be about a leftist, gay Tel Avivian who doesn’t want to go to the army, and I don’t think it turned out that way. I insisted on creating something more complex."

The film will now have scheduled screenings, following its participation in the TLVFest and Docaviv festivals and having won awards and accolades. Does this put you more at ease?

“Undoubtedly, there is something more comfortable about scheduled screenings. When the film was released and shown in festivals, it followed a ten-year period of strenuous work, and it was a very powerful and moving experience. Now I just want people to watch it. The exposure my first film brought me when it was released, along with my father’s illness, was too much for me and made me ‘hide’ the movie. Now it’s different. I feel that everything is more organic and that I’m more comfortable being in this place.”

“Powder” will be screened at the Jerusalem Cinematheque between July 18 and July 29 and at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque between July 19 and July 30.

A photo released by the IDF in June shows two male soldiers holding hands.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit
An Israeli couple kisses during the annual gay pride parade in Jerusalem in 2010.Credit: AP



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