Up Close and Personal With an Israeli Gay Porn Star

'Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life,' a film by Tomer Heymann, about a hugely successful Israeli gay porn star, is a quantum leap in the work of one of Israel’s leading documentarians

Jonathan Agassi, from the film “Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life.”
Tomas Shemesh

The key to the success of Tomer Heymann’s new film, “Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life,” resides in its title. To whom do the words “my life” refer? Anyone who has followed Heymann’s ramified work knows that he has placed himself at the center of many of his pictures. His first name is even part of the title of the film that marked his breakthrough into the public consciousness in 1998 and placed him in the forefront of Israel's documentary filmmaking – “Tomer Vehasrutim” (English title: “It Kinda Scares Me”). Heymann’s choice in this regard signifies the constant fluctuation in his work between first and third person, and the former is present in his films more than the latter.

Heymann’s oeuvre includes a dominant group of films and television series – such as “The Way Home” (2009) and “The Queen Has No Crown” (2011) – in which the director dealt with his family and portrayed his ties with his mother and his siblings (among them Barak Heymann, a director in his own right who produces his brother’s films, including the new one, and sometimes is the co-director). In these pictures – which address the subject of parenthood and simultaneously reveal the resilience and fragility of family relations – and in other films, such as “I Shot My Love” (2010), Heymann also documented, at times in the style of a cinematic diary, his life as a gay man who is looking for love, and described the pitfalls encountered in the relationships he tried to cultivate.

In “The Way Home” he linked these two facets of his work, gently revealing the difficulties of his mother (who fled to this country from Germany) in coming to terms with the fact that her son’s current partner was a German. She accepts him, but we feel the emotional barrier that exists between her and her son.

Heymann is also at the center of the works in which he focuses not on the “self” but on the “other.” This is apparent in the TV series “Paper Dolls,” which in 2006 was edited down to film length, where Heymann penetrated the complex and difficult world of migrant transgender laborers from the Philippines who also stage drag shows; in “Aliza,” his lovely 2014 picture, consisting largely of his conversations and confrontations with the actress Aliza Rosen; and in “Mr. Gaga” (2016), in which he tried to probe the meaning of the art of the dancer and choreographer Ohad Naharin (though Heymann is not seen onscreen in that film). Just about his only documentary work of a traditional character is the moving series “Bridge Over the Wadi” (2005), which deals with the difficulties encountered in the attempt to establish a bilingual Hebrew-Arabic school in Wadi Ara, in Galilee.

The connection between self and other that characterizes Heymann’s work is focused, in the title of his new film, on the words “my life” – a life ostensibly saved by Jonathan Agassi. The wording of the title suggests that once again the director will be the hub of the film, but this turns out not to be the case. The sentence that gives the picture its title is spoken by its protagonist, Jonathan Agassi, who refers to himself in the third person, because that name signifies the identity he has adopted for himself – his real name is Yonatan Langer. Heymann’s voice is heard in the film, Jonathan’s voice more so, and Heymann is seen only in a scene near the end, almost totally from behind, when he comes to the aid of Jonathan, who has collapsed on the street from a drug overdose.

Personal exposure

The blurring between “self” and “other” that is created already in the title, indicates how far Tomer Heymann’s new film is a quantum leap of creative maturity in his oeuvre. His works dealing with his family and his private life sometimes display an overly blatant fondness for self, giving rise to a feeling of pampering and arrogance. No such feeling arises in the new picture. The leap he makes here from self to other allows him a creative freedom that seems different from that of his previous films. In them, creative freedom sometimes took the form of personal and family exposure that was overt but also controlled; in “Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life” it’s expressed in Heymann’s presentation of the protagonist’s character and story.

Yonatan Langer, born in Brooklyn and raised in Holon, became an admired star of gay porn movies in Europe and even worked as an escort boy in Berlin. He adopted the name Agassi because he thought it was more appropriate for a star. When his stardom was at its height he also became addicted to hard drugs.

This isn’t his first appearance in a Heymann film. He is first presented to us in the 2013 series “Families,” which tells the stories of five different families. In the new film Jonathan is at the center and Heymann presents his character and story with powerfully expressive momentum. Its directness, which does not spare the viewers, comes about through the distance that the transition from self to other provides the director.

The film’s style suits the multilayered presence of Jonathan himself, certainly in regard to the protagonist of a documentary. His exterior appearance and his richly tattooed body project extroverted masculinity, hence the high effectiveness of the drama when his life shatters into fragments.

One element that connects Heymann and Jonathan is that both engage in nonstop documentation. This accentuates the narcissistic dimension of both the director and the protagonist, who documented himself even in his darkest moments. But whereas the narcissism of Heymann’s work contains a constructive aspect, as it’s the lever for a considerable portion of his oeuvre and fuels his essence as an artist, Jonathan’s narcissism heightens the sense of nullity that accompanies the documentation of his life.

‘You’re my boy’

Heymann’s preoccupation with family continues in “Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life.” The other significant person in addition to Jonathan is his mother, who supports and accepts him even when she is critical of him. (His father abandoned the family when Jonathan was a child, and the film shows a brief meeting between the two in Berlin, where Jonathan also meets his father’s daughter from his present relationship. But the encounter only attests to Jonathan’s desperation and to his father’s alienation from him.) Jonathan’s mother is the only firm rock in his life, but she, too, knows where the boundary between them runs. In one of the film’s best scenes, Jonathan says to his mother that he’s her man and she corrects him with the tough softness that characterizes her: “No, you’re my boy.”

At times it seems that the mother’s attitude toward her son parallels that of Heymann to the protagonist of his film, even if Heymann obviously doesn’t possess the same emotional tie to Jonathan. Neither of them judge him, and this makes possible the supportive relationship between Jonathan and his mother and also allows Heymann’s picture to be balanced and controlled even when the reality it presents is wild and ugly. Both of them recognize the fact that Jonathan is as he is, and that, as his life unfolded, this is what there is. The film also does not raise the question of whether his mother’s relationship with her son is a factor that aids his success or hinders it. Nor whether Jonathan can in fact be saved.

The picture has a didactic side, which is aimed against the sex industry and touches on the self-destruction entailed in the use of drugs; but this aspect, if it actually drives the film, is covert, and a less interesting element. In “Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life” Heymann set out to present a character, tell a story and sweep us into it without placing any barrier between “us” and “them,” and this is one of the ways in which documentarians realize their art.

Tomer Heymann’s cinema to date has been primarily intuitive rather than analytic. What elevates the new work a notch is the balance that emerges in it, perhaps for first time, between the intuitive and the analytic. Even if the film does not turn its gaze away from the reality it depicts, and which at times is shown to us in a harrowing head-on mode, it is free of sensationalism and certainly of sentimentality. The interplay between intimate, even soft scenes and scenes that are difficult to watch – and there are plenty of those – makes this a film that presents to us a wounded humanity and itself as an open wound.

Heymann’s cinema is fluid in terms of the way in which series he has made become films, and vice versa. This, too, is what makes the reality documented in the films fluid. The same process will occur in the case of “Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life,” whose 106 minutes will be lengthened into a series to be broadcast on the Hot 8 channel in the coming months.

In the two decades since “It Kinda Scares Me,” Heymann has been a consistent and distinctive presence in local documentary filmmaking. His voice was heard in it, and very often there was something worth hearing. His new film heralds a creative maturation that might mark a new chapter in his career, in which he will grow from a filmmaker of significance to a filmmaker of importance.