Culture Fop / The Big Gay Israeli Film Festival That Could

TLVFest, Tel Aviv’s annual gay and lesbian film festival, proved a welcome escape from the peculiar past two weeks and, among other eclectic fare, showed us the Bible as we've never seen it before.

The eighth annual TLVFest, Tel Aviv’s gay and lesbian film festival, doled out awards Saturday night to the best flicks screened over the past week and a half. It was a triumph not just for the individual winners but also for the festival itself, which almost didn’t happen after the Culture and Sports Ministry threatened to pull funding in January.

Eventually, though, “They decided to hear us – they listened to us,” said Yair Hochner, the festival’s founder and artistic director, who said that the festival ended up receiving more money this year than ever before from the ministry. “Now we are safe.”

And for that, the LGBT community is grateful. It has, after all, been through a strange and confusing two weeks, what with the high of the Pride festivities mixed with the major low of shocking revelations in the 2009 shooting at the Barnoar LGBT youth center.

The 80 feature-length films and 120 shorts screened during the fest – which attracted more than 10,000 viewers – explored themes of love, sexuality, self-discovery and small moments of triumph, many with a good dose of spicy humor. During a difficult week, it was a cathartic blend.

A taste of it arrives in New York in a few weeks when Hochner brings his 2008 feature-length film “Antarctica” to the Tribeca Film Center on July 2. “Antarctica” follows a crew of attractive gay men and women on a raucous night in Tel Aviv, which is, basically, every night. A Q&A with Hochner will follow.

Who needs a salary?

Hochner is the type to sacrifice all for his artistic baby. He doesn’t pay himself for his work on the festival, though to do so would be a common and acceptable use of funds and he would be more than justified.

“He could bring only the movie and not the guest and take the salary,” said Izik, his husband, from the other side of the room, where he sat in front of a computer and worked on the festival’s website. Izik, too, has dedicated himself to raising their cinematic child together. “But he prefers to make the festival bigger and richer at his expense,” Izik said.

Then he added with a shrug, “I don’t know if it’s so bad [to pay yourself].”

According to Hochner, the Tel Aviv municipality gives NIS 50,000 to TLVFest, compared to the NIS 250,000 it hands over to the Children’s Film Festival, which screens only 20 features, a quarter of what its gay brother manages to bring.

“I hope one day the municipality will decide we’re a real festival and support us like the other festivals in the city and stop discriminating against us,” he said.

Soft-core Bible

When Izik referred to the prioritizing of guests over salaries, one prime example of such a guest was Wakefield Poole, this year’s recipient of a Lifetime Achievement award. Poole, a dancer, choreographer and director, is perhaps best known for the way he artfully revolutionized gay porn in the 1970s and '80s.

This year, TLVFest flew him out to Tel Aviv to pay homage to him through a mini-series of several of his films, including “Wakefield Poole’s Bible,” a 1973 take on three biblical stories, featuring a soft-core rendition of Adam and Eve’s first time and a campy, slapstick look at the story of David and Bathsheba with a nod to Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin.

“He was forgotten a bit in the history of queer cinema,” said Hochner, who discovered Poole’s films a year ago and was moved by his unique aesthetic and visionary eye. “We need to appreciate this filmmaker who opened up the door for us.

“To show Wakefield movies and not to have him here telling his stories … it adds a lot to the experience,” he said. “This is part of the experience – to come to a festival and meet the filmmakers.”

Your friendly neighborhood Filipino lesbian

Among the awards bestowed on Saturday, the one for Best Israeli Short Film went to a 40-minute Israeli documentary called “Grace,” directed by Michal Aharonson.

“Grace” follows a Filipino woman who came to Israel 20 years ago as a foreign worker, married an Israeli man, had three kids with him, and then left the relationship to embrace her sexuality. The film captures her in her beauty salon in the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station and follows the development of her relationship with another Filipino woman and the subsequent uncertainty when that woman leaves for a visit to the Philippines and falls out of touch.

Throughout, Grace is a model of perseverance, resilience and unflappable optimism. She both longs to return home to the Philippines herself (where she intends to open a school to teach women how to start their own salons) and is the quintessential Israeli mother – she won’t think of going back until her children, the youngest of whom is under 10, complete their army service.

It was perhaps the most unexpected portrait of the Israeli LGBT community that one could think of and it raised the question, particularly with the ups and downs of the past two weeks, what it even means to be a community when the spectrum is so large.

“Community?” asked Hochner. “It’s a big question. We have a community when we have big trouble that unites us. The rest of the time, we’re separate.”

But, in fact, his own festival suggested otherwise: The lesbian shorts and erotic gay midnight showings and the transgender documentaries and Grace, your charming neighborhood F ilipino lesbian, all shared the thread of struggle and discovery around the elusive themes of gender and sexuality. The audience who showed up for TLVFest, however we identified, became a sort of de facto community because, in some way, we all saw ourselves reflected on screen. 

TLVFest