In one of the strongest scenes from “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?” the new documentary film by Tomer and Barak Heymann, the hero confronts one of his brothers. The hero in question is Saar Maoz, who grew up as the eldest son of a large family on the religious kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, from which he was kicked out after revealing that he is gay. He then moved to London, where he has lived for the last 18 years, and where he also discovered that he’s HIV-positive.
The scene occurs in Israel, to which Saar is debating over whether to return permanently or not. He’s sitting across from his brother Dagan, who wears a crocheted skullcap, and Dagan’s wife, whose hair is covered.
Dagan openly voices his fear that the virus Saar carries could endanger his daughters. Saar confronts his brother with his ignorance and accuses him of never having shown any interest in what Saar was going through as a gay man who is an HIV carrier. Dagan’s wife remains almost entirely silent throughout the conversation, speaking only once: “Excuse me, I’m also the mother of our children, and I have to say I’m not worried.”
Everything contained in the Heymann Brothers’ new film flows into this excellent scene, whose power stems from the fact that it raises an already fine movie up another level and turns it from a documentary that tells a story into a film that makes a broader statement about Israeli society, which is the goal of any good documentary. The film reveals the degree to which the prevailing belief – that there has been progress in Israeli society’s attitude toward the LGBT community – is merely an illusion.
This statement is especially prominent in the Heymann Brothers’ film because Saar grew up on a religious kibbutz and is the scion of a family ruled over by a father who is an emblem of macho Israeli maleness. The movie could almost have been a brutal caricature of an Israeli family that symbolizes the patriarchy in its most demonstratively macho and national sense, had the Heymann Brothers not been aware of the complexity of the human experience that encompasses the film’s hero and revealed its nuances sensitively, without being too judgmental.
We are currently at a special moment in the development of the connection between documentary and feature films in Israel. Documentary films have always been a significant part of Israeli cinema, but because of various cinematic axioms and the fact that documentary films generally got less exposure than feature films, the documentary genre has often been pushed to the margins of Israeli cinema.
What’s happening at this particular moment proves not only that this is wrong, and was always wrong, but that it’s also undeserved. The documentary films made here are an inherent part of Israeli cinema in its entirety, and that was always true. One proof of this is that every time I’m asked what is the greatest film ever made in the history of Israeli cinema, I always name a documentary film – David Perlov’s “Diary.”
The importance of documentary film in the context of contemporary Israeli cinema derives from two main factors. First, the spectrum of issues they deal with meshes with the spectrum of issues dealt with by Israeli feature films, and documentaries often deal with these issues in a stronger, more daring fashion than any feature film would permit itself. Second, at its best, we see a stylistic variety in documentary cinema that enriches the scope of Israeli cinema as a whole.
In both contexts, the works of Tomer and Barak Heymann have a special importance, even if I’ve sometimes been put off by Tomer Heymann’s tendency to focus too much on himself and his own family (a tendency that dominates local documentary cinema, and sometimes harms it).
Despite my great liking for his early film, “It Kinda Scares Me,” from 2001 – which dealt wisely and generously with the director’s sexual identity, which is revealed to a group of marginal youth who are putting on a play – my favorite films by the Heymann Brothers (a partnership in which sometimes Barak is the producer and Tomer the director, while at other times, as in the latest film, both are credited as directors) are those that went beyond their family, like the “Paper Dolls” series of 2004, which dealt with labor migrants from the Philippines who put on drag shows (the series later became a film in 2006); “Bridge over the Wadi” from 2005, which described the establishment of a bilingual school in Wadi Ara; “Families” from 2013, which followed five different Israeli families; and also “Mr. Gaga,” despite the reservations I noted in my review of it. In all of these, Tomer Heymann clearly divested himself of a certain self-indulgence and arrogance that were evident in the works focused on him and his family, even if those films and series were also directed with the Heymann Brothers’ characteristic skill.
The power of the new film, which wanders between describing the hero’s life in London (where he’s a member of a gay choir) and his visits to Israel, stems from the fact that while the film paints the portraits of a hero who isn’t the director and a family that isn’t the Heymann family, both the individual and the family portraits that the Heymann Brothers paint also relate to the story of Tomer Heymann and his family — even though the latter is secular and lived on a moshav, whereas the Maoz family is religious and lives on a religious kibbutz.
In other words, in “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?” the Heymann Brothers have managed to successfully combine scrutiny of the other with revelation of self, and thus to realize, in a balanced fashion, one of the goals of documentary cinema – a goal that sometimes escapes control in documentary films, and not just those made in Israel. The brothers directed their film simply and directly. Sometimes there’s too much narrative and too little discussion of this narrative, but in general, it’s a mature and impressive film.
It will soon be time for the documentary film festival Docaviv, which takes place this year from May 19 to 28, at which other new documentaries will be screened. And henceforth, hopefully, when people say “Israeli cinema,” the phrase will include both feature and documentary films on an equal basis and focus on the similarities and differences that connect them. For this connection is an extremely significant development for the growing abundance, variety and importance of our local film industry.