Yossi revisited: Israeli director Eytan Fox chronicles emotional journey of gay ex-soldier hero
Israeli director Eytan Fox’s Yossi & Jagger (2002) was one of the most memorable of gay films, a tale of truly star-crossed lovers—soldiers in the Israeli army. It ended heartbreakingly with the death of Jagger, and for anyone who has ever wondered what became of his partner, Fox’s new film Yossi, opening Jan. 11 from Strand Releasing, answers the question. I spoke to Fox by phone in Tel Aviv and, as when I first met him in 2006, found him as honest, forthcoming and proudly out as ever.
Film Journal International: What made you decide to return to this character?
Eytan Fox: It had been ten years since Yossi and Jagger, and I had left the character of Yossi in such a bad place, I kind of felt the need to go back and try to rescue him. I think it’s also a good way to deal with yourself, who I became as a film director as I matured and developed. I was working on a bigger project, finishing editing on it, and had the urge to do something a little smaller and very personal and this was very close to me.
FJI: So you definitely used elements of your own life in writing this?
EF: Yes. I’ve grown older, although I didn’t gain as much weight as Ohad [Knoller, who plays Yossi]. [laughs] I think I was able to help Yossi change because I also worked on myself to overcome different traumas that I went through, stuff that was still bothering me after I went through therapy and had different confrontations. I could go back to this character and say, “OK, let’s deal with this and help make you realize that the world has changed and therefore you can overcome all your difficulties and find a new path for yourself and happiness.
FJI: Knoller may have gained weight, but I think he is still such an attractive, appealing actor.
EF: I was joking! I think he is amazing, a dear friend of mine and a wonderful actor. He’s a very attractive man. He has a tendency to get a little chubby. So when I came to him for The Bubble [Fox’s 2006 feature], I said, “Let’s take two months off and make you look like a 25-year-old Tel Aviv hipster. But for this film, I said, “Go ahead and eat all you want to. Physically, emotionally, psychologically, this was a character who didn’t take care of himself, so that was good.
FJI: How did he feel about reprising this character?
EF: He was rather fearful, more than I was. He said, “Eytan, we were so happy with the original film, which won all these prizes and the ending was so powerful.” It said something about Israel at the time and the army and a lot of stuff we were dealing with then. And he was afraid that we might ruin that by revisiting this character. I told him, “Listen, we’re very close friends and we have faced various difficulties with our careers and questions of what life is about, and if we are authentic and true to ourselves, we will get it right and figure out this character and what we want for him.
FJI: Is he gay himself?
EF: No, he isn’t. Nobody’s perfect.
FJI: You gave Yossi such a very happy ending, with this dream guy, Tom [Oz Zehavi], in this dream setting.
EF: People asked me if this was for real and, for that matter, if I am for real. First of all, I’m a hopeless romantic. I just think these men stay on this island in Sinai, which I maybe didn’t make perfectly clear, geographically. It’s further south in the desert, more clean and pure than Tel Aviv. I believe that they don’t go back to the hospital or the army, and they stayed there and loved each other forever.
FJI: Why not? E.M. Forster ended Maurice similarly.
EF: Exactly. I thought in 2012, we’re supposed to be more cynical about these kinds of things, but I’m not, first of all, and secondly, even if I tried to be less romantic, I still think that long-lasting love is possible and things don’t necessarily have to end in a bad or sad way. That is something for a person to discover, and what’s important is that Yossi meets this wonderful person who’s beautiful but very much an adult and capable of helping this disturbed, sad, lonely man.
FJI: How did you cast Zehavi?
EF: He is Israel’s new heartthrob. I usually like to be the guy who discovers young actors, as with Yossi & Jagger, with two unknown actors. But this time, I auditioned many actors in Tel Aviv and eventually cast this heartthrob, who’s been on TV and films for the last three years. He’s everyone’s fantasy.
FJI: Is he straight, too?
EF: With him, I think it’s more of a question, but he is not officially gay. He had no qualms about playing a gay character. In his TV series, he’s famous playing the most macho, male-chauvinist-pig sort of character, constantly smoking pot and talking about fucking and treating women in the worst possible way. Everyone was very amazed by the fact that he could create this kind of more delicate, sensitive gay character, and I think he was happy to do that.
FJI: I was impressed by the bravery of your actors to do total nudity. American films are so puritanical about male exposure, where a penis is the scariest thing you can show and easily runs into censorship problems.
EF: Thank you. They felt comfortable enough with me. We shot that scene between Yossi and Tom almost the last day of shooting, and by that time, everyone was feeling very close to each other.
FJI: Lior Ashkenazi as the other doctor, Yossi’s friend, also went commando and was very good.
EF: He is Israeli’s biggest film actor, really from the first golden era of Israeli film, and so versatile, playing everything from this to a Talmud scholar in Footnote. Starting with my Walk on Water, we became very close friends and he has done cameos in all my films and is very comfortable about walking around naked.
FJI: I thought maybe that he and Yossi would get together.
EF: Ohad had decided that Yossi was partially in love with him, but said, “I don’t do anything about it because I don’t do anything about anything.”
FJI: Yossi is really kind of a rough character. He’s so depressing, this character you love and have this wonderful history with. You want to say, “Wow, dude, wake up, smell the coffee and enjoy life!” But I guess we all have these sad moments.
EF: The most difficult thing for an actor or director is to portray sad, depressed, boring, static characters. This could have been all those things, but Ohad gives such a very nuanced, multilayered performance, with all these things going on inside this static, depressing person. I am promoting the film all over the world with different audiences and there are some moments when I am so taken by him and so impressed by certain things he did. Some of them are my fault and some of them he did without me even noticing them while we were shooting.
FJI: He is incredible in the scene of his disastrous Internet hookup with that narcissistic jerk who puts him down. That scene says so much about gay life now and its alienation. We have all this technology to connect with each other and no one’s really connecting.
EF: I’m glad you can identify, because that is the terrible part of gay culture. I was there at four in the morning shooting his reaction shots and suddenly I see the makeup artist, sitting next to me, had tears rolling down her face. I asked her why and she said, “All the feelings of rejection I ever had in my life are in Ohad’s face.” To be treated in such a disgusting way!
FJI: How long did it take to make this film?
EF: I was really happy with the way it was done. I was working on a big romantic comedy that I am finishing and thought this is taking too long, I have to do something else. So I went from network to network, film fund to film fund, and raised the money, which was like $450,000. I shot it in 15 days with a very small crew and if I could make films only that way, I would. It’s not as easy to make a living that way, but it was so refreshing to create a small family with everyone so into what they’re doing together. Not all these big trucks with hundreds of crew men and armies who depend on you. I want to make more films like that.
FJI: It’s like The Thin Man, this enduring classic, which was shot in two weeks. I must ask you, is it Jagger, pronounced with a hard “j”or with a “y”?
EF: It’s Jagger, with a “j.” In the first film, they say, “We all called him Jagger, because he reminded us of Mick, the rock star.”
FJI: Thank you. I saw it with a very pretentious British friend, who’s never wrong, and he scoffed at me for pronouncing it that way, saying “It’s ‘Yagger,’ not ‘Jagger,’ as if it was Mick Jagger. He literally said that.
EF: Oh really? Now you can call him and say, “You’re completely wrong!”
FJI: Tell me about this big romantic comedy you’re doing. What’s the title?
EF: We’re not completely sure. In Hebrew, it’s Banana, a word used by kids to call the girls they like or dislike in school, or wherever. It’s about a group of neighbors and, of course, a gay neighbor, who go from Israel together to the Eurovision song contest. They don’t know how to sing or dance but somehow one does know one guitar chord and he starts jamming, and the gay neighbor picks it up on his iPhone and sends it to the Eurovision committee and they are called to represent Israel.
It’s a very fun film, and we don’t have a lot of those in Israel. Films are always about war, and what the Arabs are doing to the Jews, and the Ashkenazis, etc. They’re full of conflict and this film is about singing and being happy.
FJI: How are things in Tel Aviv right now?
EF: It’s such a crazy city. We’re all so terrified and it was so bad, but now that wave of hostility on both sides has kind of faded out. It was completely unnecessary because it had reached a point where there was no possibility to talk and solve this hostility. We have a prime minister who doesn’t know how to talk to solve things peacefully.
It’s so crazy. You live in a modern, vibrant, optimistic city, eating dinner in a posh restaurant, and suddenly you’re running down into the bomb shelter. What the fuck? And that’s not going to help if a real bomb falls on us. No one has prepared for a real war situation, with these basements and bomb shelters full of dust. The sirens go off and your neighbors are standing there with their babies and kids, going, “What do we do?”
It’s very strange, but now things are calmer and quiet, and we’re hoping things will be solved. Israel is a strange, problematic, crazy and wonderful place, full of potential stories and films and contradictions with all these things going on.
FJI: Have you always been out as gay man?
EF: It began when I was in the Israeli army between 1982 and 1986, with a lot of stuff I went through in my personal experience. Being gay then in the army, which is a shrine of masculinity, was really unheard of because no one was out. But then I thought I couldn’t live my life that way as a person, artist or film director. So I started coming out through my films. After, my diploma film for university, was about a relationship between an officer and young soldier in the Israeli army, with both men realizing they were gay. That film left Israel and was shown in the States at the San Francisco International Film Festival, then the Jewish gay film festival, then the gay and lesbian film festival. So I said, “OK, so that’s who I am: a man of the world, a Jew and a gay, using my films to come out and to make gay love stories.” I’m really proud that I’ve been part of that change in Israel. Tel Aviv has been a paradise for gays, so gay-friendly. You can walk down the street, holding hands.