October 2, 2003
Israel Falls for Gay Military Romance
"Yossi & Jagger" is partly a gay love story about two Israeli officers on the Lebanese border. But the 71-minute film's only love scene comes early in a larger, far less romantic story about the contradictions of modern Israel.
"Yossi & Jagger" has touched Israelis who long for peace and the coffeehouse chats about art and life that peace brings, an Israel yearning for the good food of Tel Aviv cafes instead of what is called "food" in Golan Heights bunkers.
"Israeli wars are supposed to be very clear. The truth is we don't feel like that anymore," said "Yossi & Jagger" director Eytan Fox, in a telephone interview with The Journal from his Tel Aviv home.
"Everything feels hard, harsh, hopeless in many ways. You talk to many soldiers in Israel, you hear the confusion. A lot of these questions you don't have in 'Saving Private Ryan.' People would not buy that film [now] because it wouldn't ring right with anybody."
But Israelis have been flocking to "Yossi & Jagger" in Tel Aviv and Haifa, and smaller cities like Beersheba and Rehovot.
"Of course it did much better in Tel Aviv. We didn't do so well in Jerusalem," said Avner Bernheimer, the film's screenwriter.
Films with military themes had once dominated the small Israeli movie industry. But recently, in the '90s, as peace seemed imminent, moviemakers focused on other themes. With the return of the intifada and the violence of the new millennium, films like "Yossi and Jagger," and the recent "Time of Favor" and "The Holy Land" reflect the industry's return to its roots -- albeit in a more mature, nuanced view.
The film has earned critics' praise and top ratings when it aired on Israel's cable Channel 3, and is now opening in U.S. theaters.
The movie's namesake, "Yossi," is an officer leading a small group of bunker-based soldiers on the Israeli-Lebanese border in the late 1990s. "Jagger" refers to Yossi's younger officer and lover, whose rock-star-like charm prompted his nickname. The pair's relationship is discreet; they make love while on patrol.
"It's based loosely on a true story that I heard from a friend of mine," Bernheimer said. "He had a boyfriend there in the same unit."
One reaction that Israelis have shared after seeing the movie is how some parents do not really know their children, including their grown gay offspring.
"This is the real message of the movie: 'Don't hold your secrets,'" Bernheimer said. "I live in Tel Aviv and I might go have breakfast in a coffee shop, and I might not come back. Life is really, really fragile here. The reason the movie touched so many people is because life is fragile and you have to be who you are, no matter what it is."
The filmmakers added two women to the bunker story to spice up the sexual politics and make a broader portrayal of young, sometimes confused soldiers serving in what is considered the world's most agile army.
"We wanted girls because we wanted more tension in the bunker at a certain point," Bernheimer said. "We wanted one girl who was in love with Jagger. You see girls like that in the army because it's such a macho environment."
One scene in the short film lingers as Fox's hand-held camera captures one of the women and many of the male soldiers dancing, almost trance-like, to Euro-technopop. Fox said he framed the dance scene in long, slower shots to portray soldiers dancing while briefly off duty because they are "full of anxiety, full of fear," and knew that hours later they would be on what would become fatal ambush duty. "You're 18 and you still know very little about life," said the 39-year-old New York-born filmmaker, who lives with his longtime gay companion and one of the film's producers, Gal Uchovzski.
Fox's well-paced directing style finds his hand-held video camera mimicking the claustrophobic, tight spaces found in the Golan Heights kibbutz bunker where "Yossi & Jagger" was shot. Not every frame is a tight close-up, but Fox clearly shows the submarine-like confinement the bunker gives to the two gay lovers and the enlisted men under them. Fox then contrasts this tight filmmaking style with more open, outdoor shots displaying panoramic views of snow-capped mountains. "It's easier to use very limited lighting and a small video camera [in the bunker]," Fox said, adding that once he, his camera, his actors and Bernheimer's screenplay were outside, "your spirit can let go and be freer and therefore the frame can open, it's not as claustrophobic, it's not as closed."
Away from screenwriting, Bernheimer is a senior writer and editor at Israel's daily Yedioth Aharonot. (Uchovzski is a writer and editor at Ma'ariv and fellow "Yossi" producer Amir Jarel is the jazz critic at Ha'aretz.) From 1998 to 2001, Bernheimer was his newspaper's Los Angeles-based West Coast correspondent, living near Laurel Canyon and studying screenwriting at UCLA while his partner studied architecture there.
Among his observations of Jewish Los Angeles, Bernheimer said, "the Orthodox Jews in America are much more open and much more progressive than the Orthodox Jews in Israel." He is now writing a screenplay about the relationships between American Jews and Israelis while living in Los Angeles. Fox's next film, "Walking on Water," is a German-Israeli romance.
Bernheimer was in air traffic control during his military service, while Fox was in a combined military/civil service program during his four-year army stint. Both are gay Tel Aviv men with political views to the left of the Labor Party, and Tel Aviv is referenced once in the film; Fox said he wanted it to show that city as Israel's New York -- a dreamy, young place where people can go and reinvent themselves, and also as a city symbolic of "the tension between the two Israels": the hoped-for civilian life and the military realities.
The Israeli Defense Forces did not cooperate with the filmmakers because, while the army officially is tolerant of gay soldiers, Bernheimer said he was told that the Yossi/Jagger romance was between officers of different ranks, and thus not an acceptable image. But the film, which also shows an adulterous liaison between a married colonel and one of the enlisted women, has become a favorite of soldiers on their days off.
"The movie became this huge success, also with soldiers," Bernheimer said. "In a way, we won the battle with the army because the soldiers came to see the movie, and whole units came to see the movie."
The film has not caused a stir among Israel's vocal Orthodox communities. "Surprisingly there was not a reaction at all," Bernheimer said. "We didn't hear anything, even from their politicians. I always say that in Israel, we have more important things to deal with than hating gays."
What has grabbed Israeli filmgoers, Fox said, is the film's clear, somewhat depressing portrait of life in a bunker, different than military duty in Gaza and on the West Bank because one was fighting a Lebanese enemy that one could not see.
"The Lebanese experience was even more surreal because it was like a Vietnam," Fox said. "People were sitting in their remote bunkers, not really understanding who the enemy was."
"People reacted to that," said Bernheimer, of the film's bunker theme. "It doesn't come out like a gay film or a ghetto film. It's not a gay movie. It's really Israeli society in one bunker, the whole Israeli society in one bunker."