The Return of Yossi

1.22.2013

By Jerry Portwood

Israeli Filmmaker Eytan Fox makes us fall in love with his character Yossi all over again.

Pictured: Ohad Knoller and Oz Zehavi in 'Yossi'

Ten years ago, Eytan Fox seduced audiences with Yossi & Jagger, a sexy portrait of a doomed relationship between two gay Israeli soldiers. While the film announced him as a major international filmmaker, its political ramifications were more profound: The film now screens during military basic training, and gay Israeli soldiers are openly embraced. Progress aside, Fox, who also directed 2006’s The Bubble, couldn’t stop thinking he’d left Yossi in a tragic pinch at the end of the film, when Jagger, after a nighttime ambush, died in the arms of his lover.

“Why doesn’t Israeli society let you scream, ‘I am the war widower!’?” Fox asks. “We have the most amazing support group for wives, widowed parents, sons, and daughters, but the whole idea of a husband or a boyfriend war widow did not exist until recently. Yossi can’t mourn publicly, so he can’t process his loss. He’s stuck.”

Resolution finally comes in Yossi, Fox’s rewarding extension of his protagonist’s journey. When we see him

a decade later, Yossi (again played by Ohad Knoller) is a sad, overweight, closeted 34-year-old cardiologist at war with himself. He only starts to heal during a road trip to Eilat, a popular vacation spot on the Egyptian border, where along the way he meets a young, openly gay soldier named Tom (stunner Oz Zehavi).

“There is something about Tom that reminds Yossi of Jagger,” Knoller explains by phone from Israel. “That’s what scares him at the beginning.”

As we watch Yossi learn to be comfortable in his skin, falling in love with Tom, we’re left seeing him imbued with what seemed impossible a decade ago: hope. We discussed the film with Fox 

Yossi opens January 25 at the Angelika Film Center in New York City, followed by a national expansion.

Although there is a strong, vibrant film culture in Israel, for many foreign audiences, you are the most well-known Israeli filmmaker. Do you feel a sort of responsibility in how your culture is presented to the wider world?

Responsibility is not the word. I feel happy, privileged, excited whenever I manage to make a film and bring it to the States or France, which are my main audiences. I feel happy about enriching and deepening the relationship I create with audiences. I remember coming to the States with Yossi & Jagger and people who met me, journalists and audiences, they didn’t know who I was and what my world was made out of. When I came back with Walk on Water and then again with The Bubble, I felt like I was meeting writers, journalists, and audiences again. I saw that it’s about a relationship that’s developing; people get to know you better. So I don’t know if it’s responsibility, it’s more an excitement about meeting audiences.

I have to admit, the first time I saw of Yossi & Jagger, the end was such a heartbreaking moment, and I remember being angry, angry at Yossi for how he left things with Jagger's family. Coming 10 years after, many of us had a crush on Ohad as Yossi, and maybe were still angry or disappointed in him. Now we see him, and he's damaged and suffering and lonely. Is that one reason why you wanted to revisit this character?

Now, I do want to relate to the word you used before: responsibility. The sense of responsibility I feel toward this character and toward this world. The relationship that had developed between this character and audiences. Ohad, the actor who plays Yossi, said, "Why should we do this at all? We should be very, very careful when we come back to deal with this character and his history and what happened to him. We did a film we were so happy with." He's right: It did move audiences all over the world. And in Israeli culture, it was so significant—and for Israeli gay culture in particular. I was afraid of going back and touching it or messing with it. And I did so very catiously. We really examined this character, its pathology, where it was, and where it felt it could and would go to.

I felt I left him in a very bad place, a place, as you said, which made you angry. It made you feel very bad for this character. The reason: Why doesn’t Israeli society let you scream: "I am the war widow!" We have the most amazing support group of war widows in Israel: widowed parents, sons, and daughters. The whole idea of a husband of or boyfriend of a war widow did not exist here until very recently. Why doesn’t society allow him to say that? We left Yossi at such a terrible point. Not only losing a lover but also: He can’t mourn publicly or with a support group. When you cannot mourn, process this loss, you are stuck where you cannot process or mourn anything.

So did you and Ohad talk to the screenwriter, Itay Segal, about these concerns to make sure he kept that in mind?

Itay is a wonderful friend, a young, gay screenwriter. It’s very difficult to believe this is his first screenplay ever. He’s a television critic for Israel’s biggest newspaper. We became very close over the last few years.  The way I work with screenwriters, I tell them the world and characters. It’s a treatment, and then I put it in the hands of the screenwriter. I give them the basic idea and then say, "Ddo your thing. Do your art. 

With Itay, I said, "You know we need 90 pages of a screenplay, and we need it for shooting in a month and a half." He said, "Don’t worry, the script will be there. I’m used to deadlines," since he works for a newspaper. He took 10 days off and went to Eilat and came back with a 95-page script and it's almost exactly the same script we shot.

The dialog between me and Ohad was a very personal one, we processed our own personal issues. We tried to talk about who we were 10 years ago. The way we grew, maybe the way we did not grow. How we solved some issues and didn’t solve others. This is Yossi: He has a lot of Eytan in him, he has a lot of Ohad in him. We feel for him, so we’re OK with making this so-called "sequel."

Of course, one of the things we in the audience notice immediately is that Ohad has put on a lot of weight from when he was playing Yossi 10 years ago. Was that something you asked him to do? We remember how hot he looked in The Bubble and now he's being ridiculed for being overweight. 

Ohad is such a devoted, that’s not the word, he's a committed actor. Like Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, Ohad put on all this weight because Yossi has put up all these defenses around him and doesn’t want any emotional or physical connection with the world. He’s hurt, he’s post traumatic. He’s in his house, not communicating. He doesn’t have the ability to deal with anything.

The truth is, I will tell you, the truth is, Ohad was at a stage where he was starting to gain weight. And I said, "Now Ohad you have my consent to eat a lot of pizza and Haagen-Dazs ice cream or whatever. Don’t worry about it. That is what the character should be." 

Ohad has this tendency of gaining weight between movies. In The Bubble, I said, "Look you have to be young 25-year-old hipster from downtown Tel Aviv. So we got him a personal trainer, a nutriotionist, and he went to a personal trainer every day, like what Hollywood actors usually do. Not what actors do in small Israeli indie film. For Yossi, I said, "You have to be fat. And you have to have hair in all the wrong places." And that’s exacty what he did.

One thing you seem to be saying in the film is that the world changed but Yossi didn’t. We see that with his friend, Moti, and the guy he hooks up with from the Internet site. But the guy he finds on ATRAF and his friend Moti both seem pretty unlikeable. Are you saying it may have changed, but it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better?

I think that was maybe my criticism of where gay culture has gone to. I didn’t know gay Israeli hookup culture from the inside, and I don’t want to sound superficial or too cliché, but it has become, in large parts of it, very superficial. It’s about apparences and the surface of things. And having the perfect bodies and having perfect homes, drinking the right wine, and going to the right parties. I think maybe there was something in that.

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