The Return of Yossi
By Jerry Portwood
With Moti’s character, played by Lior Ashkenazi, who is my best friend, I sort of have this ongoing inner dialog that I’m trying to solve when it comes to straight, macho Israeli men. I have had Lior in almost my films and TV shows. So it’s part of this ongoing dialog with this man. I am still critical of the macho thing, but I still have unresolved feelings toward him, that prototype or that character. I was trying to have him seem more human-like. He likes Yossi, he loves him. He’s really trying to help him. I think he is a friend. We did a have a scene that we cut out of the editing process where Moti calls Yosi when he is on his way to the desert and he says something like, "I’m sorry about last night. And you’re going to the desert, so I hope you take care of yourself."
In the locker room scene, I felt you could see a physical attraction between Yossi and Moti. Even if he doesn’t like him, there is the conflict between being repulsed and attracted to this macho straight guy.
Exactly. That’s exactly the mixture of emotions that I grew up with toward that man. My Army commander is my...yeah. All of us have our gymnastic teacher in school, or our professor in university who we had these mixed feelings towards.
You said how much Israel has changed since Yossi & Jagger was made, that it's even taught in military basic training ?
Yes, it really excites me. I shouldn’t be saying this, it sounds vein, but part of what I’m proud of is the way my films and television shows have affected and changed Israeli society. When we made Yossi & Jagger, and we tried to get some help and aid from the Army, they said, "We can’t help you," for all these crazy reasons. They didn’t want to support us but then years went by, and the film had become so central in Israeli culture, and they started showing it. They have something called Sunday Culture because Sunday is the first day of the week, when you go back to the base after you were at home visiting your family. And they show it then.
This new actor, Oz Zehavi, who plays Tom, he has some hints of what Jagger would have been. You see some of the young beauty and enthusiasm and optimism that he had. Tell me what you wanted from that character. I was impressed that there wasn’t anything sinister about the age difference or Yossi’s attraction to Tom.
Oz Zehavi is Israel’s new kind of hearththrob. The new young, sexy, adored actor. I was auditioning all the actors in town and Oz, well he’s a well known. My friends were like, We can’t believe you. You’re a joke. We thought you would discover someone new. Or do something new. And then you go and cast him." But Oz came in and did a wonderful audition. Also, I’ll tell you what. I was kind of thinking, maybe it's a little cliché having an older man and then he falls for a soft, cheerful, young guy. I thought it might be more of a relationship of a father/son. The older/younger thing where he's more of the young man dependent on the older man. Then when Oz came in, who is a very manly man.
He plays the worst kind of macho that you can imagine. He has a television show where he constantly smokes pot and always having sex with all the women, in a very macho way. It's a big role on television. He did this audition that was beautiful and sensitive and sexy. But in a more kind of a, a more adult, more classical man. Well I said, This is the realtionship, and it’s going to be a newer kind of a relationship. It’s not going to go back to Yossi and Jagger dynamics.
It's about a man who is very comfortable in his skin and his uniform. When I was in the army, being gay and in the Israeli army were impossible together. But then I was looking around and seeing how different the world is. Tom is like: Yes, I am a proud Israeli officer and I’m gay and that’s perfectly OK. I can do all these things together. I don’t have to necessarily only listen to Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, and Mariah Carey. Or I only listen to Bruce Springstreen. I can be soft and tender—and a man.
Yeah, I found his comfortableness—of being one of the guys and gay—so refereshing. It’s something that I you can joke about, being a “homo,” but it doesn’t feel violent, it doesn’t feel threatening. I assume you got that from the screenwriter and your students?
And looking around and seeing how different the world is. For some people, being gay is a non-issue. I don’t think it’s really a non-issue. Some are very open with their sexuality and as gay Tel Avivians. But when they do go home to their parents, they hide it still. I think it will always be to some extent an issue: dealing with your parents. It’s become so much easier because society is so much more open. But it’s still a process that people have to go through.
I think I understand what Eilat means in the film, but I wonder what does Eilat, and Sinai also, mean to an Israeli audience, because I don’t think American audiences will automatically understand what it symbolizes.
Tell you what, one thing that I’m really sad about. I should have put a sign that reads: Sinai. Because, the last scene, it is very clear for Israelis that they are not in Eilat, they are in Sinai. Eilat is where young gangs of friends go for vacation. It’s something me and my friends did when in high school and the army. There are big hotels and you get together with a group of friends, get a room and you have beaches. It's a fun, young city.
So it’s like spring break in Florida or something.
Yes, somethign like that, Florida-ish. So Tom going with his gang there, it’s just a natural thing. He doesn’t have to go to a gay resort, they can go to a place together. The straight boys will find girls, and he will find Yossi. It’s a very fun city.
And it’s on the way to Sinai. It’s a place that Israelis love to go to; it used to be Israel. We would put tents on the beach. Smoke some pot. It was wonderful. Sinai was given back to Egypt, but Israelis still go there a lot. People tell Yossi: "It’s dangerous, are you crazy?" But Sinai’s not dangerous. They are not afraid. He says, "I’m not afraid of Egyptians and Arabs."
You said your films have affected culture in Israel. Are you concerned about how your films are perceived in other countries as opposed to Israel.
It’s so funny. The criticism against me in Israel from some film critics is that I’m too "American." And that I make my films with American audiences in mind. They say it in a derogatory way. I say, "Listen, even if I did that, that would be an OK thing to do." but that’s not the way I think when I make films.
Look, I was born in America. I had an American family, and I grew up with American films. The storytelling has this American, mainstream, very structured storytelling. And the visual world of the film, I don’t know, it’s not extreme, arty handheld filmmaking. It’s more of a smooth, sometimes "slick" filmmaking. So I just make the film that I feel comfortable with and believe in and hope that it will find audiences that will love it, care for it, and embrace it, and understand it.
I will say I think they will. But on a personal note, I was happy to see Yossi happier at the end. You do call it a sequel correct?
You see, I’m afraid of calling it a sequel, we worked hard to make it an independent film. You don’t have to see Yossi & Jagger to understand it and feel it. A lot of people at Tribeca called it a sequel. Also about the sequel thing, I have a friend who works for a newspaper and she said that it sounds kind of, what did she say, "cheesy, corny." "Don’t say you are making a sequel," she said. "Every important director makes a trilogy. You do not have to make the third part. But say you are making a trilogy and it will all be perceived as something more dignified." I’m not doing that. But I want people to realize that it’s something that people can see without seeing the first film.
Yossi opens January 25 at the Angelika Film Center in New York City, followed by a national expansion.