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.
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.
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.