Eytan Fox is an intensely private man — so much so that when, during a recent interview in Tel Aviv, he looked up with a start and said, “Hey, next week I’ll be 39. Wow! I didn’t realize it,” it felt like a moment of revelation.
Fox, lean and youthful with super-short graying hair and rectangular, black Daniel Libeskind-like glasses framing his eyes, was telling the Cinderella story of his latest film, “Yossi & Jagger,” which opens for a two-week run at the Film Forum in downtown Manhattan on September 24.
Fox, the New York-born, Jerusalem-raised son of American immigrants — his father, Seymour, is a professor of Jewish education — speaks in a quiet but lively amalgamation of Hebrew and English. Eating a grilled-chicken sandwich in a trendy cafe, Fox was noticed but not approached by other patrons. But this soft-spoken man is nevertheless the star of Israel’s film scene this year.
The buzz apparently started among film industry observers as work on “Yossi & Jagger” neared completion. “Our first screening was at the Tel Aviv Cinemateque, for friends,” said Amir Harel, the film’s producer. “We got there and there was this line outside — soldiers, young people, gays, young girls.… None of us even had dreamed of it.”
“We just saw it as a small film based on a true story,” said Fox, whose 1994 film “Song of the Siren” met with critical and popular success.
“Yossi & Jagger,” Fox said, was never “even meant to open theatrically in Israel — forget in the rest of the world.” Originally broadcast on Israel’s Channel 3 cable network in November 2002, the film garnered an almost unprecedented 25% share of the Israeli viewing public. In February, it was accepted at the Berlin Film Festival; in March, Ohad Knoller received the award for best actor at the Tribeca Film Festival. And this fall, “Yossi & Jagger” is enjoying a wide general commercial release in Europe.
At 67 minutes long and shot on video, the film was originally intended for release only on Israeli television. Instead, it has become the surprise hit of the year, with a nationwide exposure in movie theaters.
It is a classic men-at-war movie — with a twist.
Based on a real episode that took place in 1982 during the Lebanon War, it tells the story of two Israeli army officers: Yossi, a position commander on Israel’s northern border, and Jagger, his tall, dark and charismatic deputy. The first is feared and respected by his troops; the second is liked by all and desired by the winsome Yaeli, a female soldier at the base. As soldiers in the field, the two men effortlessly discuss tactics in the trenches, scrutinize rumors from Tel Aviv and prepare for the arrival of a self-important senior officer.
As lovers, on the other hand, Yossi and Jagger are undergoing a period of stress. Yossi, played by the Jerusalem Khan Theater’s hunky, open-faced Ohad Knoller, wants to keep their relationship under wraps; he is ambitious and committed to a career in the Israel Defense Forces. Jagger, played by Israeli matinee idol Yehuda Levi, a lithe Errol Flynn look-alike with evening eyes, wants to come out. What’s the point of living, he asks his lover, if you’ve got to hide? Or, in other words, what are we fighting for?
Fox lives in Tel Aviv with Gal Uchovsky, the film’s second producer. But despite the city’s uncontested reputation as a contemporary, libertine, Levantine Mecca, Fox himself is anything but a man about town. Asked for his reaction to the passage, last month, of a municipal ordinance granting cohabiting twosomes the benefits enjoyed by married couples, Fox raises a quizzical eyebrow and said, “Really? Oh. Thanks for letting me know. What did they pass? Maybe Gal knows about it.”
“Tel Aviv is basically a very gay-friendly place,” he said. “It’s a normal urban center, as far as being gay goes, like many other cities.” Tel Aviv’s gay-pride parade is long an institution, almost a family event, and August’s “Love Parade” drew 100,000 people to the streets.
The main difference he found between working on this film and working on projects a decade ago was the ease of working with his two straight leading men. “It didn’t use to be this easy, you know, when we were trying to film ‘Florentine,’ for example.” “Florentine” was a hugely successful television drama with a cult following — the Israeli equivalent of “Melrose Place” — that presented the story of several quintessentially Tel Avivi 20-somethings, including a varying number of gay characters. “It used to really involve a bit of discomfort for them,” he said, “but this time around I didn’t really have to focus on the issue.”
“I had no hesitations,” said “Yossi & Jagger” leading man Knoller. “I saw it as a challenging leading role that I knew I could do. That’s all. But I don’t think that’s the reaction you necessarily would have gotten from actors even 10 years ago. Things have changed.” Without a trace of humor, Knoller said that the only ribbing he got for his role in the movie “was when I went to reserve duty.”
Still, gayness in the Israeli army is not a light matter.
“Being a gay film director in Tel Aviv is one thing,” Fox said. “Being a gay officer or a gay rabbi is quite another.” He himself was still in the closet during his army service 20 years ago. While homosexuality has never been prohibited by the IDF, it is not viewed with entirely neutral eyes.
In fact, while several IDF bases have invited the film’s cast and crew to private screenings, the army refused to cooperate with the production — not, officially, due to the relationship between the two men, but, as explained in a letter the IDF spokesman’s office sent Fox, because of the movie’s “depiction of a relationship between a commanding officer and an underling.”
Despite itself, the army may have been onto something. Rather than being seen as a gay film, the film’s elemental, nonjudgmental sweetness seems to have transcended cultural and sexual categories, and perhaps even provided moviegoers with a welcome respite of old-fashioned human drama — albeit in a military context — in what has proven to be an arid and bellicose summer.
“Basically, it is a very human love story,” Fox said quietly, “about what we expect from promises, what we are willing to expect from love. Why would anyone settle for as little as some people settle for? Why?”
The film provides a delicate, bewildering and eerily powerful ending that seems to leave audiences under a spell. It is, said Fox, “the anti-Hollywood ending. It’s real life.”
“There are no easy answers,” Fox added. “You know, things are not really resolved. But it is usually that way in life. There is no easy way out. In general, there are no answers.”