Eytan Fox, Yossi
Ten years ago, Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox made an unexpected splash with Yossi & Jagger, a 67-minute wartime romance about two Israeli soldiers, the titular Yossi (Ohad Knoller) and Jagger (Yehuda Levi), who struggled to conceal their love during mandatory service at the Israel-Lebanon border. The film struck a chord with a great wealth of viewers, won Knoller an acting prize at the 2003 Tribeca Film Festival, and announced Fox as a formidable directorial talent. As Fox tells it, it also allowed him to take part in a cultural revolution that’s unfolded in Israel—and beyond—throughout the last decade, giving him license to craft the similarly-themed The Bubble in 2006, and help influence the growing prevalence of equality in art.
Now Fox returns with Yossi, an intimate, heartfelt sequel to his breakthrough sleeper, and a film with a more optimistic trajectory. The movie catches up with its title character a decade after Jagger’s bitter death, and finds him still bearing the weight of private grief. Reserved, out of shape, and in dire need of self worth, Yossi, now a doctor, finds solace and possible salvation in a relationship with Tom (Oz Zehavi), a virile young soldier and an embodiment of progress. Via phone from Berlin, Fox dished on why he felt the need to revive Yossi, how the character’s journey relates to his own, and how his very filmography is indicative of growing global acceptance.
Filmmaker: Let’s start with the basics—what drew you back to this story?
Fox: That’s a complicated one. I made this film 10 years ago. And it was a very significant film for me. I grew attached to the character of Yossi, and I left him in a very difficult place. And I guess the things I went through over the past 10 years made me want to go back to that character. It’s interesting, going back to a fictional character. I was going back, maybe, to save him, or maybe even trying to go back to myself, and trying to examine where I was then, where I am now, the choices I’ve made, the places I felt I was still stuck in versus the places in which I had breakthroughs. So that was led me to go back to dealing with this character and this story.
Filmmaker: Yes, there’s a lot of emphasis in the film on the effects of a decade. Even Jagger’s mother, played by Orly Silbersatz, is dealing with the after-effects of a 10-year-old heart attack, which we can only assume is related to the loss of her son. How have you changed over 10 years?
Fox: You know, I’m older than Yossi, and I think my life may be more organized. But I identify with Yossi a lot. And in the last 10 years, with my films and with the television stuff that I’ve done, I was part of this revolution, I guess, in the gay community in Israel. And I’m really proud to say I was part of that change. So being part of that was important to me; it was part of my films, was part of my life. And I created for myself, and for people around me, I think, a better world to live in—a better Israel and Tel Aviv to live in. And I’ve become a more aware person. A lot of things happened. I lost both my parents, and I had to deal with a lot of stuff. I think I’ve become a better film director—more mature, more knowing, more capable. And the world has changed in amazing ways for us in Israel. Yossi was a victim, like I was at the time—a victim of the world you grew up in. The Israel I grew up in, and even the Israel Yossi grew up in, was a very closed-up, militaristic, macho, nationalistic society. And the weight of the demand of what we’re expected to become is very heavy on our shoulders. Being gay was certainly not a possibility. To me, and to Yossi, for that matter, being gay was a contradiction to being a man, to being a soldier, to being a hero—all these myths that we grow up with. And Yossi is stuck in that world [in the new film], and the world is changed. Tom represents the new world. I want people to see this—see that the world has changed and maybe change with it.
Filmmaker: There’s definitely talk in the film about the changing state of gays in the military, and you also served in the military. As a former soldier and a gay man, do you often find yourself wishing things were then as they are now?
Fox: Of course. I think that would have made my army experience a lot easier. But, you know, then again, and it may sound cliché, but there’s no way to get to better places without going through the hard places. So, I experienced the bad places and felt the need to be involved in changing that. And I was involved in changing that. I could not have made all my films if the reality I grew up in was easier and evolved.
Filmmaker: Since Yossi & Jagger, you and Ohad Knoller made The Bubble together. Was there talk then of a Yossi & Jagger sequel?
Fox: No. Not at all. And I was preparing [at that time, in 2006] for a bigger project, that I’m actually working on as we speak, and it was taking all the time that big films take—raising the money and making it all work and happen. And it had been quite a while since I’d directed a feature film. I directed a lot of—what I thought was—good television since The Bubble, but I really wanted to go back to feature films. It had been so long. So I stopped everything, and raised the money myself. The budget was $450,000. And I went to all the people I could to help make this film happen.
Filmmaker: Compared to Yossi & Jagger and The Bubble, Yossi seems decidedly less political, suggesting you wanted to tell a simpler and more intimate story. The political backdrop is still there, of course, but the sequel tends to favor internal struggles over external.
Fox:Yes. First of all, it may have to do with the fact that, when you are involved in changes and revolution, you have to use a certain amount of force. So maybe that’s what I had in former films—something more forceful. In the good, and sometimes maybe in the bad ways. But every revolution, I think, has used force. Sometimes violent acts are needed, to some extent, if you’re part of a fight or revolution. So maybe those films wanted to be more fierce, more strong. And once we achieved the things we achieved, I could go back to really dealing with this character study—this psyche of a specific character. And I usually try to connect the individual and the community he lives in. This man is stuck somewhere and trying to reach out to this new world, and trying to live better within it. And the politics are still there in regard to how Israel changed—as far as masculinity goes, as far as Israel’s collective psyche. So I think Yossi does have its political aspects, just not in the foreground.
Filmmaker: Regarding the casting of the love interests in Yossi & Jagger and Yossi, were those decisions at all reflective of the films’ contrasting tones? Jagger was, of course, dark featured and somewhat brooding, whereas Tom in Yossi is this blonde Adonis who exudes a more hopeful aura.
Fox: It’s an interesting question. When I started looking for what was referred to as “the new Jagger,” or the new love interest, I was working very hard to make this film stand independently. It is, to some extent, a sequel, but people have been telling me that you could see it and enjoy it without seeing Yossi & Jagger—or, for that matter, see it and then go back and see Yossi & Jagger. But when I started casting, I actually saw all the new young actors in Israel. And I was, at first, looking for a Jagger clone, or a Jagger lookalike—someone who felt like Yehuda Levi did at the time, the new heartthrob. And I realized that a lot of times in my films, which often feature relationships between two men, there’s often one that’s more manly and more adult, and one that’s more of child or…I’m not sure what the word would be. But I wanted to go back to that dynamic, with Yossi being more responsible and more of a typical Israeli man, and the other character being more of a kid—youthful. And at some point I met Oz Zehavi, who’s the current heartthrob in Israel and the new guy on the scene. He plays this very manly, macho prototype on television. He’s almost a male chauvinist pig, who’s always smoking pot and having sex with every girl around him. He plays crass. So when he entered the room, it made me think that I didn’t want to go back and use those usual stereotypes. I wanted to have two men—two traditionally Israeli men. We can show that even if they appear one way, they can be many other things.
Filmmaker: Speaking of issues of masculinity, I found it touching that when Yossi meets with Jagger’s parents and finally tells them about his relationship with their son, the father takes the news much better than the mother, and he even shares a brief tender moment with Yossi. What prompted that choice?
Fox: You know, usually, for gay men, at least of my generation, the mothers find it easier to deal with the homosexuality of their sons. The fathers find it more difficult. As men, when they find that their son is different than them, it can be very intimidating and difficult to handle. I don’t really have a good enough explanation for that choice, I just felt that it was right in this case. Maybe it has to do with the way that Israel has changed and the world has changed. Maybe now it isn’t necessarily more difficult for the father than it is for the mother. And maybe, for the mother, the fact that she was closer to Jagger but didn’t actually know the truth about him made it harder. She didn’t know who his lover was. She didn’t know a lot of things about him.
Filmmaker: I have to ask about the music. Music is featured very prominently in your films, specifically these two. There’s “Your Soul,” by Rita that appears in both, and then there’s also some original music here by Keren Ann.
Fox: Yes, she sings an iconic Israeli love song in the film. She’s a very big French star. She grew up in Israel and has become a very big singer-songwriter in France. She has a following in the United States as well.
Filmmaker: But you also use music as a sort of generational divider as well.
Fox: I use music a lot characterize or define different characters and different worlds. In Walk on Water, there was a musical clash between someone who was very into American rock and Bruce Springsteen, and a gay German who was into all these divas and women singers from different parts of the world. In Yossi, the military guys want to go listen to this DJ who was very famous for a time in Israel, and go to all these parties and drink. And Yossi is not into that, but into old, traditional music. So, yes, it does represent that generational gap. And Tom can actually bridge that cap—be in the past and the present.
Filmmaker: At the risk of dishing out spoilers, I would say that even the endings of these two films, Yossi & Jagger and Yossi, are reflective of the changing times. The former, of course, ended in tragedy, as so many gay films have for years. But now it’s much more common, and to an extent, more acceptable, for them to end happily. Is that something you considered when making Yossi?
Fox: Yes, people have said for some time that film directors, and especially gay film directors, made these movies where gays have to die in the end. The notion has appeared all over in essays and theories. I never really identified with that. I made films where men die, because that’s the terrible and tragic situation we live in in Israel. Men go to the army, and go to war, and some of them tragically die when they’re young. And there’s usually one who dies and one who stays alive. But, yes, when you come to think of it, it does reflect a change. When I was growing up in Israel, or in the world, the idea of a long term relationship between two men was something that did not exist. And today, in the world and in Israel especially, it’s crazy! You walk through the streets of Tel Aviv and there are male couples with carriages all around you. So, yeah, it does reflect a change in society, but more important is the fact that this character, for the first time in his life, truly believes that love is possible, and that long-lasting love is possible.