This interview was published for first time in the blog “Un català a Israel” in the Catalan newspaper Ara on November 4, 2012, and it is the interview that opens this new blog, No Rhetorike. I introduce you Eytan Fox, an Israeli cinema director who says what he believes without doubting. That’s how he does it in his movies and how he did it in this interview. He talks about his ideas, his formation, and his identity, as well as different themes–ranging from the most personal to the most professional–and establishes a clear link between them.
In his movies, Fox addresses several complex questions, and he does so (on more than one occasion) from a gender point of view. He denounces machismo in the Israeli Army through two characters in the film Yossi and Jagger (2002), and he portrays an (im)possible relationship between two boys in Tel Aviv, one of them Israeli and the other Palestinian, in The Bubble (2006).
Eytan Fox possibly seems to be politically incorrect for some parts of Israeli society (which is not necessarily bad), but he is socially impeccable. That is what I can say, the rest you will find in his movies and in the interview.
Voices I: Meeting with Eytan Fox
G.Y: To open this interview, I would like to talk about your public persona, your identity.
E.F: My parents were born in America; their grandparents came, of course, from Eastern Europe, from Poland and Russia. My father studied to be a Rabbi in New York. An American conservative Rabbi. And then my parents made aliyah in 1967. After ‘67 everyone thought Israel was going to be heaven on earth, especially for Jews, so they made aliyah and brought me to Jerusalem. I grew up in Jerusalem. It was interesting because we were immigrants. That’s a very difficult thing to be now that we have all these immigrants coming from all over the world, especially the Russians, the Ethiopians…and I see day by day how difficult it is to move from one country to another… and so for my parents it was very difficult. I mean, my father got a a wonderful job at Hebrew University. He was an educator; besides being a rabbi he was a professor in education. My mother, on the other hand, was really suffering in the beginning, as you can imagine coming from Manhattan (where she was an elegant woman like the ones in “Mad Men”) to Jerusalem (which was very much like a shtetl) so it’s difficult…and I think that experience maybe influenced who I am, as an artist as well. What it makes you as a person to be an immigrant is to always look to see what is going on, what is the right thing to do, what is the wrong thing to do, who is stronger, who is weaker, …so as a child I started developing this ability to see and look and recognize because of that. Then I came to Israel and went to through all the stages of becoming an Israeli, socialization, Israeli school, high school, serving in the army, Israeli university, Israeli friends, being a Jew–everything.
G.Y: Being a Jew from the Diaspora who made aliyah to Israel, I can say from my own experience that many times you get into situations where there is an expectation from you to represent the voice of Israel, its government, its army and its actions. So I’d like to ask you about how you live your Israeli Jewish Gay Filmmaker Identity abroad.
E.F: It is easier because you don’t have anything, I think, between you and the audience or the people who may ask you questions, and I have the films between me and the audience. When I do go to festivals or I publicize films that are opening in different countries, I am there physically but I still have the film to say “oh, in the film…” but it’s still me talking because the films are very personal, therefore I can say “oh, the film says…” because it’s me saying it. I think it’s true about almost every film from a serious film director, nothing like the blockbusters in America. In personal films, art films, it’s always about what the director or writer is saying so it’s hard to hide behind your film, but it’s easier…so yes, whenever I am abroad I’m an Israeli representative and I am happy to represent Israel abroad because, you know, there are so many misconceptions or misunderstandings of what Israel is, because Israel is not Bibi, it’s not its government necessarily, and the most important thing is that the Israel I grow up in was, the feeling was, the way we were brought up to think was that there was one Israel. It was “us”, “we”, it was not “I” or a different “we”. It was one “we” and all of us thought the same, dressed the same, listened to the same music, had the same ideology…but as the years went by we realized that, you know, that was completely not true. That was a lie, there are different “Israels”, different approaches, different ideologies, different political approaches…and I represent my world, my community, my peers, political friends, artistic friends. I attended classes at Tel Aviv University with a lot of people who make films in Israel today, like Ari Folman, who wrote Waltz with Bashir. And Ori Sivan, he’s amazing; he did a mini-series for HOT called “Yehafim”.
It’s about the history of the kibbutz. It’s a fictional series about a family who comes to Israel in 1949 and how they work year after year on the kibbutz. Hagai Levi who started “Be’tipul” that became “In Treatment”, the whole series is dialogues between the psychologist and the patient who talk for half an hour. And the concept was bought by HBO. It was a very big success on HBO, it sold all over the world. So we find ourselves representing our community, our Israel, and ourselves a lot, all around the world–and I’m happy about that. I remember the first screening we had of Walk on Water in Paris: So it was me and Leo Ashkenazi, the actor, and we were walking down this big hall in the middle of Paris and there were students from the Sorbonne, very left wing, and you could cut the air with a knife…we went with Leo and we said “hello…” and we left…and they saw the film and we came back and we saw that the whole atmosphere was a little bit more relaxed. Then we talked, we talked about who we are, and at the end of this dialogue, this 17, 18-year-old student came up to me and said “Listen, I always hated Israel and after seeing this film and talking to you I realize the world is a very complex place and that there are good people in Israel and that the reality is much more complicated and I’m happy. I thank you for this experience.” So that was an example of how you represent Israel when you’re abroad.
G.Y: Was it your first aim to work as a filmmaker? Did you intend to write and direct films about the gay Israeli community? Or was it something that you thought about at a later time?
E.F: It was always and still is, to start from the inside, from me. Again, there is the “us” and the “we” that is so heavy when you grow up in Israel. We all go to the army at 18, “we are all going to go to the best units because we come from good families” so we’ll be paratroopers, or we are going to be pilots…and one of the things that I was saying that I would do was to start from “ani”, me, one person. And in a inductive way I will go from me to the things that happened in the world around me. So everything started with me, things that I believe in, me, my family, my parents, my friends, my loved ones, the Jerusalem that I grew in which is present in most of my films. “Florentin” was a TV series on prime time that was trying to re-define the young Israel of the mid-90’s with a lot of young actors who became big stars in Israel–we found them. It was all about defining the new Israel, and because I love Israel and I care about it so much, starting with me it is a point to define or redefine Israel. And eventually I can’t ignore the fact that I’m describing the gay community in Israel because I’m a prominent member of that community, so it is doing that as well.
G.Y: On the other hand, reading the interview you did for IndiWire.com it is possible to note that you don’t expect your cinema to be tagged as “gay cinema”. I understand that your works are treating a wide range of social and political realities, and obviously gender is an important one. Can you explain a little bit about this “Eytan Fox’s unique perspective” from which you are focusing reality in your movies?
E.F: When you walk into a DVD store you have Drama, Comedy, Foreign, Japanese films and Gay films. That’s ok with me; I don’t have a problem with being in a ghetto or things like that. My hope is that if we make very good films as gay directors, people want to come and see them and not necessarily gay people. I was lucky enough with my films to do the crossover, in Israel especially and also abroad where people who are not necessarily gay come to see the films. So in America and in Europe, I have the other target audience that is Jews. So you have gays and Jews coming to see the films. In Israel, a film like Yossi and Jagger really had people from all kinds of parts of society coming to see it, it had nothing to do with being gay. It started with gay, but then…The big compliment came from these soldiers who came to see the film and “by the end of the film we forgot they were gay”–that was a compliment. But it was, in fact, as we say, love is love and friendship is friendship and sex is sex and it doesn’t really matter who is there, it’s the same idea, it’s the same principles. I’m aware that someone who makes cinema has to be very responsible with what he says, because he is educating people. The most amazing story I had in my career maybe, I received a letter on Facebook from a woman in Iran saying “I grew up in a world where Zionism was Satan and my aim in life was to destroy Satan, and somehow on the internet some of my friends said to me “watch this film”” and she watched The Bubble and she wrote to me “I thank you terribly for this film because it changed my conception of life, because I know now that reality is very complicated, in Israel you have a lot of good people like you and your friends, and that I cannot treat the world in such black and white terms,”. I swear you I started crying, it’s someone from Iran. That’s how films educate, and you have to take responsibility for the themes but also for the way you treat them.
G.Y: Your cinema is clashing with mainstream discourses as it tries to show possible reconciliation between characters that are in social positions which make them feel “out of place”. We can see this in the relations between Yossi and Jagger or between Noam and Ashraf (The Bubble). The idea of being “out of place” in The Bubble is very interesting– the portrait of Tel Aviv and the contrast with Ashraf’s second life in his village in West Bank. It’s interesting and it’s very dramatic. Can you explain to us about this “bubble” that let your characters feel “in their place”?
E.F: In the new movie, Yossi finds himself in an environment where it is not really accepted, in a hospital with rough conditions. Even in Song of the Siren, my first romantic comedy in 1994, there was this woman who at that time was not supposed to be like that, to come to a man and say “do you want to have sex?” A woman would act shy and the man was supposed to come and ask for a phone number or something like that. And she was a woman in a world of men who said that so I think maybe you’re right. What I’m doing is bringing in a character who might not fit into this world, that is simple drama. If you put a gay guy in Shenkin Street, what’s the big deal today? But ten years ago, putting a gay guy in the Israeli army in a fighting unit or even on Shenkin Street, having a Palestinian meet an Israeli, there’s something dramatic here. That’s when reality meets the individual and those are dramatic structures. In The Bubble, both Israeli-Palestinian and gay themes together was maybe a little too much. Yossi and Jagger, two Jewish boys…O.K. so they are gay but an Arab Palestinian who could turn out to be a suicide bomber and a Jew–that was too much for Israelis. Therefore the film was not so successful in Israel. Not as successful as Walk on Water or Yossi and Jagger; abroad in France it was a loved film.
G.Y: It is right to say that you don’t do “easy cinema”. You approach topics such as war, the army, and the Holocaust, and most of the time you do it through the eyes of homosexual characters. Every single topic you approach is a very complicated reality; your films usually contain themes about gender, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the IDF. How has it been received in Israeli society, the idea of treating homosexuality in such affairs as Gulf war, Mossad’s Nazi hunting, or the IDF as a national institution through these eyes?
E.F: I teach in a place called NYU Tel Aviv now. The big famous university from New York started giving their students the possibility of going to a different campus for half a year (one semester), so there’s one in Abu Dhabi, in Shanghai, it Italy, and in Tel Aviv now. So they were claiming that all the people we’re showing in films are left wingers or people that are critical with Israel, and they were looking for a film that was more Zionist, more pro-Israel and I think I understood them. I come from a place where I love Israel and I care about Israel deeply…and I had offers to go to L.A., but I said “No, I want to make Israeli films. That’s my world, that’s my language, that’s my country, that’s my people”.
I would say that the people who come to see Israeli films are usually intellectuals, left wingers, so they are O,K….sometimes you hear talkbacks about the film being accepted to Cannes, Venice, Berlin festivals; of course, these are anti-Israeli films, of course non-Jews will want to see these films. But the reactions are usually good and the critics are usually left wing as well so they’re O.K. with the politics. I’ve been having arguments with people about how the politics manifest themselves in the story, in the characters. Like the whole connection in Walk on Water between Germans-Israelis, Israelis-Palestinians. That is very dedicated in Israel. Whenever people try to compare our behavior in the West Bank to the Holocaust, even left wingers will say “How can you do that?!” The Holocaust is holy but I think it is very important to do that even if it’s not a good comparison, it’s important just to remind ourselves how we suffered throughout history and therefore we cannot inflict suffering in other people. We, the Jewish world, cannot allow ourselves to inflict suffering to another people. That’s the only thing that I’m saying. And that people also find it difficult but they understand me, I think.
G.Y: Can you tell us about some situations or anecdotes–nice ones, hard ones, emotional ones–from your career as a professional filmmaker?
E.F: I was shooting Walk on Water in Berlin in TempelHoff, which is the Nazi airport. It was lunch break. I called my mother, she’s sick, she had cancer, and she said, “Hi Eytan, where are you?” And I said “I’m in Berlin” and she said “Why are you in Berlin?” and I told her, “Well, Imma, I’m shooting a film, but I’ll be back in a few days, don’t worry” and she said, “Berlin is the enemy.”
Well, my mother, after getting used to the idea of living in Israel, became more Israeli than Israeli Jews: she was fighting for Palestinian causes, she was a city planner in the Jerusalem municipality and she was in charge of all East Jerusalem, all the Palestinian neighborhoods, she became very friendly with Palestinian Arabs, invited them for Friday night dinner, religious Friday night dinner, she used to do Kiddush… so she says to me “Berlin, Germans, are the enemies.” She would never say such a thing, no one was an enemy, everyone was someone who wanted to make peace with us. At first I asked myself what she meant by “Berlin is the enemy.” Then I thought, O.K….the little 3- year-old girl that she was in the thirties in Chicago reading about the Holocaust, reading about Auschwitz, feeling like a little 3-year-old girl thinking that the Germans are going to conquer the world and take her like all the other Jewish girls and put them in concentration camps or whatever. That fear, she’s going to die, and suddenly that fear came out of her and she said that crazy sentence. And I see how things that we have in our childhood stay there, and even if we go in a completely different direction we still have this things inside of us. After that call we continued working, and after few hours they called me to say, “Your mother died.”
After she died, I dedicated this film to her, a woman who fought for peace and human rights.
G.Y: Did you think about shooting some films about Orthodox Jews?
E.F: There’s a crazy story…the biggest rabbi of the Zionist movement is Mordechai Elon. Joseph Cedar was the director of Footnote. My friends who did the film with him said that the day this rabbi was arrested, Joseph was crying all day. He couldn’t understand how this man who was so important for Zionism, well-educated, “ha’gadol va’torah” as we say, was accused of sexually molesting his male students. We always say “only non-Jews do that. Jews? No!” and now he’s going to go trial. Politicians are trying to get him out of it but eventually he will go to trial, so that is a story that I might want to do. I come from a religious family; my father was a rabbi and it is an interesting world. If I get to put a gay guy in that world it’s a very interesting thing, so that’s a possibility.
G.Y: What about your next projects?
E.F: My new film is a romantic comedy full of women. I usually make more films about men than women. So the movie is about a group of girls who are going to represent Israel in the Eurovision song contest. It’s a funny story about a group of girls who have nothing to do with singing, show business, or anything like it. They live in the same building and they’re friends. People say to me, “Nowadays no one is friends with their neighbors, no one knows their neighbors.” and I say, “This is the Israel that I grew up in, the 70’s when everyone knew their neighbors.” One is the owner of a bar, the other one is a teacher, and the third one is a politician. And one day they meet in order to make their neighbor (who has been deserted by her husband) happy. One of the girls knows how to play two chords with a guitar so they start making a song for her. One of their neighbors, the gay neighbor, takes a video of it and sends it to the media, who then has to choose a song that will represent Israel in the Eurovision contest. Of course they are chosen; they don’t want to go, they don’t know how to sing, they don’t know how to dance…and they decide to go and it’s all about how this changes their lives and it’s a fun-filled movie. I’m developing a film about Mike Brant, a giant star who started in Israel and then moved to France. I’ve got a lot of projects in development; it’s a good period for me where I’m working hard.
G.Y: Can you define Israel using a few adjectives?
E.F: Complicated, complex, terrible, tragic, wonderful, amazing, loved.
Finally I want to share with my readers the answer you gave in the IndyWire.com interview:
I.W: What is your definition of an “independent film”?
E.F: I think I will have to say an independent film is a film that was done for the right reasons. Because someone had to make it. Because a story had to be told.