I dedicate this entry to today's second attempt to have a pride march in Jerusalem. I offer solidarity and support from San Francisco.
I vividly recall after the San Francisco premiere of Etyan Fox's Yossi & Jagger that the Castro stage was stormed by pro-Palestinian activists who unfurled banners and shouted slogans, startling audiences who had come to see some romantic man-on-man action. The film's political aura gained texture through the protest. Buzz on the street anticipated the same would happen at Frameline31's screening of The Bubble, which was still very much on director Etyan Fox's mind when we got together in the lobby of the Hotel Rex to have a few words on his Frameline31 entry. This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary.
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Michael Guillén: Along with the yanking of the allegedly transphobic Gendercator from Frameline's line-up this year, The Bubble has likewise pushed politicized buttons. Protests have been staged against Frameline's acceptance of financial contributions from the Israeli Consulate to secure your attendance at this year's festival. How do you feel or think about that?
Etyan Fox: I can understand why people got upset that it was sponsored by the Israeli consulate. I see that happening again and again with people who are upset with Israel, with its policies. They don't like the fact that it's a formal thing, that Israel the country, the state, whatever, is supporting [the film]. It's usually Palestinians or people connected to Palestinian causes or just people who are critical of Israel's policies. I understand where these people are coming from; but, in this case, in a film like The Bubble, they should read what the film is about, and realize it can support their cause.
Guillén: I'm having a little trouble situating this film because of its diverse contentions. Who is its intended audience? And though I can somewhat sense who you intended the film for, who will watch the film? My understanding is that Palestinians won't because of its homosexual subtext; Israelis won't because of their patriotism; and gays might object to your bursting the strategic bubble they've created as a survival mechanism. So where will this child find any love?
Fox: [Chuckles.] It might not; but, it has been luckily enough. It has been finding people to love—to give love to and to receive love back. But you're right. This film can upset and aggravate a lot of different people. My first screening in America was the Tribeca Film Festival and this older Jewish member of the audience stood up and started screaming at me, "How can you show Israeli soldiers behaving in such a brutal way? It's a one-sided film!" That stuff. Then in Seattle a few days ago at their international film festival, an Arab member of the audience stood up at the end of the screening, "How can you show Palestinians doing this and that and why are they shown as terrorists?" So it's a one-sided film again.
I can see where your question is coming from, but, people who really connect to the film, what kind of people are they? People who, first of all, care about cinema and films and I hope good films, and secondly hear about the Middle East and its conflicts and that kind of thing, who hear about different issues and worlds that the film portrays and brings to the table. So The Bubble has been finding its audiences in different places of the world. It had a premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, and then the European premiere in Berlin, and the film started selling to different countries. That's one of the indications you have for a film. Hopefully it's accepted to world premiere at a big film festival but sometimes no one really cares about it, no one really wants to see it, no one really wants to show it to anyone, no one wants to buy it. So that's not always an indication of anything because it's too good or too sophisticated or too difficult for audiences; but, that doesn't mean they're not as good. They're fantastic sometimes.
Guillén: Well, since you bring it up, that's what I would say. Your film is difficult. All your films are difficult; that's what I appreciate about them.
Fox: But even being difficult, they have found audiences—more than any other Israeli film for that matter—all over the world. So that's an interesting contradiction. It is explained by people—sometimes people who like me, sometimes by people who don't like my filmmaking—they say, "Okay, you do tackle difficult subject matter but in ways which are very smooth and slick and Americanized and mainstream." My films are not experimental or cutting edge or extreme filmmaking. They're down-to-earth basic storytelling. The shots are pretty. There's a beginning, a middle and an end. The actors are nice to look at.
Guillén: Well let's explore that somewhat backhanded compliment that your films are "Americanized." That's a provocative way to describe your films.
Fox: That criticism is from people in Israel who are saying it in a derogatory way.
Guillén: Yes, that's how I see them meaning it. One of the strongest presiding themes I've detected in the three films of yours that I've seen—Yossi & Jagger, Walk on Water and now The Bubble—is your now-familiar staged hierarchy of preoccupations—a friction between private fantasies and public concerns—that you have worked with repeatedly throughout your career and most specifically earlier on in your popular and critically successful television series of the late '90s, Florentin. In your films and TV dramas, that friction is—as Shai Ginsburg has written in his seminal Tikkun overview of your work—"often presented as a tension between the sexual interests of [your] characters—in particular, though not exclusively, homosexual interests—and a preoccupation in their surroundings with matters of national security, including military service, the Lebanon War, the first Gulf War, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." Do you think it's that tension Ginsburg describes that is being characterized derogatorily as "American"? Because it's a quality and a tension common in Americans. By example, you can walk right into the Castro and recognize it for being a ghetto—even though I hate that word—inhabited by scores of gay males who sometimes appear to not have a clue what's really going on in the larger world around them and often don't care because they're preoccupied with their own individuation.
Fox: But we all live in bubbles. That's part of what the film is trying to say. Bubbles or ghettos, we all create these worlds for ourselves. Sometimes they're more detached from what's happening around, sometimes more connected, or there's more interaction between one bubble and the bubble surrounding it or the world around it.
Guillén: Are you saying that's a natural process of trying to find refuge in the guise of a personally-articulated life?
Fox: I think it is for many people in Israel. In this specific bubble of Tel Aviv, as you said, it's a survival mechanism against the reality. Again, what is real is a philosophical issue; but, the things that are going on around this bubble—different fronts and bubbles within Israel or existence in Israel—the reality is still overwhelming and so difficult and so complex. Young people could go mad or decide to leave Israel or decide to do something very extreme. They've created this bubble mechanism to somehow censor or control what comes in or what doesn't come in—what I bring in, what I don't bring in—in order to maintain some kind of sanity. There are personal things that are only mine and that I insist on and have nothing to do with the country, with the community, the Middle East, they're only mine. Britney Spear songs that I like. A sex scene that I'm part of and I've enjoyed. A film that I've seen. Whatever. Stuff like that. Which sounds normal to many people but in Israel that's almost perceived as not normal. You cannot have your personal thing which is detached from the general thing, from the country, the neighborhood, the army, the family. It's considered illegitimate to behave that way.
Guillén: That being said, is it your intention to burst that bubble?
Fox: To burst it? Not in order to kill it or to destroy it; but,—now that you're asking that—maybe that's part of every work that you do as an artist, as a writer, maybe it's a process of deconstructing something to reconstruct it, to examine it and its different parts. You could ask me what my attitude is towards this bubble; if I'm critical of it.
Guillén: Which is what I'm asking.
Fox: I'm indifferent towards it. I have different emotions towards it. I completely feel for the young characters in the film who are the people of Israel who have created and insist upon maintaining this bubble. I understand where that's coming from. They would go insane or leave Israel by the thousands because it's almost impossible to live and survive there. On the other hand, I do say their way of living is—irresponsible is too strong a word—perhaps too narcissistic or too self-indulgent within itself. The [bottom line] is that they don't care really what's going on around them because caring is difficult, caring is so overwhelming. They retreat to a place where they reduce their existence. That's a tragedy. They don't do it because they're bad people.
Guillén: They just can't handle the scope or the scale of it.
Fox: Yes. I feel for them and I love them and I understand what they're doing and there are some wonderful things that they do within that bubble—the bubble enables them to create beautiful stuff—
Guillén: Like the rave in the film?
Fox: Like the rave. Like the café that this guy is running. It's a café where I have lunch every day. It has the best cakes you can imagine. Wonderful food and atmosphere and so on. And Lulu wants to be a clothes designer and will probably be eventually. And Noam doesn't really know what he wants to do but his music is very important to him and so on. That's a wonderful thing all in itself, the music world of the film.
Guillén: Florentin situates that bubble in the Florentin quarter in southern Tel Aviv; The Bubble even more specifically in the hip Sheikin Street district. I'm unfamiliar with Tel Aviv, are they the same neighborhood? The same bubble?
Fox: It's very similar, relatively close, but a different period in the history of Tel Aviv. The Florentin quarter was more of an industrial offbeat kind of place where they expected it to become like every city, become the new fashionable place. It never did. Today it's mill factories and shops and stuff like that. Sheikin Street is more of a commercial area like Soho in New York.
Guillén: Well, then let me ask you this: you have this way of presenting homosexuality as a normal thread in the fabric of Israeli life. Several of your characters are openly gay and their sexuality appears to be accepted without much fuss. This was, in fact, one of the innovations in Florentin praised by critics. Is it really that way or is this your fantasy?
Fox: In Tel Aviv, in my bubble which is my fantasy world, a fantasy we're all trying to maintain, it is true. Tel Aviv is a very gay-friendly city, very permissive, very accepting, there's wonderful night life for gay people, lots of film and television and theater that deals with gay themes, gay characters and so on.
Guillén: So that bubble is lined with nice decorator fabric?
Fox: Yes. But then you have Jerusalem. The Muslims, the Christians and the Jews, the heads of the different congregations, got together to protest—together for the first time—against the World Pride March that was supposed to be in Jerusalem last year. It was cancelled because of this protest. On Thursday of this week (June 21), it's going to be the second attempt, this march in Jerusalem. All my straight friends from Tel Aviv are going to Jerusalem to march and not leave Jerusalem in the hands of the religious and the right wing and the radicals.
Guillén: Speaking of straight friends marching for gay rights, my favorite sequence in The Bubble—referenced by the film's poster—is where you equate straight and gay bodies as commensurate fields of pleasure. Thus, though you use political context, the real drama of your films appears to be sexual not political. You add some clout to the old adage: "Make love, not war." Your films have been well-accepted by straights in Israel, have they not?
Fox: They've been successful in Israel in different ways. Yossi & Jagger was a phenomenon in Israel. One crazy example: when we had the withdrawal from the occupied parts of Gaza more than a year ago, it was a big operation in Israel, a big dramatic thing in our history where we left parts of the West Bank that [had been] conquered in 1967. We had to take all those settlers out of there and it was a big thing. The people who ran the show were a high ranking military officer and a high ranking policeman; tough macho straight Israeli men. Everyone loved them for doing it so peacefully and for managing the whole process without casualties. They were chosen men of the year by all the magazines. The police officer was interviewed by one of the biggest Israeli newspapers and the journalist said to him, "Forget about politics or the operation, tell me about an emotional personal moment you had with the army officer." He said, "We were standing overlooking Gaza at the end of the operation and we realized, 'We did it! It's overwith. It's okay.' It was almost the Sabbath, it was Saturday, and the sun was setting [while] we were overlooking Gaza, it was quiet and peaceful. We felt like Yossi & Jagger." [Laughs.] This was a straight, macho high-ranking Israeli policeman using a gay love story to express intimacy between himself and another man publicly. I pinched myself to see if this was written and he'd really said these things.
I think that reflected the change in the way films, our films, and art can change and open people's minds and change perceptions and the way people feel. He didn't think it was a bad thing to use that example. It didn't imply that he was gay or that he was weak and not enough of a man. No. He used Yossi & Jagger to describe intimacy between himself and another man. That was wonderful. That would never have happened while I was growing up in Israel.
Guillén: But you must be fair to yourself. Yossi & Jagger is more than a simple gay love story. One of the reasons Yossi & Jagger was such a phenomenal success was because it articulated codes of masculinity and their national usages to enforce culture. You were the first as far as I know to comment upon Israeli militarized forms of masculinity in such a playful yet subversive manner. It startled us, maybe even shocked us, but definitely made us think about the role of masculinities in constructing national identities and how individuals can lose their lives and their capacity to love within such national constructions. You continue to make us think about these national projects. The erotic dyad between an Israeli and a Palestinian that you introduced in Walk on Water arrives fleshed out in The Bubble. Applying the love that dare not speak its name to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict produces the reconciliation that dare not speak its name.
Guillén: All that being said, I do have some issues with The Bubble that I'd like to discuss with you.
Guillén: Along with the tension between the personal and the communal in your films, there's an added tension between how you use your characters to represent contemporary Israeli youth but then how they also become allegorical mouthpieces; in gist, a tension between the natural and the allegorical. I love how you depict the real-life interactions of your young characters, the humorous exchanges, the music they listen to, the pop culture they consume, all of that is so natural and easily relatable. But then, usually towards the end of your films, your characters become something more than human and shift into representations of larger ideologies, which become mapped onto their bodies. In The Bubble especially, that's what I feel happened. It started out human to me and then suddenly they became representative of larger forces and I didn't quite understand that process.
Fox: Why? Because Ashraf kills himself?
Guillén: Precisely. I could maybe understand Ashraf killing himself because he just couldn't bear the pressures of his life anymore; but, why take with him all the people that had shown him love and tolerance? The film's ending seemed very unfair to me and unkind.
Fox: The outcome of what Ashraf does in the film, the people who die—and I hope it's clear—is only him and Noam.
Guillén: But he destroyed that environment, that café, the heart and soul of The Bubble.
Fox: Well, yeah, he ruined the café and that will take a few days to fix. [Laughs.] But the thing is that we have all these people who have gone through all these suicide bombings and there's [predictable] routines. If [a suicide bomber] managed to get into the café, he would kill [many more] people. Sometimes the guard at the entrance of the café would prevent him. By dying himself, the guard himself prevent[s] a bigger tragedy. So you have in this case a man who does not walk into that café, who decides to walk backwards into the empty street and basically kill himself. That's what he thinks he's doing. He doesn't know that Noam's running after him to be with him. Once he turns around and sees him, there's somewhat of a loving moment between the two of them before they realize they're going to die.
Guillén: So you're justifying his death as a personal solution to insurmountable odds?
Fox: I don't think you feel in the film—as far as the energies of what's happening—that Ashraf is going to Israel to kill a lot of Jews. You don't feel that that's what he wants to do. You feel that he has reached a difficult emotional place. He can't be a Palestinian in Israel. He can't be a gay man in Palestine. His beloved sister—who could not accept him as a gay man—is murdered by Israelis. All of these different influences and tensions are working inside of him. He's moreorless—not blackmailed—but pressured into marrying Samira, who he doesn't want to marry. But he realizes that—if he marries her and has a child with her—he might solve something of his family's problem, the fact that he's gay, the fact that his sister was murdered. All these things are going on in this young man's mind. Killing yourself in such a way is an option in his world; has become an option in the world of Palestine. It's just like me going to the army in Israel and going to fight a war. It's an option. It's a part of my repertoire of options. So Ashraf decides to use that [option] to maybe get out of an impossible situation, as far as he's concerned. He doesn't know exactly what he's doing. It's not as if he's there to kill a lot of Jews. He walks aimlessly in the streets of Tel Aviv. He gets to this café and the people who have given him some kind of love, some kind of hope, and he goes there—and I've read in all these books about suicide bombers who kill themselves or attempt to kill themselves (there's a difference) at their parents' house, at their family's house, with friends, or opposite a friend's house in order to scream something to the world….
Guillén: Like suicides who jump off the Golden Gate Bridge facing San Francisco?
Fox: Exactly. To demonstrate and to scream [for help], maybe to be saved by their loved ones. You have all these tensions working. I don't know if the film [presents] these things good enough or in the right way, but it has I think little things that are playing there into that. It's certainly not that he wants to be a terrorist and kill a lot of Jews, that's not in the film. His motivations maybe are not built or structured into the film. We could have maybe invested more time throughout the film, not only in the beginning or when his sister's dead, to show that this is a complicated and tormented soul in many ways and maybe the fact that he's so nice and composed and that he manages to love these people and be with them, maybe too much of that, an imbalance. I don't know.
Guillén: Again, you present this tension regarding whether an individual can become themselves in a society where things have reached such a volatized pitch.
Fox: I'm often asked this question, as much as we asked ourselves when we were making the film. Me and Yousef, the actor who played Ashraf, we talked ourselves crazy about this day and night. Is this right? Is this wrong? Where should he go when he puts this suicide bomb on himself? Where does he go? What does he do? I guess even when I watch the film and I've been hearing this question or criticism of the ending—especially in the States—I feel for this reaction: why does it have to end this way? Can't they find a way of living happily ever after? An Israeli who has lived in the States for years asked me, "Couldn't they leave Israel and go and get married in Canada?" Which is an option, of course; but, that would be wrong with regard to what I'm trying to do and say.
Guillén: Well, if you can't permit a happy ending, that's why I was asking if you were purposely intending to burst the bubble. You're moreorless declaring that—if you do want to live a life where you are freed from these surrounding political concerns—you may have to leave Israel.
Fox: By showing that there's not really a way for their love to succeed in Israel, that is one of the resolutions that people might have. The situation in Israel is so tragic and if you do want to save yourself—and I have a friend who has said this for the last 10 years; my friend says, "Get the hell out of there"—that's one option. But then there are people who will say, "We love Israel. We care about Israel." Jews need Israel. Palestinians need Palestine. So we have to find a way of solving this. I guess that's what I was trying to do: burst the bubble. Metaphorically speaking.
Guillén: Perhaps you're questioning complacency? I do respect the bubble as a survival mechanism but I do question the tendency—as you were saying—of being out of touch with larger, more real processes that need to happen to effect true change.
Fox: Maybe I'm just saying to people, "Listen, you're too—not blasé about it—but you're not doing enough. This is crazy." If I were a mother of children in Israel—I'm not, I don't know, maybe this is too naïve or too romantic of me to say—but I would put myself on the street and not give up until there was change. Why would a mother live in Israel and have a kid go to the army at 18 and maybe die in war or occupation? Why would a Palestinian mother allow this? Do you know what I mean? My best friend with whom I grew up in Israel, she left Israel and now lives in Amherst, Massachusetts. I met her like a week ago. She was saying, "What were my parents thinking? What am I thinking? Why would I have my son die in the war?"
Guillén: That's interesting that you go there because that's another point that Shai Ginsburg has noted about your work. He's written: "At the center of Fox's film lies the wounded heterosexual family unit and, more specifically, the role men play in undoing it. The salvation of the family … lies in protecting the purity of the private sphere and repelling whatever elements of collective, national ideals that subvert it." When you're talking about the necessary role of mothers to protest the misguided decisions of fathers and sons, you're talking about women's innate body wisdom to preserve life.
Fox: In Walk On Water, more than any of my films, I negotiate with that man.
Guillén: And that man—militarized into hardness—longs for the reprieve of softness.
Fox: Yeah! I feel for these tough straight men. Living the way they do is terribly difficult and probably very limited and sad. They themselves want to get out of there somehow.
Guillén: You collaborate a lot with your partner Gal Uchovsky? What's the working dynamic between you two? Do you get up in the morning, have your coffee, and hammer out scripts?
Fox: [Laughs.] Gal has another world for himself. I don't have another world. He's been a prominent journalist in Israel, and a music critic, he's written for many magazines, and now he's a judge on Israeli Idol. That's why he's back in Israel. He's starting the new season of Israeli Idol.
Guillén: Israeli Idol??!!!
Fox: Yeah, he's a judge. [Chuckles.] There are advantages and disadvantages in working the way that we do. These are issues that are so much in our lives. We don't have to explain and talk too much about them. It's like, "Now it's time we deal with your father. Or my mother." For me really it's like I realize that I have been using filmmaking almost as a therapeutic method. When I was a student making short films it was easier to see what I was doing. My parents' divorce. My coming out. You deal with that, almost get it out of your system, and work through it. Then the German thing, the whole Shoah thing, I realized in Walk On Water I didn't really need that again. But then in The Bubble I had to draw the comparison, to show the occupation, our history with the Germans, our history with the Palestinians. On a more crucial level, I've finished, I can go ahead to another issue. I realize now my father, who died about a week after The Bubble came out in Israel….
Guillén: I'm sorry to hear that.
Fox: It was a sudden death and a difficult experience. Now I realize—and I didn't at the beginning and I don't know where it came from—but the next film is so much about a father and a son. I have to deal with that.
Guillén: I look forward to that. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today, Etyan.
Fox: It's been very interesting talking to you. I hope I haven't confused you.
Guillén: Your films are so complex that it's difficult to talk about them in the first place, but I've gained insight today, and I commend you for the themes you choose to tackle in your films. I encourage you to keep articulating your concerns. You've expressed yourself so much better than most.
Fox: Thank you. That's nice to hear.