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Renaissance director

Eytan Fox discusses the world premiere of his film ‘Yossi’ which took place at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Eytan Fox
Photo by: Courtesy
Directors who have just released a film tend to be a bit frantic. They are trying to coordinate a lot of interviews and appearances at once, while fielding calls from well-wishers. Their agent may phone with news about film festivals or producers who want to offer them other projects. But while I’ve interviewed many directors at this heady stage of their careers, I’ve never talked to anyone as ecstatic, nervous and exhilarated as Eytan Fox was last week.

I caught him in a two-day window between the premiere of Yossi, his long-awaited follow-up to Yossi & Jagger, and the beginning of shooting on his next feature, tentatively titled Bananot (the Hebrew word for bananas, but also a play on the Hebrew word for daughters or girls).

At the noisy Café 48 in Nahalat Binyamin in Tel Aviv, he talks about the world premiere of Yossi at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City in April, saying, “It was nice.” The usually loquacious 47-year-old, New York City-born director, one of the filmmakers in the forefront of the renaissance in Israeli cinema, is temporarily at a loss for words.

The film opened the World Narrative Competition, which was a big honor. Asked whether he watched the movie when it was screened there, he says, “Of course. This is what you’ve worked on for years. And then it’s time to show this to the world. You now hope that the world appreciates what you have tried to do.... It’s a difficult time for a filmmaker and a film.

It’s like giving birth. You have a child and you send him off to first grade and then, in our crazy world, to the army. You’re proud of your kid and you’re terrified. You’re anxious. Will people appreciate him? Will they love him? All these emotions come into it.”

So far, they have loved Yossi, in which Ohad Knoller, perhaps best known these days as Nati from the television series about religious singles in Jerusalem, Srugim, reprises his role as Yossi. Yossi has been alone with his secret grief over the death of his lover at the end of the previous film for a decade. Times may have changed for gays in Israel, but Yossi remains firmly closeted about his sexuality, which causes enormous problems for him, from socially awkward encounters with a female nurse who has a crush on him, to a deep feeling of isolation and loneliness. Then a chance meeting with a figure from his past sends him on a road trip during which he is able to look inward, and, at the same time, to embrace the world around him.

“I’m really happy with it,” says Fox. “It’s a very personal film for me.” In a way, that seems odd coming from Fox, who has been very vocal about being part of the gay community. But while the film certainly isn’t autobiographical, he feels very connected to this character, and says that it’s a film about a journey of self-discovery that can appeal to all audiences.

One scene in particular will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever been on a bad date arranged online. A female crew member “was crying. She said, ‘That scene brought back every rejection I’ve ever gotten.’”

Fox first became famous on the international movie scene a decade ago, when Yossi & Jagger, a taboo-breaking film about the romance between two male IDF soldiers stationed near the Lebanese border, became a hit at film festivals around the world and then was released commercially.

It was an improbable success story for a low-budget, 65-minute film that was originally produced for Israeli television. Knoller won the 2003 Best Actor Award at the Tribeca Film Festival for his performance.

But although this was Fox’s breakout film, he had been working in Israeli TV (directing the hit series Florentin) and movies (the big-screen version of the novel Siren Song).

After the success of Yossi & Jagger, Fox went on to helm the dramas Walk on Water, about a straight Mossad agent tasked with keeping an eye on the gay grandson of an infamous Nazi, and The Bubble, about the tragic romance between a Palestinian and an Israeli soldier.

After he completed The Bubble in 2006, several projects he had hoped to make fell through. He turned his attention back to television, directing the miniseries Mary Lou, about a young man who comes to Tel Aviv searching for his mother and ends up joining a drag cabaret act. This series, like Yossi & Jagger, which was originally intended for local consumption, ended up going around the world, and was shown at Jewish, Israeli and gay film festivals.

But for years, Fox had mulled a sequel about the Yossi character. Then, suddenly, financing fell into place.

“Usually, you work on developing a film for four years or whatever, and Yossi had been in some phase of development for quite a while.”

But then, he quickly needed a finished script and got in touch with journalist Itay Segal.

“It’s his first film,” says Fox. “I said, ‘It’s not one of your columns. It has to be a script I can shoot.’ He said, ‘I’m a journalist. I’m used to deadlines.’ I gave him a structure and he came up with 100 pages of dialogue in about 10 days.”

Knoller helped put his stamp on the character he knew so well.

“Me and Ohad have been working together for so many years. I discovered him when he was a student.

We’re getting older. We’re not kids anymore. He said that on The Bubble [in which Knoller starred], we didn’t talk about the character enough. He wanted this to be more focused.”

Fox couldn’t be happier with what Knoller ended up bringing to the film.

“I’ve never had a character so nuanced, and that was Ohad,” he says. “It was a great experience. Just the way he did the reaction shots made the movie.”

The characters often speak in the film of how badly Yossi has aged, and Knoller had to appear opposite the much younger Oz Zehavi, Israel’s latest heartthrob.

“He [Knoller] really put himself on the line. He had no vanity about it.”

He’d like to talk more about Knoller, and Yossi, but he doesn’t have that much time; he has a meeting with a key crew member on Bananot. It’s the story of a group of female friends, played by some of Israel’s leading actresses – Anat Waxman, Yael Bar-Zohar, Dana Ivgy, Efrat Dor and Keren Berger – and one token male (Ofer Schechter), who write a song that ends up being Israel’s entry in an international song contest.

“They are all different types and all different professions,” he says. “We got an original song by the Scissor Sisters [an American pop group] that they wrote but never recorded. We translated it into Hebrew. It’s a truthful, romantic song.”

The film evokes Fox’s fond memories of a kinder, gentler Israel where everyone would gather to watch music competitions at their neighbors’ houses.

“It’s a different energy from Yossi,” says Fox.

Talking about an invitation from the Berlin Festival to show Bananot in 2013, Fox discusses the shooting schedule and momentarily lets the stress show. But only for a moment.

“The inspiration is Jacques Demy films, like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” he says.

And he’s off again, discussing the color schemes planned for the different characters’ apartments, until it’s time for his next meeting.


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