Moved by a movie

Gay documentary filmmaker Tomer Heymann seems to connect to his audiences. After viewing his work, some moviegoers have actually been influenced enough to change something in their own lives.

Gay documentary filmmaker Tomer Heymann 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gay documentary filmmaker Tomer Heymann 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"I think you should keep this footage private,’ says Andreas Merk at the end of Tomer Heymann’s documentary film I Shot My Love. The film follows the pair’s relationship from its onset in Berlin, Merk a native German and Heymann Israeli, as a chance meeting and 48 hours together lead to Merk’s move to Tel Aviv. The film also focuses on their relationship with Heymann’s salt-of-the-Israeli-earth mother, Noa, whose parents escaped Nazi Germany.
Having won awards worldwide, I Shot My Love’s footage, of course, did not stay private.
The Tel Aviv Cinematheque recently hosted its Sixth Tel Aviv LGBT International Film Festival, featuring Heymann’s work along with LGBT stories from around the world. According to its artistic director Yair Hochner, the festival is an opportunity to show “new, revolutionary cinema and tell stories that Israeli audiences don’t usually get exposed to.”
This year, the festival celebrated 10 years since Heymann’s groundbreaking documentary film It Kinda Scares Me, about his journey putting on a professional play with a group of teenage boys from one of the country’s periphery neighborhoods. After over a year of working together, Heymann tells the boys he’s gay; the film shows their worlds open as they learn to accept what before may have been foreign, shocking, even repulsive.
“Heymann is the most important gay documentary filmmaker in Israel today,” says Hochner about the decision to honor the filmmaker in this year’s festival.
“He makes very personal Israeli films often touching on his own sexual orientation, delves deep into his stories and always manages to move the viewers.”
It is precisely this ability to depict the nuances of everyday life that makes his films so moving and often so relatable. Despite his subjects’ sometimes far-flung lives, his audiences ultimately find themselves in his work.
The festival featured three of his films: It Kinda Scares Me, 2010’s I Shot My Love and his most recent film (also making its Israeli debut), The Queen Has No Crown. The last is the Heymann family story, two parents raising five boys in the agricultural village of Yedidya, the boys getting up early to milk the cow and learning to love Israel’s soil. Despite the Zionism with which the boys grew up, three of Heymann’s brothers ultimately left Israel for life in the US. The film intersperses scenes of his nieces and nephews as they lose their Israeli identities and gain American ones, scenes revealing his mother’s heartbreak over their move, and scenes of Heymann’s first relationships with men – all against the backdrop of Israel’s political travails and national tragedies.
I Shot My Love is screened at Tel Aviv’s LGBT Center. A woman softly touches her date, another woman, as they enter the center’s makeshift movie theater, its black floors scratched and rows of red office chairs seating no more than 50 set in the back. Young people of the same or opposite sexes lean in close, and a balding man’s head juts out in the front. The lights are dimmed and the film comes on, an assortment of home videos cleanly and cohesively edited to tell Merk’s and Heymann’s story.
“For me, doing this would be too personal,” says Daniel Hierl, German, who came to see the film with friend Elad Menashe, Israeli. “I was shocked everyone participated.”
Menashe agrees, but when asked if the film spoke to him, adds, “I think everyone relates to love and loneliness. Even though it was very personal, it’s basically everyday life.”
The Queen Has No Crown premieres at the Cinematheque’s Theater 1, seating several hundred and sporting red curtains to match the theater’s plush, bright-red seats.
Middle-aged women and young men, striped shorts, purple jackets, red hats, dyed bright-yellow hair and conversations about how this film was made or directions to Givatayim fill the theater. From the corner of an eye, a rainbow hand fan is seen waving back and forth.
Heymann’s documentary begins with colorful ’70s footage in which the family is seen playing outside. At the end of the film, the director comes onto the stage, inviting his mother and younger brother to join. Having been asked to speak, the former responds, “They said so much, what’s left for me to say?” Perhaps she’s referring to a scene in which Barak Heymann, the youngest of the brothers and the producer of many of Heymann’s films, says she was a difficult woman to love. She looks at both and says, “But they’re cute,” then turns to kiss and hug them.
“I am a groupie of Tomer’s films,” says Chana Shiloh, a gray-haired woman who’s just watched Queen. “He touches on subjects that are very important to our existence here. That issue of kids who sometimes disappoint their parents, the issue of ‘the Left’ in Israel, the issue of a person’s right to choose for him- or herself what’s important.”
“He doesn’t make concessions,” says Bezalel, a musician who recently wrote about the revolution in Tunisia and came to see the film. “He brings out the really bitter pain and strives to find what’s most real.”
He adds, “I think today, more than anything, people are searching for the truth.
Not just their personal truth, but a widescope one, one that’s about society. And that’s where Tomer is. You couldn’t imagine such a film being shown publicly 20 years ago, and today it is. So we’re veering toward discovering what’s real, the root of the truth and an expression of it.”
The night of the premiere, Heymann is flying to San Francisco. Queen has been accepted to the city’s Frameline Film Festival, the oldest LGBT film festival, and San Francisco’s Jewish Film Festival, the first and largest of its kind. Warm and open (within seconds of our first phone conversation, having found out I paid to see his film, he says, “Bless you, I would have gotten you in for free!”), he suggests we do the interview on the way to and at the airport, just minutes before a grueling 18- hour flight.
After checking in his bag, Heymann, curly, silver-haired and wearing slacks for the flight, joins me at an Elite café outside the gates. He explains the progression of his filmmaking, having begun to record around the time he served as a paratrooper in the army. He talks readily and freely, moved by the evening’s excitement.
“I think on the level of family, every member has a role. I’m the family documenter,” he reflects. “Was there some panel that chose me? No, and they probably would have fired me long ago. But I chose myself.”
While his first shots were innocent and tame, and he unaware of their power, eventually he learned to control his craft.
But why documentary? “What excites me about documentary is [that] the person in the movie’s life continues when the movie is over. When you see a fiction film, and I love fiction films, the understanding between me and the film when the credits roll is Meryl Streep only played the lover of the French officer.”
With so many opinions on what his films are about, Heymann explains what matters to him regarding his stories: “They’re about life. If you break apart all the elements that create drama, they’re very simple. No one dies, there is no cancer, no disease. You grow up and there are little battles. Queen is a collection of life’s little choices.”
In Heymann’s eyes, “documentary filmmaking is about passion.” Though he keeps his audience in mind in terms of how to tell the story, he says, ultimately filmmaking is a thing he does for himself.
“I can’t even tell you that I choose my subjects. In [my 2006 documentary] Paper Dolls, I walked around and someone told me about this group [of Filipino drag queens], and it changed my life. It gets to a point where you can wake me up in the middle of the night, show me every frame [of every movie] and I’ll stand behind my decision to put it there. I know why it’s there, and I love it.”
As in Israel, his films get varied responses all over the world, from Germany to Indonesia. Many global viewers discover themselves.
“This Japanese guy came to talk to us [in Berlin regarding Queen]. He said in Japan, they don’t know anything about this strange place where people fight all the time. But he saw his Japanese family there in the film. In London, Al Jazeera invited us to show the film and [a woman came] who hadn’t seen or talked to her mother in 25 years. After the film she told us, ‘I’m going tomorrow.’ What better gift is there than that?” But, he says, he does not understand why. “And I don’t want to understand it.
It happens and it makes me happy, but I’m always afraid of trying figure out the equation.
If I do, there won’t be that passion. I haven’t fallen into that trap yet – I love what I do. I love it.”
When Barak Heymann is asked why he believes people connect to his brother’s work, he says, “I think ultimately we are all looking to be moved by something that speaks about us in some way. And I think in all of these movies there is something very human. What does a person really want? To be loved, sex, he wants work, family... Nothing more.”
And indeed, having realized that I’m there in the moments when Noa rejoices at seeing her family and when the filmmaker tells his niece she’ll one day have to choose between Israel and the US, through the heartbreak of loneliness and of Israel in turmoil, at the end of The Queen Has No Crown, I found myself crying.