Eytan Fox: on the return of Yossi and why he wants to make a musical

Israeli director's new work premieres at the UK Jewish Film Festival


Fox: "My films bring people closer to Israel"  Photo: Getty Images

Fox: "My films bring people closer to Israel" Photo: Getty Images

Reprising a film role is never easy.

Israeli writer-director Eytan Fox discovered as much when he first approached actor Ohad Knoller about recreating his starring role in Fox’s influential work, Yossi & Jagger.

“Ohad, who’s a dear friend, was ambivalent about the whole idea,” recalls Fox.

Yossi & Jagger, released in 2002, was regarded as groundbreaking in its portrayal of a gay relationship between two combat soldiers stationed at a remote outpost on the Lebanese border.

Fox has been credited with being one of the people responsible for beginning the new wave of Israeli films with this non-political, tragic love story.

Knoller won best actor in the 2003 Tribeca Film Festival, in New York, for his performance as Yossi.

Fox managed to convince Knoller of the value of the project — both wanted to develop the character so that he would be credible and exact.

The resulting movie is Yossi, which received its world premiere at Tribeca earlier in the year, with one review describing it as possibly Fox’s “most accomplished work to date”.

Its British premiere will be at the UK Jewish Film Festival this weekend.

The film’s story picks up 10 years later. Yossi is now a cardiologist and remains in the closet until he finally discovers how to define himself.

Fox says the film is about someone who is post-traumatic, about how he learns to live again and accept who he is.

It is a thoughtful, sanguine piece of cinema, with a solid supporting cast, including Lior Ashkenazi, an actor who, like Knoller, has appeared in other Fox films.

Sitting in Cafe Noir, a buzzy bistro in his Tel Aviv neighbourhood, Fox explains that he did not originally set out to write a sequel at all and is happy to hear that Yossi manages to work as a stand-alone film, as a character study about growing older.

He agrees that there is a universality about the story and reveals that: “Ohad and I went through a few bumpy times in our personal lives in the last two years.

"We felt that a lot of the issues we were dealing with were similar for both of us and could come into Yossi’s story”.

Addressing conflict is a prevalent theme in all of Fox’s films. It can be of a military, personal or political nature, sometimes a fusion of all three.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is integral to The Bubble (2006), impacting on all the character’s relationships in the film. Military service and the first Lebanon War provides the setting in Yossi & Jagger.

Fox’s characters can experience doomed love affairs; sexual relationships are presented — in particular but not exclusively gay relationships — as often fraught with tension.

Fox believes that films can act as a catalyst to change opinion, as a platform for dialogue, both between himself and his viewers and between the viewers themselves.

He says that he is considered by some Israelis as a person who is “supposedly, but wrongly, anti Israeli.

"When people say that I’m doing something that is anti-Israel, I say these films bring people closer to Israel, closer to understanding that there’s a different kind of Israel.

"I come from a place of deep love and concern about the country. For me, there are so many interesting examples that make these films worthwhile and meaningful.”

A scene from Yossi, starring Ohad Knoller (right)

A scene from Yossi, starring Ohad Knoller (right)

He proceeds to tell a story about an Iranian woman who recently contacted him via Facebook. She told him that she had believed “Zionists were Satan but had stumbled on The Bubble and decided to watch it”.

Afterwards she wrote to thank him for changing her understanding and “for learning that the realities in Israel are very complex”.

Fox adds: “You could argue with her approach, the way she had been educated, but the fact was that she saw a film of mine and was moved by it”.

For the director, responses to his work do not get any better than that.

Essentially Fox is not making political films, although politics sometimes do form part of the narrative.

“Yossi is less political than a film like The Bubble or Walk on Water [released in 2004]. But I think — and this is a cliche — everything is political, especially in Israel.”

Fox, an openly gay man, says that Israeli society has changed in its views of homosexuality, “in tremendous ways, but being gay is still an issue. I think it will always be a struggle for the older generation”.

Yossi reflects this shift in attitude and acceptance through the character of Tom (Oz Zehavi), a young gay soldier who Yossi meets on his road trip.

But we also learn about the limits of this new openness — Tom does not feel able to tell his parents about his sexuality.

Yossi received favourable reviews and Fox agrees that it was surprising that it did not receive any nominations for the 2012 Ophir Awards (the Israeli Oscars).

He admits to being disappointed “for about two hours,” but adds that he was more upset by the lack of a nomination for Ohad Knoller’s performance.

The director acknowledges that he is “not loved in Israel as I am abroad”’ and muses whether it is because his films can sometimes make Israeli audiences feel uncomfortable.

He has, however, developed a significant following in France, and Walk on Water, was the first Israeli film to be nominated for a Cesar Award, a French national film prize, in 2006.

He is now busy juggling several films, all at different phases in their development and although “you probably shouldn’t say never,’’ he does feel that Yossi’s story “is done now”.

Current projects range from a biopic about Israeli pop star and depressive, Mike Brant, who achieved fame when he moved to France in the early 1970s but committed suicide.

He is also working on a “girl’s film” about a group of women who are neighbours. To its detriment, he believes that Israel has lost its sense of community and that neighbourhoods have the intimate character they possessed when he was a child growing up in Jerusalem.

But given the choice, he would be working on a very different project.

“If you asked me if I had all the money in the world and all the possibility, what would you make, I’d say a musical,” he reveals.

It is an ambition he has almost fulfilled. He is in the process of editing possibly his biggest film to date — “not quite a musical, it’s a feel-good musical comedy, and we don’t have a lot of those in Israel.”

Yossi is screened as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival on Saturday November 3 at the Tricycle Cinema, London NW6 at 9.10pm. Tickets available at www.tricycle.co.uk or call 020 7328 1000. Ohad Knoller will be taking part in a Q&A after the screening. Full festival details at www.ukjewishfilm.org

Last updated: 2:54pm, August 28 2014