Eytan Fox is one of Israel’s best-known and most critically acclaimed filmmakers with a body of work which has addressed social, political and, particularly, gay issues. So which element of Israeli society gets the treatment in his new movie? Actually none of them. Fox has gone out on a limb to make the funny, affectionate Cupcakes, about the Eurovision Song Contest.
To ask Fox about his Eurovision memories is to set off a stream of stories and recollections which date back to his first experience of the contest. Indeed, after he has spoken for a few minutes about the importance of this annual kitsch fest in his life, the question which comes to mind is not why he has made this film but why it took him this long.
He is almost misty eyed about the first time he watched as a small child in 1973. “It was the first time Israel had ever participated. Israel is not in Europe but Europe had invited us to be a part of this event. My family had the biggest TV in our apartment building — maybe the only one — so all the neighbours came to watch at our place. We came fourth, which felt like such a big achievement.”
Later, Fox would have a more direct involvement in the competition. In 1979, when it was held in Israel, he was given the job of junior correspondent on a children’s television programme and so received a backstage pass. “I felt a part of that world of entertainment and showbusiness,” he recalls fondly. “Israel won with Hallelujah and I felt like I was experiencing a big historical moment .”
Then years later when Fox was an established filmmaker came the experience which provided the inspiration for Cupcakes. “In 2000 a group of friends of mine — hipster Tel Avivian journalists who wrote about music and culture — decided one evening that just for fun they would sit down and write a song to enter Eurovison. So they wrote this song, Sameach, which in English means ‘Be Happy’. They were not musicians, but sure enough they were chosen to represent Israel. They said to me: ‘You have to teach us how to perform and to choose clothes.’ They were in a difficult place because they couldn’t sing if their lives depended on it.
“So I taught them how to move and how to perform and they decided to use Eurovision to make a political statement. They were called Ping Pong and they came on stage with flags of both Israel and Syria. Everyone in Israel thought this was treason and it was very controversial. I was part of that. It has been with me all these years and I thought I’d like to do something.”
The movie itself brings together all these disparate memories. A group of friends living in the same apartment building come together to watch the contest — called Universong in the the film — and end up writing a song which is selected to be Israel’s entry the following year. It is, Fox says, a nostalgic nod to the days when the whole of Israel came to a stop for Eurovision, a time when people knew their neighbours and would go next door to borrow some sugar and end up staying for coffee.
“I realised it was a film through which I was processing my longing for Israel as it used to be, maybe even for the world the way it used to be. A simpler place, a more naïve place, a place where there was a sense of community which is so important in an individual’s life. I wanted to make something that was significant to me.”
The song used for the contest entry in the movie has some serious credentials — it was written by the chart-topping Scissor Sisters. “Scott Hoffman, who is known by the stage name Babydaddy in Scissor Sisters, was close friends with my nephew in New York. When he was in Israel three years ago I asked him if he had a song with a Eurovision feel to it. He said that he and fellow band members composed an Abba kind of a song several years previously just for the fun of it but had done nothing with it. He found it for me and it was exactly what we were looking for. All we did was re-arrange it to make it a little more sweet and sentimental.”
It would not be an Eytan Fox film without a gay element. In the past he has explored homosexual relationships in the military and between Jew and Arab.
In Cupcakes there is a lesbian and a gay man in the band, plus a woman called Dana, an oblique reference to Dana International, the transsexual who shook up Eurovision and provided a boost to the gay community in Israel back in 1998 when she won the competition.
Gay relationships have been central to Fox’s life. He had problems when he came out with his American-born father — a Conservative rabbi — and the issue of parental acceptance is explored in Cupcakes.
Fox’s films have gone further than reflecting changes in Israeli society. He has been hailed as someone who has influenced change.
“The whole gay issue has been a central theme in my work since I started making films about 24 years ago,” he reflects.
“Dealing with these issues was much more difficult when I started and I am proud that Israel has changed in an amazing way. I don’t want to be vain about this but I am also very proud that I was a part of those changes. This film does express sorrow about things that we have lost and longing for an old fashioned Israel but there are lots of wonderful things that have been happening around the world in terms of gay acceptance.”
Another area in which Fox has been influential is in the phenomenal growth of the Israeli film and TV industry. “Ari Folman who made [the Oscar-nominated] Waltz with Bashir was in my class at Tel Aviv University, one of a group of us. But when we graduated there was nothing for us to do. There was one TV channel and seven films made a year. Then commercial and cable television came along and, in 2000, a new film law which ensured that a specific amount of revenue was put into film every year. And we got this incredible explosion.
“Now all these directors had a chance to come through. There is so much creativity here in Tel Aviv and so many talented people. Probably a bit too much creativity for such a small, poor country.
“The one thing we never lacked in Israel were good stories,” he adds with a chuckle.
Cupcakes is released on DVD in May