By Liat Simon from "Maaravon" magazine
Israeli Gay Cinema: Good Boys, Yair Hochner's low-budget film and its location on the gay scale between the films of directors Eytan Fox and Amos Guttman.
Good Boys, Yair Hochner's film is 75 minutes long, but cost only $500, and filmed with a semi-professional digital camera by Ziv Berkowitz, an 18-year-old youth who had just completed his film studies at high school and was Hochner's student. And indeed, Good Boys has to a great extent the esthetic look of a high-school finals film, at least regarding the interior filming, in which the art direction is not meticulous and the lighting is amateurish. In contrast, the rough and grainy look is appropriate for the outdoor filming, and it was probably a result of the existing lighting in the filming location. It can be said that the fact that the film cost so little clearly influenced its esthetics, and in this case even contributed to it, because despite the differences between indoor and outdoor filming, Good Boys succeeds in the mission failed by much more expensive films – building a credible, valid and moving world.
Good Boys tells the tale of two teenagers who are male prostitutes and their desperate attempt to find logic, and even love, in the cruel night that runs their lives. It's a film about homosexuals and for homosexuals. As such, it joins a list – which is still too short – of Israeli gay films. This is thankless territory, that not many are enthusiastic to join, and is far from being completely mapped. In fact, it is interesting to examine through Hochner the laws that activate Israeli gay cinema and the ideological ground it has conquered since the eighties and until today.
From Amazing Grace to Yehuda Levy
Hochner's film is on the midway between two film directors who deal with the homosexual world in Israel, between Amos Guttman and Eytan Fox, in between representing homosexual life as ingrained in a reality lacking a future, and a normalized representation of them as an organic part of a fictitious Israeli agenda. Good Boys brings up topics that were made vague in the past few years: it brings back the discourse on the gay existential despair, which was present in Guttman's films, and casts doubt on the rosy sanity represented by Fox's films. In a text written by Yotam Reuveni, a poet, author and editor of the Nimrod publishing house, for the Maariv weekend supplement, he raises his own up-to-date quandary regarding the ultra-optimistic media positioning of the Israeli homosexual: "The representation of homosexuals in the media is not just ideal, it's utopian. The truth regarding their existential situation in Israel is completely different. The gap is mainly the result of the incomprehensible detachment of the 'trend setters' from reality itself. In a completely free environment in Tel Aviv it is very easy to believe that this utopia is reality. The homosexual writers are 'declared' and as such they adopt the illusion almost automatically."
Reuveni came out of the closet, as he testifies himself, some 25 years ago. As someone with first-hand experience in the gap between gay reality and the general-straight reality, Reuveni lashes out against the present attempt to portray homosexuals as a homogenous and harmless part of heterosexual society: "The late director Amos Guttman realized the essential contradiction at the base of the world of the homosexual nation living among foreign nation. His film Bar 51, for example, is a closed homosexual universe. Nobody goes out from there to do army reserve duty or is interested in the national team's soccer games. The homosexuals are exiles and immigrants, despite being the sons of denizens. They are conspicuous, like the Jews or gypsies are in the societies in which the live."
Amos Guttman, probably the most brilliant and unique director Israel has known until this day, was, apparently, ten tragic years ahead of his time. The ten years separating between the release of Amazing Grace in 1992 and Guttman's death of aids, and the release of Yossi & Jagger in 2002, were the critical period that made all the difference between the rejected gay presence and the embraced gay presence in Israeli media. Otherwise it is impossible to explain the gap between Guttman, who died quietly and only yearned for recognition in the image of the Israeli Oscar (the Ophir Award nowadays) and between Eytan Fox, whose gayness became his trademark and his films Walk on Water (2004) and The Bubble (2006) won international success.
According to Reuveni's diagnosis, homosexuality for Guttman was a dark burden, which did not hold a future for those carrying it upon their shoulders. Those trying to brand Guttman as a pessimist detached from contemporary gay reality, as many of the people responding to Reuveni's article have done, will today find Hochner laughing at their faces. Guttman's legacy, which speaks about life in the margins, in an endless night, has not escaped his eyes. Even in 2005 he feels a deep emotional need to tell a story filled to the brim with prostitution, violence, sex and perversion. And this makes it easy to understand why Good Boys had to be made without a budget and with total independence: this is the only way to portray a controversial situation of homosexuals who are far from the huggable spirit of successful pop star and winner of the singer of the year award Ivri Lider, or television presenter Aviad Kisos.
This also connects between today's Hochner and Guttman of the early nineties – the terrible struggle for receiving funding, for economic survival, for acknowledgement by the film funds. Guttman struggled and was overpowered by his illness. Hochner is struggling and chose to find creative solutions such as working with a novice crew and filming on video, thus lowering costs and enabling the film's production.
On the other side is Eytan Fox, a gay director whose sexual identity has not been an obstacle for him. So far he has received the support of both film funds and the audience. Today Eytan Fox is the consensus, but a student film he made when he completed his studies at the Tel Aviv University in 1990, Time Off, heralded the beginning of a new and bolder path. In Time Off most of the thematic characteristics of Fox's cinema were born, headed by his engrossment with the army: this is a story about Yonatan, a gay soldier, who fantasizes about his commander, Erez, seemingly the epitome of straightness. At the end of the film, not only does Yonatan find out that Erez is gay, after he sees him sneaking with a man to the toilet at the Independence park frequented by gays, but Erez also allows himself to show the feminine motives of his personality. This is Fox's first and only film in which the distinction of homosexuality as a proposed "other" lifestyle receives absolute legitimacy. From here onwards he chose to follow a different path, which brought him to his present status.
During about the same time that Guttman was struggling against the cinematic establishment in Israel while making Amazing Grace, Fox made a straight film with mainstream content called Song of the Siren, starring Yair Lapid. Later on he directed the popular television series Florentine, in which a gay character was present, but most of it dealt with the lives of young people in the fashionable Tel Aviv neighborhood. As aforesaid, only in 2002 Fox dealt with homosexuality in the feature film Yossi & Jagger (starring Ohad Knoller and Yehuda Levy), and then chose to represent homosexuals in a very specific way. Gay people in his films are always clean, almost sterile. In fact, these are very straight homosexuals. He is strict about having straight icons portray the role of the homosexual as a casting trick, using Sami Huri (Gotta Have Heart, 1997), Lior Ashkenazi and Yehuda Levy. The gay characters are so straight that Eyal, played by Lior Ashkenazi in Walk on Water, cannot let himself fall in public for Axel, and so marries his sister.
Because they are cool men they are also pro-military: Yossi and Jagger are officers, and Eyal is a muscular Mossad agent. Reuveni sees fault in this: " Such a man (gay, L.S.) turns to art, perhaps secretly, in order to somewhat clarify himself to himself. To his amazement he sees that 'his' literature not only fails to emphasize his primal homosexual distinctiveness, but tends to offhandedly obliterate it. The homosexual is described as a combat soldier, eating pita with hummus, wearing a yellow shirt while watching Maccabi sports matches, and, of course, does army reserve duty. This gay literature of the declared minority is usually saying: don't harm us, we are like you, in a kind of weariless Shylokean appeal. The minority hopes to find security in painting itself in the colors of the majority."
The strategy of Fox and his partner Gal Ochovsky, which disturbs Reuveni, places homosexuality in the mainstream – this is a patriotic homosexuality of "it's good to die for our country" on the one hand, and the fun, amusing homosexuality, of seventies disco, lifestyle and quality aftershave on the other hand.
If Guttman is treated in contemporary gay discourse as a kind of apocalyptical killjoy, the alternative offered by Fox, perhaps Guttman's negative, is not ideal at all. Gal Ochovsky, Fox's life and work partner, expressed his position in a talkback on Reuveni's text, which was also published on the Internet: "Dear Yotam, there may have been inflation in 'overly positive' representations of gays in culture, but this will be balanced too. Watch Yair Hochner's new film Good Boys about two youths at the Independence Park, and you will see that there is a development in that front. This film is very reminiscent of Amos' films."
And thus, Hochner is back in the picture with the alternative he offers, which is somewhere in the middle between Guttman and Fox. Hochner creates a gay image that is a synthesis of all the images created by his predecessors, an image that gives homosexuals and straight men alike the privilege to experience the essence of homosexuality with all its variety of different aspects. Why has Hochner appeared now, of all times, in the scenery of Israeli cinema? A possible answer to this is given in a scene from Good Boys, in which a corrupt cabinet minister rapes one of the film's protagonists. And who is this boy's pimp? Who beats and rapes him and brings the perverted minister straight to him? A member of the Israeli police, of course. These are but two of the extreme examples this film gives to the sense of loneliness experienced by the individual versus society, and especially versus the men representing the law and the establishment whose job it is to protect them.
Good Boys paints a picture of a collapsing society in which all the systems are dysfunctional and the people in it are losing their humanity. Just like the films that belonged to the cinematic genres, such as the American gangster films, Italian neo-realism and German expressionism – which expressed, each in its own way, social distress that characterized the periods in which they were made – Good Boys is a film that was made after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the failure of the Oslo Peace talks and the Al Aqsa Intifada, and as such it precisely reflects Israel's anxieties and situation during this period. It has the scent of the sweaty sperm of the scorched ego and the difficult acts of violence that are also seen on the Israeli television news and on the Palestinian and Israeli streets.
Was published on Maarvon – Israeli magazine for cinema, 2007.
In such a world, in such a society, the homosexual is just another abandoned and hurt individual, one of many. Thus, by reflecting the general mad social situation, in which everyone is suffering, Hochner is able to appropriate for his protagonists a rare, but tragic, position of equality.
Translated by Anat Rotem.