Pictured #1 Lior Ashkenazi as Eyal, Carolina Peters as Pia Himmelman, and Knut Berger as Axel Himmelman. #2 Knut Berger as Axel Himmelman, Carolina Peters as Pia Himmelman, and Lior Ashkenazi as Eyal. #3 Director Eytan Fox.
Gay film director Eytan Fox works closely with his screenwriter, Gal Uchovsky. Very closely. For 16 years, in fact, they've been one of Israel's most prominent gay couples. Fox is perhaps best known in the states for his 2002 Yossi & Jagger, the story of two gay soldiers in the Israeli Army. Now, his theatrical follow-up, the wonderfully entertaining yet contemplative Walk on the Water, a major hit in Israel, is being released in America. The film ( reviewed in this issue ) opens this Friday at the Music Box. Highlights from our conversation:
WCT: I have to tell you that I found the title Walk on Water so apt because to me this was like this little, miraculous film. It's so multi-layered and works on so many levels, there were so many contrasts within it—German/Jewish, Israeli/Palestinian, Young/ Old, Gay/Straight. Where did Gal Uchovsky, the screenwriter ( and your partner ) , get the idea for this?
EF: Well, the truth is that I brought the idea ( laughs ) .
WCT: Oh, OK, it was your idea. So how do you two work together?
EF: The way it usually works is that I come up with the story and characters and build up the whole thing through the treatment stage and then he comes in with his amazing writing abilities and adds the dialogue and the descriptions of the scenes—
WCT: Do you make him go into a room by himself or does he say, 'Get out—go downstairs and make dinner'?
EF: Yes—he goes into a room and I start vacuuming during that period when he's writing ( laughs ) .
WCT: Is the attitude that Eyal has about taking the assignment in the film to track the old Nazi, that, 'Who cares, the Nazi's are all a thing of the past'—is that typical of the younger generation?
EF: That could be typical of younger people in Israel on the one hand then on the other hand this guy wants to do the real important stuff which is killing Arabs so why are you giving me this sissy job, why don't you give me the real thing? I think also on a deeper level he is denying how much he is affected by the Holocaust because he's the son of Holocaust survivors.
WCT: There seems to be a hint at one point that the relationship might have gone in a different direction between Eyal and Axel? Am I right?
EF: Yes, definitely. I'm not shy about doing gay sex scenes—I've done that for television and in my movie Yossi & Jagger—but somehow I felt it took the focus away from what was really important which was the emotional stuff. The fact that this straight guy needs this gay guy in order to change or to become a better person is what was more important.
WCT: So what about generational attitudes with regard to gay people? In the states we're certainly in the midst of an older, very conservative ruling class once again that seems very hard edged about gay people—I refer to them as Those We Don't Speak Of—taking my cue from the movie The Village—
EF: That's funny!
WCT: But the younger people here seem to be much cooler about it. Is that true in Israel as well?
EF: Yes, that's generally true. You know, Israel is a very strange country. On the one hand things have changed amazingly in the last 10 years and I am proud to say that my television work and films are part of that and I don't know if you know Dana International? Do you know this woman?
WCT: Oh my God! I was going to ask you about her when we were done talking about the movie.
EF: She's mentioned in the film.
WCT: Darn, I missed that. When I was in Haifa in '96 I bought one of her CDs because the kid at the music store told me she was the reigning club diva. She's the female impersonator or transsexual, right?
EF: Yes. She was chosen by Israel public television in this music competition called the Euro Vision which is like Europe's gay musical Olympics. It's this competition where every country sends a song—you know like Abba—that's how they started. So Israel sent Dana International and she won, which opened the gates for her. So that's on one hand but on the other hand it's religion and the army and every once in a while there's this big regression, this backlash where the Arabs are going to kill us and throw us into the sea so we have to be strong and tough and none of this soft, wishy-washy, peacenik talk. But still, Tel Aviv is an amazing city as far as gay life goes and gay rights.
WCT: Are there legal rights? Can you be married or be in the army?
EF: You can't be married but you can be in the army. When I was younger people would say to me, 'Well, use the gay excuse to leave the army' but today they would say, 'Being gay is no problem, you have to serve, it's an army of the people, we need everyone.' We have stories of high-ranking officers coming out and saying, 'We're gay,' which is wonderful! My film Yossi & Jagger was about a love relationship between two male officers in the Israeli army during the Lebanese war.
WCT: I'm terrible that I haven't seen it.
EF: I forgive you. But it was a film that was loved by Israelis like mad—that's my point—and it was mind boggling to me. How could this be? Such a macho society, why would people embrace this film? It made me realize how much Israel has changed and how much people realize that change is needed and that the old-fashioned story that we've been telling ourselves is not true anymore and that we need different angles on that story. There's still too much death and sadness and mourning in that story.
WCT: You also touch on that when Axel picks up the Arab guy and then Eyal's horrible reaction to that.
EF: Right because first of all he's homophobic and on the other hand, he's jealous and doesn't want to admit it. All these emotional things are happening between he and Axel and he doesn't understand it. Plus the fact that he's losing control. He didn't know that Axel was gay and he wants to regain his power over the situation. Israel's a very complicated place but a very interesting place as well.
WCT: I seem to remember, I didn't spend much time in Haifa, but it seemed very westernized. I felt like I was in Chicago but then the tour guide pointed out the Scud Mall because that's where the Scud missiles hit the day before and then seeing the military presence everywhere and realizing—
EF: You weren't in Kansas anymore.
WCT: —Exactly. But you say things have changed?
EF: In many ways things have changed and in other ways they haven't. Israel is a tricky place but young people are really into changing our lives and are sick and tired of this ongoing war.
WCT: As a gay filmmaker it sounds like you haven't really experienced any kind of backlash or discrimination. It sounds like the opposite has happened.
EF: Yes, that's strange, isn't it? But it's true.
WCT: What about for Lior Ashkenazi, the actor that played Eyal?
EF: He's amazing. He's really like the George Clooney of Israel. He's the biggest star in Israel. When the film came out he decided that as part of our learning process he was going to push it a little further as this big celebrity in Israel. So he went on national television and talked about this love affair that he had had with a man.
EF: Yeah—he did and he's not ashamed of that. He said he was happy he went through that and it was good and he realized that he wants to be with women but that it was a wonderful, important experience for him. Think of Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise doing that.
WCT: That's a little harder to picture.
EF: ( laughs ) Then he decided we should do something for Time Out Tel Aviv and we took this picture where he was nude hugging me ( I was dressed ) —it was amazing, a beautiful picture like a John Lennon-Yoko Ono picture and there's another one where I'm holding him in his arms. He's a wonderful man.
WCT: He sounds like it. What are you doing next?
EF: The working title is 'The Bubble,' which is a term used by Israelis to describe life in Tel Aviv. It's a love story between a very young 21-year-old man who has just finished his Army service and a young Palestinian. It's this love affair between these two men and there's a lot of complications. The Palestinian is falling in love with this Israeli and contemplating becoming a suicide bomber at the same time.
WCT: Will it take on elements of that documentary The Garden?
EF: Yes and that amazing documentary called Check Points. It will be different aspects of our reality coming together again, but more of a love story between two men.
WCT: That's one thing that I came away from this film with. In Israel, with everything else that you've experienced, being gay is liked, 'Oh, please...' Is that true? Is it the least of your worries?
EF: It is for many of us.