Film on gays and IDF could reinforce Israeli militarism

When “Yossi and Jagger” appeared 10 years ago, I found it both heartrending and groundbreaking. Opening up the still-taboo subject of homosexuality in the army, the film provided a sharp critique of the militarist-machoist complex that reigns over Israeli society in general. It exposed simply but precisely how that complex is the source of various social ills that touch the lives of many ordinary Israelis.

The central plot revolved around the secrecy of gay life, but the film smoothly incorporated low-volume sub-plots that exposed the other sinister consequences: the exploitation and abuse of women, the alienation of parents from their children, the strange expressions of raging teenage hormones that appear when kids are pent up in a war zone, and untimely death.

Most of that subtlety, precision and more importantly, the desperately-needed critique of society, is lost in “Yossi‘s Story,” the recently-released sequel. Its director, Eytan Fox, has added a long string of excellent material to the Israeli screen (both silver and small), often delivering bold reflections of what’s wrong with the norm. Both his films and his social persona have largely set the tone for cultural portrayals of hipster urban Israel over roughly two decades.

So it was somewhat disappointing to find that “Yossi’s Story” doesn’t attempt to break new ground. Instead of shining a spotlight on any other aspect of hushed hypocrisy and repression in society – for example, he could have followed some of those vital sub-plots in “Yossi and Jagger” – he returns to the same old theme. But many of those earlier psycho-social barriers for gay people have diminished over the last decade – partly with Fox’s help – and he observes as much in this film. As a result, the theme has lost some of its urgency.There is no minimizing how complex life still is for gay people in Israel (and anywhere). But there myriad of related social ills in Israel that could speak to a wider audience are almost completely absent – as if the country could just solve the problems of gay people, and things would basically be fine.

Yossi is the film’s eponymous protagonist (Ohad Knoller). He is roughly ten years older, and has never recovered from the death of his young lover, Jagger, when they were soldiers in the first film.  Yossi is a doctor in the doldrums, and even if not raiding the medicine chest like his friend and colleague Moti (Lior Ashkenazi), he is deeply committed to his own depression.

There is a thinly veiled symbolism in the fact that he is now a heart surgeon, presumably spending his life trying to fix the hearts of others because his is irreparably broken. This is also the first hint of more clichés to come.

The other characters include Jagger’s parents (the mother is played by Israel’s grand dame of victimized, pathos-inducing characters, Orly Zilberschatz), and a doting nurse who revives the girl-soldier character from “Yossi and Jagger,” unwilling to admit that the object of her crush is gay.

These are almost the same character and plot devices as ten years ago. But back then, Fox was one of the first to open a crack in the deeply defensive and conformist armor of Israeli militarism, by critiquing the situation of the perfect Israeli male who happened to be homosexual. The sequel could have deepened the insights about militarism, or challenged other icons of the Israeli establishment.  But Fox seems mainly interested in addressing those problems that touch him personally.

That could explain why some of the most convincing moments deal with the intimacies and tribulations of gay life: the fast flings of online offering are not warm and fuzzy, but soulless and shallow. Hot party guy is mean to Yossi the sensitive doctor, who doesn’t keep his belly toned or his chest waxed; hot party guy makes him feel bad. Their brief encounter contains blade-twisting dialogue; yes it made me wince, but it’s not enlightening unless you inhabit that world and like seeing your situation on screen, or unless a glimpse into someone else’s ruthless sub-culture makes you feel cool. It’s a bit of a shame that the power (and rich aesthetics) of that scene wasn’t devoted to a more universal theme.

Another mainly-gay moment occurs poolside, recalling the famous mis-en-scène from Death in Venice. Coincidentally, our tragic protagonist (have I mentioned yet that he is tragic?) happens to be reading the very same book. How clever.

The second half of the film showcases the next generation of stylized, homoerotic young IDF recruits. Instructed by his superiors to take a vacation, Yossi ventures toward Sinai, and on the way meets four soldiers. He soon identifies the gay one – a pretty boy, not unlike his forever-young soldier-lover (or Tadzio). But Tom has a more “out” personality than Jagger, and seems unconcerned with keeping secrets.

After a frustratingly slow buildup of tension between Tom and Yossi, Tom eventually explains that it’s really quite simple for him to be out in the army. The realization is supposed to be poignant and ironic for Yossi, and it brings the narrative back to the film’s core message or theme; yet it occurs in a simple, unadorned conversation, absent of drama.

Further, that message seems incomplete. Why is the realization that being gay in the IDF is now okay so profound for Yossi, really? Could Jagger have been saved from the jaws of death if not for the cruel repression of homosexuality a decade ago? No – Jagger died in an enemy attack on the IDF base near Lebanon. Not social liberalism, but an end to military hostilities between Israel and its neighbors, is the only thing that might have saved Jagger.

But the film prefers to drop the thought rather than open up that thorny problem.

To be sure, Yossi’s ten-year sorrow perhaps could have been eased had he been able to share the fact of his relationship with, for example, Jagger’s family. But he also could have found any number of friends and confidantes in the prized Tel Aviv gay scene during those years – or at least a good therapist – who could have helped him rebuild his life.

Instead, the film basically implies that military culture (i.e., Israel in general) is now more accepting of homosexuality, and this is progress! Yippee. So more people can be in the IDF comfortably, occupy land, homes and roads, fire rubber or real bullets, interrogate and imprison little children, all while being openly gay (with apologies to Arlo).

It is certainly Mr. Fox’s right to make a niche film catering mainly to hipster-urban Tel Aviv Ashkenazi male homosexuals that paints military participation as the pinnacle of gay achievement, rather than a film about Israeli society and its problems more generally. But if that was his goal, this work pales in comparison to others. “A Single Man,” for example, has various plot similarities. But that film is a masterpiece, exuding exquisite grace and pain from minimalist characters of infinite dignity. By comparison, watching the newly-divorced Moti (Mr. Ashkenazi) doing a chick in the bathroom of a bar is mainly embarrassing (and significantly lowers Mr. Ashkenazi’s erstwhile sex appeal).

“Yossi’s Story” does create a compelling tale of one man’s pain, and despite its long, slow scenes, holds the attention of patient viewers. But the film smashes no idols, nor does it expose any of the maddeningly urgent social, political or economic problems that haunt and threaten the country today. It does not chip away at the establishment – it may even provide reinforcement.