Way out Middle East

Roxie film series honors Israel's Pride Month

Ezri (Ran Danker) and Aaron (Zohar Shtrauss) realize their forbidden attraction in Haim Tabakman's Eyes Wide Open


FILM One frontier in which Israel remains politically left-forward is that of gay rights. Civil marriage, military service, foreign-partner naturalization, and job discrimination issues are all much more progressively legislated than in the U.S. — let alone the rest of the Middle East, where flogging, prison, or even execution punish homosexual "crimes." Nonetheless, as in much of the world today, fundamentalist religious currents endanger progress already made and still being worked toward.

Three out of five films in the "Out in Israel" series at the Roxie deal with strife between gay and Orthodox religious communities. Copresented by San Francisco's Jewish Film Festival, they're all part of a larger lineup of April events assembled by the Israeli Consulate in honor of Israel's Gay Pride Month.

The oldest feature here is from 1992, though it feels like 1972 — Amos Guttman's 16mm-shot Amazing Grace has the technical simplicity and variably professional acting of early gay-themed movies from just about any nation, whatever their era. And like most such, it's a downer in which everyone is depressed, isolated, and broke. Young Jonathan (Gal Hoyberger) is fed up, especially with his quarrelsome family and slutty ex-boyfriend, when he meets handsome new neighbor Thomas (Sharon Alexander). Unfortunately the New York City-returned older musician is more interested in using drugs than love to drown his HIV-positive self-pity.

Israel's gay cinema pioneer, Guttman died of AIDS the following year at age 38 without achieving anything like the popular success that greeted Eytan Fox a decade later. Fox's 2002 international breakthrough Yossi and Jagger, originally made for local TV, stars Ohad Knoller and Yehuda Levi as IDF officers stationed in a mountain bunker on the Lebanon border. They're carrying on a giddy affair almost no one knows about till tragedy intervenes. But Avner Bernheimer's astute screenplay is still only half done: the rest of Fox's finest effort to date finds closeted grief exacerbated by psychological theft and stinging injustice.

Moving from secular to religious conflict, the remaining "Out in Israel" features focus on clashes with those who view homosexuality's mere existence as an affront to God. Nitzan Giladi's documentary Jerusalem Is Proud to Present (2007) opens with Jewish, Muslim, and Christian clerics — united at last — condemning the city's planned hosting of the 2006 International World Pride Parade as "nothing less than the attempted spiritual rape of this holy city." Violent rioting by Orthodox sects, death threats to gay leaders, and more attempts to shut down the event before it happens, succeeding somewhat yet also prompting righteous obstinacy from the LGBT community. One can laugh queasily at the grandmotherly type who claims HIV infection will jump 300 percent because those gays "just grab people" for their "orgies." But you'll want to sucker-punch the loudmouthed Brooklyn rabbi who flies in just to spew his smirking homophobia.

Two recent features illustrate the impasse between homosexuality and ultra-Orthodox values in intimate dramatic terms. Haim Tabakman's debut feature, 2009's Eyes Wide Open (the only series program with a ticket charge; all others are free), watches trouble brew when a kosher butcher (Zohar Shtrauss) grows dangerously fond of the alluring new assistant Ezri (Ran Danker), whose reputation as a "curse to righteous men" precedes him. While borderline mannered in its minimalist dialogue and direction, the film packs a potent

Contrastingly not at all interested in restraint is Avi Nesher's The Secrets (2007), about two girls (Ania Bukstein, Michal Shtamler) discovering Sapphic love at a women's seminary.

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