Sunday, 27 January 2008

Yossi & Jagger (Israel, 2002)

Director: Eytan Fox.

Pricipal cast: Ohad Knoller, Yehuda Levi, Assi Cohen, Aya Steinovitz.

Homosexuality is an explosive subject in most armies around the world. In some cases, just as explosive as the conflicts many of them are involved in. Different armies don’t necessarily share the same level of discussions when it comes to this topic – while different sections of the British army have quarrels regarding their possible participation in this or that Pride parade, the US army still (at least, officially) finds it a valid reason for an immediate discharge. However, the question of gay men in the military is by no means anything new. Nor has it always been a taboo. In ancient Greece, there even existed an army unit which went under the name of the Sacred Band of Thebes which exclusively consisted of homosexual couples. It was considered an elite force and the reasoning behind its formation was that lovers would fight more fiercely at each other’s sides. But while homosexuality in ancient Greece was nothing that people in general frowned upon, the attitudes changed, arguably, with the advent of Christianity when not just homosexuality but any sexuality at all was suddenly considered a sign of impurity of soul and body.

The plot of „Yossi & Jagger” revolves around an Israeli army unit on the border with Lebanon. Yossi, the platoon commander is a serious looking man in his late 20’s, demanding of his subordinates, but reasonable. One of these subordinates, Lior, is very much the opposite of his commanding officer – cheerful, somewhat childish and with the looks and behaviour of a rock star, hence the nickname „Jagger”. An ordinary army unit with the same palette of professional soldiers and recruits from all walks of life as in other such units. Nothing extraordinary on the surface. Only Yossi and Lior have a secret that they closely guard – they are lovers. While Yossi finds it unimaginable to change the way things are with Lior, the latter is growing tired of the secrecy in which their love is kept. Lior is looking forward to leaving the army and taking Yossi with him – to a life where they no longer will have to hide their relationship, where they can book a hotel room in Eilat with a kingsize bed rather than joining two single ones. But while Lior is adamant that Yossi must quit the army and embrace the freedom of civilian life, the latter isn’t quite prepared to leave his whole previous life behind him. Things get even more complicated when Yaeli, a young female soldier (yes, also women serve in the Israeli army) decides to conquer Lior at any cost. This doesn’t go down well with another soldier, Ophir, who’s been in love with Yaeli all along. Rather than realising that Lior has no interest in Yaeli’s advances, he sees in him a competitor. Yaeli also tells Yossi of her intentions seeking his advice since she sees him as Lior’s close friend. Neither of them can tell the truth – the Israeli army isn’t very different from other armies, also here homophobia is an institutionalised part of the daily routine. But fate has another solution in store for all the parties involved. A colonel arrives, and after indulging in pleasures of the flesh with another female soldier, he announces that the unit is to set up an ambush later that night. Needless to say, things don’t go exactly according to plan.

Eytan Fox’ first long feature film „Yossi & Jagger” is in many ways a continuation of the theme which he started exploring in his debut short film „After” (aka „Time Off”) which came out in 1990. Although, the ban on homosexuals in the Israeli army was lifted already in the mid-eighties, it still must have been a controversial choice for a young filmmaker to challenge the issue of masculinity (read: men’s sexuality) in the army in a country where the military plays such a vital role in its existence. The short film received a Jury Award at the Munich International Festival of Film Schools, but would probably not resurface later was not for the international success of „Yossi & Jagger” which convincingly put Eytan Fox not only on the world map of the gay-themed cinematography but also did a great job presenting Israel in a completely different light – can Israel be such a monstrous place as some claim if you can get away with making a film about a gay love affair in the army and then proudly show it around the world? Wouldn’t that just make them look weak and ridiculous in the eyes of their enemies? That may be so – we all know what the mainstream Arab world has to say on homosexual relationships – but I will claim that one’s strength is only real if it can withstand any attempts of being ridiculed. And it looks to me that Israel has passed the test.

However, another question arises in this connection. Were the ancient Greeks correct in their assumption that homosexual couples fighting side by side would make fiercer warriors or is there any substance to the claims that homosexual relationships in the army would demoralise the soldiers’ readiness for combat? Actually, this debate reminds me of another one – that from the world of sports. Every now and then it emerges in the news that a football coach has banned his players from having sex the night before an important game, if not for a whole week prior to the event. While I for one have the feeling that such practice would rather make the players more frustrated than single-minded in their footballing efforts, I honestly believe that when it comes to gay men in the army, the whole question is simply discussed under false premises. All armies are comprised of individuals whose attitude towards service and whose performance are determined by their professionalism and motivation. This applies to all, regardless of their sexuality. To believe that gay men can’t be „real” soldiers and that their sexuality would jeopardise an army’s performance is to say that gay men can’t be professional. And this doesn’t even deserve a comment.

Here is a musical tribute to the film by the popular Israeli singer Ivri Lider (in English)

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, Philippines, 2005)

Director: Auraeus Solito.

Principal cast: Nathan Lopez, J.R. Valentin, Soliman Cruz, Ping Medina.

Preadolescent sexuality, especially if it veers from the mainstream, is most often surrounded by a lot of hysteria. People who otherwise come across as balanced and rational suddenly seem to lose all their critical faculties. Any interest in this topic will more likely than not lead to, at least, a few eyebrows raised in suspicion – why this “unhealthy” interest? It’s one of those few taboo questions which have been left standing barely touched in our otherwise fairly open-minded age. However, the topic in question is the background of “The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros”, a neorealist Filipino film which has now been a successful part of the international film festival circuit for the past couple of years. Several critics have pointed out that had the film’s main protagonist been a 12 year old girl, this film would probably not have made it outside of the Philippines. They might be right. But it’s the fact that it’s this aspect of the film that obviously makes it “interesting” internationally that is poignant in itself. Preadolescent queerness as just a matter of fact seems to be a pretty big deal in most societies across the globe.

Maximo, a 12 year old boy, lives in the slums of Manila with his father and two older brothers who earn their living by selling stolen mobile phones and other easily disposable consumer goods. The opening scenes of the film, set against the popular and recently deceased Filipino singer Yoyoy Villame’s song “My country, the Philippines”, introduce us to these slums in an almost documentary style - decaying buildings, piles of rubbish, dirty sewages. In the midst of all the misery a hand picks up a beautiful flower. It turns out to be Maximo’s hand and the flower immediately becomes an ad hoc ornament on his head. Swaying his hips and generally balancing his fragile body in a fashion which would make a few professional models rethink their next catwalk moves, he graciously parades through the narrow alleys and backyards of Manila’s underprivileged inhabitants. His dressing style and body language aren’t the only things that set him apart from his surroundings in these slums or anywhere else for that matter – his interests and home chores aren’t very typical for a 12 year old boy. At home, he does all the cooking, sewing and cleaning for the whole family while his free time is spent in the company of his like-minded peers organising pretend Miss Universe beauty pagents (all in drag) and watching romantic films on DVD. Since his family can put him to a better use at home, he has now stopped attending the school. This doesn’t bother Maximo much though. He seems to be enjoying his life and while realising that he is different from most of his peers, he seems to be fully accepted by his family and surroundings – nobody bats an eyelid at his rampant queerness, let alone tries to do anything about it. His family adores him and his neighbours seem all to be on friendly terms with him. One day, however, he is assaulted by a local youth gang whose only objective seems to be “to have some fun” at his expense. A rookie cop, Victor, comes to his rescue and takes him home. Life will never be the same thereafter.

Maximo falls head over heels in love with this new officer of the law which presents a real problem for his family. If there is something they don’t need in their lives, it’s to be exposed to a policeman who doesn’t seem to go with the flow at the otherwise fairly corrupt local precinct. To make things even worse, one of Maximo’s brothers commits a murder while attempting a robbery, and with the arrival of a new police chief, who has a few scores to settle with Maximo’s father, things get completely out of hand. In the midst of all this drama, there is Maximo and his first taste of a romantic involvement. He is effectively split between loyalty to his family and his feelings for Victor. Unfortunately, there are no fairy-tale endings in the brutal world of Manila’s slums - only premature adulthood. Still, Maximo hasn’t blossomed fully yet. His rude awakening to the cruelties of the world surrounding him hasn’t killed the scent of the flower he has put on his head.

“The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros” is not just a film about a queer kid in the hood and his gutshaker of a first love. It is also a depiction of life in the slums. Despite the fact that Maximo’s family can’t be described as law-obeying citizens of the local community, their portrayal is rather nuanced in that they are shown as both loving and caring – there is nothing monstrous about them at all. If anything, you can only pity them and their choice of lifestyle. One gets the feeling that it hardly was their first choice. The police eventually crack down on this family with all its might, but somehow you don’t feel that justice has been served, rather on the contrary. Maximo’s initial purity of heart could all but survive this “justice”, but the film’s authors don’t want us to believe it’s gone either. There must always be a light at the end of the tunnel and we also get to see a glimpse of that.

Maximo’s queerness at 12 is what sets this film apart from other similar neorealist depictions of the life of the underprivileged in a third world country. At the same time, nowhere in the course of the film is it made the focal point of the story. This is simply the way things are. Period. That in itself is a refreshing aspect of this film. Maximo doesn’t get killed or maimed. If anything, he is loved and protected. He falls in love with Victor – the problem isn’t that he falls in love with a man, it’s that the man in question is a cop. Even Victor himself seems to accept the fact that the kid has a crash on him. He only distances himself from Maximo when he is forced to cross swords with his family. And despite all that happens he seeks to reestablish their previous friendship afterwards. There is no doubt that Maximo’s obsession with Victor is homoerotic, but it is portrayed almost in religious terms – both when they both pray on their knees in church and when Maximo washes blood off Victor’s wounded body. We are shown the purity of the first love. And also its intensity. The fact that it’s homosexual is in all essence just a piece of background information in this film. And that’s the way it should be in an ideal world.

Here you can watch the film's trailer

A special tribute to the recently deceased Filipino singer Yoyoy Villame. Here you can listen to his song "My country, the Philippines" which is part of the film's soundtrack.