Sunday, 27 January 2008
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)