- Soldiers, Rebels and Drifters: Gay Representations in Israeli Cinema by Nir Cohen
Nir Cohen’s recent study on Gay Israeli cinema is a welcome addition to the fairly scant number of studies in English available today about one of the most visible and exciting world cinemas. With four nominations for Oscar in the last decade alone, and impressive wins in various major festivals around the world, Israeli cinema in the last ten years has made impressive strides. The impact Israeli films have made worldwide is a sign of the maturation, diversity, and sophistication of the cinematic idiom which recent Israeli films exhibit so well. Cohen’s study is another indication of these qualities, for although in some ways it is an ambitious and sweeping study like the ones that preceded it by Ella Shohat or Yosefa Loshitzky, for instance, its narrower focus on gay cinema makes it more nuanced, as befits the cinema it analyzes in particular and recent Israeli cinema in general.
Cohen divides his book into five chapters that follow the development of gay cinema in Israel chronologically, beginning with an introductory chapter about the relationship between urban life and gayness. The two following chapters are dedicated, not surprisingly, to the films of directors Amos Gutman and Eitan Fox, whom Cohen calls the founding fathers of Israeli gay cinema, despite their very differing artistic agendas and styles. The last two chapters deal, respectively, with nonfiction films about gays and with a chart about future directions gay cinema in Israel might be going. And while each of these chapters, as well as the trajectory they chart, can be almost predictable or obvious to anyone who is familiar with the relatively small body of Israeli films, Cohen manages to add new insights into every one of his chapters and provides a comprehensive study that still has new things to say. [End Page 125]
Soldiers is based on what has become by now a widely accepted premise about Zionist culture, which Cohen defines as the “Zionist/Muscle Jew/ruralism/militarism” ideology, and his abbreviated reference to it may reveal his impatience with it. Indeed, Cohen’s book dispels this ideological trajectory by looking at those films that most obviously repudiate it, namely, gay films. Consequently, the first chapter looks at the attention Tel-Aviv receives in early gay films as a decadent urban space that functions as an alternative to an otherwise wholesome Zionism and as a shelter and haven for gays as literal and metaphorical misfits.
The second chapter, about the first founding father of Israeli gay cinema, director Amos Gutman, is perhaps one of the best and most comprehensive accounts and analyses of the director’s career to date. Cohen justifies the subversive quality of Gutman’s films with a keen cinematic consideration that innovates and adds a new depth to them. He goes beyond obvious thematic readings of these gay films as antihegemonic to look at Gutman’s use of various techniques, among them the focus on interior spaces, dysfunctional and fatherless families, and the use of melodrama to express his anti masculine/heroic/Zionist agenda.
Chapter 3 looks at the films of director Eitan Fox, the other founding father of Israeli gay cinema, albeit a very different one from Gutman. Fox’s films have attracted more critical attention than those of Gutman, probably because they conform better to bourgeois political and artistic conventions in Israel and elsewhere. Fox’s films are certainly less militant about gayness in their insistance on conforming their gay characters to the national consensus. It is no wonder that two of his most successful films, Yossi & Jagger and Walk on Water, take pains to show their heroes as patriotic soldiers in the first one, and as a gay-loving Mossad agent in the second. By conflating the personal (=gay) with the national (=military, paramilitary) the films manage to make gays an accepted part of the national family at the expense of a more critical approach to Israeli society in general and the Israeli gay community in particular. Cohen’s most...