Small gay kiss puts Israeli hit in local theaters

It’s hard to imagine anyone else recounting the remarkable story of “Yossi & Jagger,” the Israeli gays-in-the-Army hit, with Gal Uchovsky’s brio.

“It was supposed to be this little thing for television,” recalls Uchovsky, the film’s co-producer and music supervisor as well as the longtime partner of its director, Eytan Fox.

Originally conceived as a 45-minute featurette for Israeli cable, “Yossi & Jagger” turned into a tense, erotic 70-minute film that became an unexpected box-office hit and pop-culture phenomenon. Following its Bay Area premiere in July at the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, “Yossi & Jagger” opens today in San Francisco and Berkeley.

“My moving into movies is part of my relationship with Eytan,” confides Uchovsky, who made his name in Israel as a talk-show host, music critic, political columnist and gay activist, when we met for coffee this past summer.

“You have to do something with all the energy you’ve created as a couple, as a family, and put it in something,” the 45-year-old Tel Aviv resident muses.

“So either you make kids, or you start working for charity or, what we found is, you start making your own creations.”

The duo hooked up 15 years ago, when Fox was finishing film school and making “Time Off,” an attention-getting short drama about closeted homosexuals in the military. For Fox’s debut feature, Uchovsky sagely recommended that they option the frothy, popular novel “Song of the Siren.”

“It’s very hard to make your first movie,” Uchovksy notes with a wry smile. “In Israel, it’s even harder because it’s a small community and you depend on fund money. The people in the funds are your peers who would like to humiliate you as much as they can before they give you their first money.”

He advised Fox, “If you go there with your very personal story and they start insulting you, you will die.” But if Fox pitched the best-selling “Siren,” there would be no argument.

“Siren” became a mammoth hit in 1994, paving the way for Fox’s entrée into TV with the splendid Generation Y series, “Florentene.” (All of Fox’s work has been showcased in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.)

Their next film was originally going to be a globetrotting tale written by Uchovsky about a Mossad agent and second-generation Holocaust survivor tracking the grandchildren of a famous Nazi. With the money-raising process dragging, they looked for a small project that Fox could direct in the meantime.

“Yossi & Jagger” centered on an especially tense day in the lives of an Israeli soldier (Yehuda Levi) and his boyfriend and commanding officer (Ohad Knoller).

As it happened, the hunky Levi was debuting on a soap opera when he auditioned for the part of Jagger.

“By the time the movie came out,” Uchovksy relates, “he was like the Tom Cruise of Israel, the hottest heartthrob. They had to alter the whole soap opera to make his role bigger because people were demanding he have more screen time.”

When the film opened theatrically in Tel Aviv, Levi’s glamorous girlfriend was interviewed on the Israeli equivalent of “Entertainment Tonight.” She downplayed Levi’s portrayal of a gay man as no big deal, but she had a definite opinion when she was asked about his screen kiss.

“I thought it was very hot,” she replied. As Uchovksy tells it, “From that moment on, the theater was flooded with 16-year-old girls. It was like she took the plug out.”

Surprisingly, homosexuality isn’t much of a hot-button issue in Israel, according to Uchovsky. “The way it is accepted — or not accepted — is in a much nicer way than in America. Nobody will kill you for being gay in Israel.”

In Israel, where many promising young people have died in wars and skirmishes, he points out, “the whole scale of what’s a disaster [is] a little different. When your son comes to you and says, ‘Hey Dad, I’m gay,’ maybe you even think it’s terrible, but it’s not as terrible as losing him in the Army.

“When parents get the news that the faygele is gay, they say, ‘Oh, but he’s alive. Let’s take it from there. It could have been worse.'”

“Yossi & Jagger” opens today at the Lumiere, 1572 California St., San Francisco and the Act I and II, 2128 Center St., Berkeley.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.