the arts7.22.11
the arts7.22.11

Focus on S.F. Jewish Film Festival: Queen director turns camera on family, Israel, self

Israeli filmmaker Tomer Heymann is one of those guys who is nothing like his movies.

Intense, effusive and blisteringly direct in person, Heymann makes nuanced documentaries that allow for various points of view. More importantly, they leave ample room for viewers to identify with the characters, wrestle with the subject matter and experience their own epiphanies.

It’s hard to imagine a more empathetic example of cinematic self-examination than Heymann’s rich and affecting first-person documentary, “The Queen Has No Crown.”

Culled from 20 years of footage of Heymann’s family, his country, his boyfriends and his travels, the movie focuses largely on his mother’s reactions, over time, as first one son and then another leaves Israel.

Tomer Heymann

“The Queen Has No Crown” screens three times in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, with Heymann appearing in person at the San Francisco and Berkeley shows.

From one perspective, it’s a simple case of generational change and career opportunities. But for Heymann’s mother, the first baby born in the then-new village of Kfar Yedidya, to a father who left Germany in 1936, the 21st century splintering of the family represents not just separation and distance but an implicit repudiation of the Zionist ideal.

“It’s a question of which values are better than others,” Heymann said. “My generation is so much about ourselves and being independent and being individuals, but it didn’t take us to so much better places. But also my parents’ values about sharing everything, and forget about your private life to create the perfect dream about the family,” didn’t turn out as planned.

Heymann is best known in this country for “Paper Dolls,” a poignant documentary about gay Filipino caregivers in Tel Aviv, which screened in the festival in 2006. He threads his homosexuality through “The Queen has No Crown,” occasionally foregrounding it (for example, when his neighbors find out he’s gay and vandalize his car) but mostly letting it become part of the fabric and the texture of the film.

The same goes for Heymann’s outspoken opposition to Israeli government policies toward Palestinians. There’s a sequence or two of footage he shot at protest rallies, but his politics never take over the documentary.

“It’s a very, very personal family home video, but slowly, slowly I tried to zoom out like a bird above Israel,” Heymann explained in an interview in Japantown in June, when he was here for a sneak preview of “Queen” at the San Francisco LGBT Film Festival. “You cannot separate anymore the private and the public, the nationality and the [personal] issue.”

It’s overstating things to describe “The Queen Has No Crown” as a portrait of familial and national disintegration. But the documentary is infused with a melancholy and yearning fueled not by nostalgia but by hard-knocks reality.


A scene from one of Tomer Heymann’s home videos in “The Queen Has No Crown”

Heymann began “The Queen Has No Crown” two years ago when he found himself at low ebb.


“I was around 38, and I was very, very down because my German boyfriend left me, left the country,” he recalled. “I found myself empty, lonely, without motivation. I was lost.”

He plunged into his cache of more than 1,100 mini-DV cassettes from two decades of filming, which was a disorganized mess. It was not uncommon for the same tape to have events shot in three different years.

“Most of my close friends said, ‘It’s too early for you. Wait ‘til you’re 50, 60, 70. It’s too early, it’s too dangerous. You might hurt yourself, [or] the people around you. It’s not your time.’ ”

Needless to say, he didn’t listen. In fact, this is the second film he’s made with the archival material; “I Shot My Love” premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival last year.

Heymann will be at the first two festival screenings, and there’s a good possibility some of his family will join him. It would be only fitting.

“I see what’s happened with my parents’ dream,” Heymann said. “Once upon a time, we were a big tribe. For my parents, it’s hard to understand that each of us needs to create our own tribe.”


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.