The Jerusalem POST - October 28,2003
Hannah Brown

Soldier boys making love not war

Yossi & Jagger, a gay love story about two IDF officers, happens to be one of the best Israeli movies to come along in decades. Obviously, it will have great resonance for Israeli audiences, who so rarely see anyone they can relate to portrayed on screen, since most Israeli movies take place in a bizarre vacuum, a kind of ghost landscape, in which there are no wars, no Palestinians, no hourly news broadcasts or newspapers anywhere, no political discussions ever, and no army service or reserve duty. Those few movies that do touch on political themes generally do so with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, featuring characters reduced to symbols at best, or caricatures at worst.

But director and co-writer Eytan Fox has managed the apparently near-impossible feat of making a movie about real people in real situations, in this case a group of Israeli soldiers in an outpost near the Lebanese border. Although the tensions are heightened by the danger of the external situation, the focus here is firmly on the people and their problems.

Yossi (Ohad Knoller), the platoon commander, is a wonderful officer, hard-working but compassionate, well- liked by both his soldiers and his superiors. He is also in love with and in the midst of an affair with Lior (Yehuda Levi), the company commander, who is known as Jagger because of his rock-star cool and good looks. They're able to steal a few moments together in the snow once in a while and most of the soldiers serving with them don't know about their romance. Still, it's not easy for them, especially for Yossi, who plans to make the army his career. But things get worse when the colonel (Sharon Raginiano) shows up with two female soldiers, Goldie (Hani Furstenberg) and Ya'eli (Aya Steinovits Laor), and announces that the soldiers, who are still tired from their last ambush, will launch another one that night.

The tense preparations for the ambush and the operation itself, take up the bulk of the movie. In the course of this long day, we get to know not only Yossi & Jagger but the other soldiers as well. A subplot in which the clueless Yaeli, who is infatuated with Jagger, gets advice from Yossi and from Ophir (Assi Cohen), Jagger's roommate, who obviously knows about the affair, about giving up on him, is less successful than others. (Does she really need to explain that, "He's not like other guys... There's something different about him"?)

But the movie doesn't shy away from the sexual politics of the IDF, how young women soldiers are often placed in remote outposts to provide at least the hope of sexual and romantic fulfillment for the lonely guys, and not because it's really necessary to have women operating switchboards. And Furstenberg, as the harder-edged Goldie, who is engaged in a particularly joyless affair with her commander, successfully brings out her character's mixture of bravado and vulnerability. The character of the chef, who prides himself on his creative cooking and charms the colonel with such delicacies as meatball sushi, is particularly funny.

But the heart of the movie is the relationship between the two lovers, and this is handled with refreshing matter-of-factness and humor. Although the script has moments of preachiness, these are fleeting, and at least bearable. Yes, it's rough to be a closeted gay in the IDF, but it seems to be no picnic for any of the soldiers in the movie. The saving grace here is that Yossi & Jagger are characters first, gay symbols a distant second.

Fox made a short film on a similar theme, Time Off, which was screened in New York at the Gay & Lesbian Film Festival 10 years ago, and even that brief glimpse convinced me he was a director to watch. He has since worked on more commercial projects, such as the television series Florentene and the feature film Song of the Siren (Shirat Hasirena) based on the best-selling novel about a young woman's romantic misadventures in Tel Aviv during the Gulf War, which had the virtue of being quite watchable if not memorable. He obviously works well with actors. Knoller and Levi are utterly convincing as the lovers and the entire cast is outstanding, although at first it's a little hard to tell some of the guys apart.

Originally intended for television, the film runs only 70 minutes and has a grainy quality, obviously because it was filmed on a shoestring budget. But this short running time isn't really a drawback, as it apparently forced Fox and his script writer, Avner Bernheimer, to pay great attention to pacing; there are no slow stretches.

Yossi & Jagger is a very moving and involving film that may very well change your outlook about the soldiers it portrays in one way or another.