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Soldiers, Rebels and Drifters: Gay Representations in Israeli Cinema, by Nir Cohen. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012. 254 pp. $27.95.
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 world-wide 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 non-fiction 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.
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 anti-hegemonic 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 Three 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 interesting observation about Fox’s films can actually be found in the book’s first chapter, which looks at the ostensibly non-gay Song of the Siren as Fox’s most radical film, in its approach to sexual politics and deviance from the national accord.
The fourth and most innovative chapter of the book charts completely new water by suggesting some of the ways in which particularly Gutman’s legacy has been developed in various documentaries that deal with gay identities. Cohen shows how the strong personal current that has characterized Israeli cinema since the 1980s finds a meaningful expression in the diverse documentaries that no longer present gays as either marginalized or compromising, as in the films of Gutman or Fox. Instead, they reveal a multiplicity of gay identities that expand our understanding and acceptance of the term. Of these identities, Cohen focuses on one of the strongest trends in Israeli gay films in recent years, that of the relationship between gayness and traditional Judaism.
In the fifth and last chapter Cohen assesses the directions Israeli gay cinema is heading and suggests that it is showing signs of becoming a “cinema of marginality” rather than a cinema that focuses on gayness per se. Cohen sees this direction as a promising gateway to heightened cultural sensibility toward minorities and “others” in general, something which has been suggested by other gay thinkers like David Halperin, Gregory Gajus, and David Ruffolo.
In sum, Cohen’s Soldiers, Rebels and Drifters is a timely addition to the slowly growing shelf of Israeli cinema studies and an even more valuable addition to the much thinner volume of Israeli gay studies.