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Director Haim Tabakman Examines "Eyes Wide Open"

The tent protests that swept Israel during summer 2011 momentarily made unlikely bedfellows out of secular and ultra-religious activists confronting similar social issues. Gay rights were no such matchmaker, however, as seen in July 2011's Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem and the sizeable counter-protest it spawned in that city's ultra-Orthodox Mea Sharim neighborhood. (The previous year the black-frocked Deputy Mayor brandished cardboard donkeys to condemn the “bestial” nature of the paraders.)

What underlies such peeve and proscription comes under scrutiny in the Israeli film Eyes Wide Open. Widely opened eyes are advised to catch the symbolic code that director Haim Tabakman lays down in scene one for the film’s unfolding emotional and spiritual terrain.

Enter rain-soaked Aaron (Zohar Strauss), an ultra-Orthodox man who smashes the chains of a Jerusalem butcher shop he has recently inherited from his dead father. So much for inherited traditions. Inside this tomb of a store it’s all animal flesh and blades. Aaron starts in on his food preps when carnality in the form of a young man (Ran Danker) materializes, seeking dry shelter and work. Aaron shows Ezri the door, but later softens when he sees the supposed yeshiva student sleeping in the synagogue.

The devoted husband, father of four and respected community member invites Ezri to apprentice at the shop and stay upstairs while seeking a place of his own. Manly meat and water rituals will soon test Aaron's religious devotion. Sensuality does not keep kosher.

In defense of self-gratification, Aaron utters, "I was dead before. Now I'm alive.” However, such a betrayal promises banishment or worse. What of our natures should we sacrifice and suppress? What are the costs of being authentic? Where do we draw the line between judgment and understanding, repression and respect?

Tabakman's powerful yet restrained drama, based on a script by Merav Doster, raises questions that are as essential to secular viewers as to the devout souls portrayed onscreen. I reached Tabakman to parse meanings and shoptalk about his debut feature that was nominated for an award by the Un Certain Regard section of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Back by popular demand, Eyes Wide Open is the closing film of this year's The Ring Family Wesleyan University Israeli Film Festival, organized by Adjunct Assistant Professor of Religion and Israel Studies Dalit Katz. Tabakman will conduct a Q&A following the Thursday, March 6 screening.

Q: Passion threatens to wreck everything Aaron has built. Is it a positive force to be nurtured or negative force to be overcome?

A: It's both. Passion is destructive, but it also builds and gives force. I recently came across something by (German author) Thomas Mann, that there's the trivial truth -- the opposite of which is a lie or an untruth -- and the deep truth, whose opposite is also true. So 2 + 2 = 4 is a simple truth. But religion is both the most meaningful way to live your life and the first thing that inhibits you from achieving your inner self that's also true."

Q: A complex truth...

A: Yeah. One of the puzzles that Aaron cracks is, Why did God make me like this? Every creation of God is special. When you battle for your belief you come alive. I'm heterosexual, so it's very easy for me not to be attracted to other men. But Aaron comes to the conclusion that being gay is what makes him special. It's a tool for him to fulfill his special identity. For that he needs temptation to be close to him. If your refrigerator has only milk and no meat, there's no challenge. But if you have this delicious cheese near your hamburger, you have to work on it a bit. Aaron understands that to make his passion grow and to overcome it, he has to keep sin -- Ezri -- close to him. Just as there are commands written for Kohanim (priests), he understands that the biblical command against homosexuality is written for people like him. Only people who have that are working God. Aaron fails, of course. but this is the hypothesis that he's working on.

Q: Aaron has a sense that he has missed his life. Does he ever expect to become who he is?

A: The deep truth is very paradoxical. The truth is that he wants to live with Ezri, but the truth is also that he wants to be a religious man. What's the bigger truth? He doesn't know.

Q: Is homosexuality more accepted in the ultra-Orthodox community today than when you shot the film?

A: One of the definitions of ultra-Orthodox society is not letting the new come inside. But nothing can be so rigid. Today I was at the public library to research a new script I´m writing, and there was an ultra-Orthodox guy with Robert McKee's book on screenwriting, together with screenwriting notes. So evolution is very slow but it happens. On the other end, there are certain things that cannot be changed, and one of these things is the text of the Scriptures. In the Bible it's written very clearly that if you prefer the same sex, you should be sentenced to death.

Q: What recourse can a homosexual religious person have if they want to be a part of the community?

A: When I researched the film, I talked to ultra-Orthodox people who were gay and who were meeting their lovers in Tel Aviv. Sometimes these were not really relationships but just encounters. They would not have an orgasm, and this would be their interpretation of not having sex. Others would perform everything but penetration. This may sound very crooked and very wierd, but people are trying to make an accommodation.

Q: Would this pass muster with the moral minders?

A: Sin happens. Homosexuality is not accepted as a tendency in nature but rather as an urge. If you feel you are attracted to another man, you can fight it. The rabbis and all the top religious establishment don't recognize that it's something natural that you are. They will send you to a psychiatrist. Sin is very acceptable in Judaism. There's something in the Scriptures and the G'marra that says if sin overcomes you and you feel your urges are overwhelming, go to a city where nobody knows you and wear black and repent. "Hazara be-tshuva" (return to faith) or reconciling your sins is very big in Judaism. King David was a big sinner. Judaism doesn't want to eliminate you; it's just that you have to overcome your sins. You should take a big breath, come back home and concentrate on coming back to your home and your wife.

Q: And if that doesn't do the trick?

A: Homosexuality is one of the few sins that are punishable by death as written in the Torah. If Israel were a religious state likeIran, maybe someone would enforce this. We are not a religious state and we don't follow the laws of the Torah like that, so nobody is getting executed.

Q: The Orthodox-themed film Ushpizin was made with the support of the community. Did you collaborate with any local residents?

A: Ushpizin is another kind of film and in the end it's not so subversive. My film is more problematic. The only peope who collaborated with me were those who left the community or those who were living a fake life from within the community and wanted to their keep family together. They would give me their stories and talk with me about their lives and how they felt.

Q: What was it like to shoot on location in Mea Shearim?

A: Guerrilla style and not so easy...we got chased out. We got some stones on our car and other people coming to us saying, Get out of here. We also built a location in Jaffa that looked like Mea Shearim, just to have the air of the neighborhood.

Q: How was the film received by ultra-Orthodox Israelis?

A: The religious community doesn't go to see films, but they get the Internet and they can download. Some were very positive and some were very angry. I tried to be fair and gentle about all the subjects. It's not really about finger pointing and it's not so sensational. So it wasn't about exploring religious life, but rather about exploring myself. In the end it was a very personal story.

Q: In what way did you draw on your own experience?

A: My psychological compass for dealing with this story was very personal. I wanted to portray things that I knew from my life. Passion, loneliness, not living the life you want to; I'm afraid of living my true self. In any kind of relationship with your work or your spouse, the rules are sometimes killing your passion, but they are also what define us and what we are dependent on. Sometimes you have to betray the rules to find yourself.

Q: Israel is both a very open and very closed society. What are the roots of this polarity, and how do they affect gender identity?

A: We came from all kinds of places in the world -- for some it's 10 years ago and for others it's 30 years ago and still others have been living here for hundreds of years -- but it's a young country. The consequences are that it's very interesting to live here. We have a lot of stories but the future is very uncertain and there are a lot of questions about how Israel will live in the future. No one really can give an answer about what will be. It's not only us against the Arabs but us against ourselves.

Q: What responses have audiences had to the decisions of Rivka, Aaron's wife?

A: I relate to responses that are close to what I have in mind: that they admire her way of not reacting hysterically or violently or other clichés of the betrayed party to a love triangle who an is angry and vindictive woman. She is not saying all kinds of harsh things, but rather responds in a mature, tentative and thoughtful way.

Q: How risky was it for teen idol/singer Ran Danker and popular actor Zohar Strauss to take on this taboo subject?

A: Basically the only thing Ran Danker was more afraid of than portraying a gay ultra-Orthodox was being stuck in a teenage idol rut. He wanted to grow. I don't know that it was any risk at all for Zohar Strauss, who saw it as an acting challenge.

Q: What films were you inspired by in telling this story?

A: There are a lot of influences. I cannot really say one thing, but I really like a lot of genres. I like minimalism and also maximalism. I like quiet films like Robert Bresson's and the complex, ironic films of the Coen Brothers. I like Asian cinema, old and new cinema. I'm a product of all kinds of films.

Q: In Eyes Wide Open, a stranger comes to town and rattles everything. Is it a Middle Eastern Western?

A: I was thinking about Westerns, but not exclusively.

Q: What can you tell us about that script you're writing?

A: One tiny hint: it's very similar but very different.

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