The Bubble (Ha-Buah), Strand Releasing, 2006
Screenplay: Eytan Fox, Gal Uchovsky
Go West, Waterbearer Films, 2005
Director: Ahmed Imamovic
Forbidden romances usually make the most interesting love stories, and The Bubble, the latest film from Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox (Yossi and Jagger) is no exception. The setting is Tel Aviv and the star-crossed lovers are two gay men; one is an Israeli, the other is Palestinian.
The Bubble is a powerful film that combines comedy, romance and political drama. Two young gay Israeli men and one straight women share an apartment on Sheinkin Street - a gay-friendly section of Tel Aviv that is not unlike New York's Grenwich Village. Happy and carefree, these young bohemians seem almost oblivious to the horrors that are tearing the Middle East apart. Aside from their plans to hold a "Rave Against The Occupation" on the beach, they generally avoid politics. This is all about to change when a young gay Arab named Ashraf enters their group.
When we first meet Noam (Ohad Knoller - who also appeared in Yasser and Jagger), he is satisfying his yearly military requirement by spending a month at a West Bank checkpoint. He is out of step with the other soldiers and, when he returns home, he becomes himself again by shedding his uniform to reveal a Rolling Stones T-shirt. This simple touch immediately endeared him to me as being an un-stereotypical gay man who marches to the beat of his own drum - as opposed to his roommate Yali, who is addicted to watching the finals of Israeli Idol. Rounding out their small cocoon is Lulu, an aspiring fashion designer.
Their carefree existence and their ideology is put to the test when Noam becomes romantically involved with the young Arab. He is in Tel Aviv illegally and, if discovered, will be sent back to his devout Muslim home where his family has picked out a nice girl for him to marry. The trio's solution is to give Ashraf a Jewish name and let him work in Yali's restaurant. For awhile, this arrangement works but Ashraf misses his family and, as much as he loves Noam, he plans to return home soon to attend his sister's wedding. This will be the catalyst that eventually sets tragedy into motion.
To say any more would give too much of the plot away but it isn't long before the characters' bubble is brutally burst. Violence is a stone's throw away and the conclusion is one of the most devastating that I have seen in years. This is not a bad thing however; I sometimes think that young gay audiences need to be shaken up a bit more because there are WAY too many fluffy and "fabulous" queer films out there right now. The Bubble reminds us that we live in a world where the pope calls homosexuality a threat to society, the president of Iran claims that there are no homosexuals in his country, and AIDS sufferers are being thrown into prison in Egypt.
Most of The Bubble is fun before the tone shifts. Director Fox juggles the various characters' storylines and does a masterful job at making each one unique while still embodying the myriad contradictions that make us all human.
Go West is also a "forbidden" love story set against a backdrop of war. The film begins in Sarajevo, in 1992, as the conflict in Bosnia was exploding into genocide. Milan, a Serb "playing hookey" from his patriarchal village, is attending the university. His secret lover is a a Muslim cellist named Kenan. Their taboo relationship is about to get very dangerous; not just along sexual lines but also along racial ones. The lovers are forced to flee the city as Serbian troops begin to indulge in the practice that has since become known as "ethnic cleansing."
Soldiers are forcing all men on the street to open their trousers and, because he is Muslim, Kenan will be killed on the spot when his circumcism is discovered. It looks, for a moment, like the game is over when they are rounded up with other refugees in a train station for inspection. In desperation, Milan cuts off some of his long hair and borrows a scarf to disguise his beloved as a woman, and this deception saves Kenan's life. The two men "go west" across the war-torn country, taking shelter in Milan's home village, a remote mining town, until they can acquire papers in order to escape to Holland.
The tone of Go West reminded me of early Czech cinema with its strange mix of wartime horror and dark humor. Many of the early scenes are almost unbearable but Go West lightens up for a bit during its middle third when the lovers reach Milan's village. Their ruse fools the villagers, including Milan's jubilant father. Kenan makes a convincing, if plain, woman, and smart audiences while relish the irony as the town throws the "lovebirds" a traditional wedding.
One of the charms of many foreign films is the way that they are steeped in native customs and folklore, and Go West has these in abundance. Many supporting characters are fully realised eccentrics straight from a Dostoevsky novel. The leg-less, bearded, Orthodox priest is wont to bend his sermons into political rants. A band consisting of electric guitars and an accordion performs a song about Serbian independence to music that sounds like slavic Elvis. Ranka, the local "witch," bonds with her new "girlfriend," Kenan, and asks her/him what Milan is like in bed.
Ranka and Kenan share some of Go West's finest moments, in addition to providing the film's broadest comedy. The women in the village won't speak with Ranka, (and the men only want to have sex with her) and she revels in her good fortune to have a new friend. They bond while doing chores and smoking pot. Ranka is a lusty Earth Mother, and she's also pretty damned nosy, and it is a foregone conclusion that she will eventually discover that Kenan is a man. When she does, be prepared for one of the most uncomfortably funny scenes I have ever seen in a movie.
Imamovic's film created a firestorm in his native Bosnia. Yet Go West is not an explicit film by any means. With the exception of the wedding kiss (during which the entire village thinks that Kenan is a woman) the few scenes that depict any signs of physical affection between the two men are filmed in near darkness. Even so, the director has received death threats while, at the same time, his film wins awards at festivals all over Europe.
The acting throughout is superb as is the director's visual sense. Some of the photography is a bit muddy but hey, this film was made in Bosnia, not Hollywood. Go West is a stark and scary reminder of the power of art to transform while at the same enraging the status quo. One of the first reviews I ever wrote, in Outcome, was of a lesbian film called Fire that also caused an uproar in its native India. In America we have crackpots like the Reverend Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kansas railing about a country that "worships on Brokeback Mountain" but we are living in Oz compared to other regions of the world. Many eye-opening moments, in both of these films, were like a cup of hot coffee thrown in my face. Michael Klemm
The Night Listener, Miramax Films, 2006, The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green, Here! Films, 2005
The Heights(Sony Pictures, 2005) & The Sopranos, Season Six (HBO)
Three Dancing Slaves (Le Clan), (TLA Releasing, 2004) and Ice Men, (Wolfe Video, 2005)
A Portrait Of The Artist As An Old Queen Love is the Devil (Strand Releasing, 1998)
Another Country (BBC Video) 1984
9 Dead Gay Guys (TLA Video, 2003)
Ben and Arthur (Ariztical Entertainment Group) 2004
Relax... Itís Just Sex (1998)
Before Stonewall (1985)
Die Mommie Die (2003)
The Einstein of Sex (TLA Releasing, 1999)
Camp (IFC films) 2003
Another Country (BBC Video) 1984