The complications of the ongoing Mideast crisis are generally worse than before and political commentary and analysis are in a dismal state. So maybe what we need now is a gay sex comedy or drama that grapples with border patrols, sex, suicide bombers, civilian deaths, early 30- something singles going to raves, entrenched racism, and relationship angst, all set in Tel Aviv’s Boho circuit. As odd as it may seem, Eytan Fox, in his new film The Bubble (He Buah), brings all of these together with political daring.
Fox is not new to complicated material. There is a scene in his 1990 short film After (alternatively titled Time Off) in which a group of young Israeli recruits—including a closeted gay soldier—flirt with teenage American girls in a Jerusalem café before being shipped off to Lebanon. The 1964 Supremes hit “Where Did Our Love Go” plays in the background and the effect is perfect: young, naïve, sexual desire conflates with Anglo pop culture producing a mixture of exhilaration, incipient dread, and potential tragedy. Fox expanded on this theme in his 2002 hit Yossie and Jagger, about a tragic love affair between two men in the Israeli army. His 2004 Walk on Water involved a male/male relationship between an undercover heterosexual Mossad agent and a gay German whose grandfather was an infamous Nazi war criminal.
In The Bubble, Fox has produced a film that is psychologically unnerving and emotionally potent. The Bubble, a cross between Sex and the City and Romeo and Juliet, centers around a young gay radical Israeli who falls in love with a mostly apolitical Palestinian. As written by Fox and his partner Gal Uchovsky, the film reverberates with a host of cultural and political concerns that catch us unprepared for our responses.
Noam (Ohad Knoller) and his circle of 30-something friends—Lulu (Daniela Virtzer), Yelli (Alon Friedman), Golan (Zohar Liba), and Shaul (Tzion Baruch)—live in the counterculture “bubble” of Tel Aviv where they hang out, meet in diners and cafes, discuss the newest music, take drugs, go to raves, and sometimes protest the occupation. Their lives revolve around pop culture artifacts as a way to locate themselves in the world. Like the characters on Friends, they are pleasantly shallow with moments of authentic emotions and experiences. This begins to change when Noam hooks up with a Palestinian immigrant named Ashraf (Yousef “Joe” Sweid). They “meet” at a checkpoint, a detail that deftly displays Fox’s ability to push the envelope without losing control of his narrative. Noam and Ashraf’s evening of casual sex turns into a serious romance.
Fox is well aware of the myriad contradictions here and plays with them eagerly. Noam and Ashraf’s love is somewhat acceptable in Tel Aviv, but strictly forbidden in the latter’s homeland. Heterosexual and homosexual relationships have similar, but quite different problems as romantic commitment to cultural change often faces off with local/international politics.
What makes The Bubble more emotionally and tonally complex than Walking on Water is Fox’s ability to reveal romantic, sexual, and political contradictions through art and popular culture. While Fox is capable of making sly use of culture, he dares to write in bold strokes. In the second half of the film some of the characters attend a Tel Aviv production of Martin Sherman’s 1980 hit play Bent about gay lovers in a concentration camp. While the viewer’s first reaction is to feel hit over the head, the gradual, and contradictory, reverberations of this situation soon become apparent. Is Fox analogizing Tel Aviv or the Palestinian territories to a Nazi concentration camp? Is this analogy correct? Useful? Outrageous? What does Bent mean to Noam and Ashraf? What are their responsibilities to their families and friends? To one another? One is reminded of Isaac Bashevis Singer stories—“Blood” or “A Crown of Fea- thers”—but Fox’s artistic methods here are closer to those of Douglas Sirk (a gentile who fled Hitler’s Germany with his Jewish wife) whose Hollywood melodramas—All that Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life —used the artifice of art and culture to expose the deepest problems faced by his characters.
As The Bubble builds to its surprising conclusion—with plot and emotional twists that consistently dislocate the viewer—Fox poses complicated, vital questions. What begins as a tale of star-crossed lovers becomes something quite different. The Bubble offers no solutions to anything, but it does give us the emotional and political space to rethink some basic assumptions we may have about how we think about the crisis, how sexual politics may play a part here, and how youth culture has changed. These days that is something. Eytan Fox has emerged as one of the most interesting Israeli filmmakers of the past decade and with The Bubble he has established himself as a world class master of filmmaking.
Michael Bronski has written extensively on film, books, theater, sex, AIDS, and gay male culture for the Los Angeles Times, Fag Rag, the Village Voice, Gay Community News, Cineaste, the Boston Globe, Radical America, Z Magazine, and numerous anthologies.