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FOX, EYTAN – WALK ON WATER

MAKING PEACE WITH THE PAST - FOR THE PRESENT
Eytan Fox is the quiet revolutionary of Israeli cinema; his latest – multi awarded - work, Walk On Water, challenges the warrior mentality of Israeli men, in the context of a personal story against a political backdrop. He expected a storm of protest from his countrymen, but was heartened when they embraced it instead, he tells Andrew L. Urban.


There was a moment in the lobby of a Paris cinema recently that Eytan Fox recalls with quiet pride and searing clarity. He was presenting his previous film, Yossi & Jagger, at a special event and a young man came up to him after the screening with a surprise confession. “He said ‘I hate the Jews, but Yossi & Jagger had shown me a more complex view of Israelis’ and he better understood us and our situation and our humanity,” Fox recalls. He is recalling the incident in response to a question about the possibility of film, or films, to make a difference. (Yossi & Jagger screens on World Movies at 10.05pm on May 12, 2005.)

"I think films can make a difference"

“So yes, I think films can make a difference.” Yossi & Jagger (Jagger as in Mick, a nickname for one of the rock star-like characters in the film) is a fact based story of two Israeli soldiers who are gay lovers in the context of a tough military post between Israel and Lebanon in the middle of winter.

But it’s not just a single ‘hater’ that Fox’s films have turned into more compassionate human beings. Fox is optimistic he says about changes in Israeli society. “I am very concerned about the political situation in Israel. I strongly believe that because Israelis are still so obsessed with the Holocaust and
their status as victims it makes them blind to the fact they themselves have become aggressors, imposing pain and suffering on the Palestinians. I believe that the first step in helping Israelis understand how cruel they have become lies in making some kind of peace with their own traumatic past. Since I am very interested in masculinity, and Israel is a very masculine society, I decided to tell a story in which a man gets to connect with his inner feelings and he changes through confronting and processing the most frightening event of his past.”

The story of Walk On Water is simple enough: senior Mossad agent Eyal (Lior Ashkenazi) is charged with acting as a tour guide to visiting German, Axel (Knut Berger), who is in Tel Aviv trying to convince his sister, Pia (Carolina Peters) to return to Berlin for their father’s 70th birthday. She had left the family in anger after discovering their grandfather was a Nazi war criminal. Now the ageing and dying Alfred Himmelman (Ernest Lenart) has disappeared from his Argentine hide-away and Eyal’s Mossad boss, Menachem (Gidon Shemer), wants to learn what the family knows about his whereabouts. Reluctantly, Eyal befriends the two young Germans and spies on them. As they get to know each other better, the conflicting ideologies and histories begin to effect a profound change in all of them – a change unleashed at the climactic birthday party.

But it’s the subtle moments between the lines, the nuances as understanding leads to revelation and compassion that make the film remarkably effective. The film begins with action proof that Eyal (Lior Ashkenazi) is a sophisticated agent who can kill his targets with ease. Within this opening sequence is the seed of the film’s editorial point of view, as well as its resolution, but the journey is not a straight line. 

"he is not driven by poverty but by humanity"

It’s one thing for Fox to steer his work towards his own ideals across the troubled political waters of Israel’s position viz Palestinians. It’s quite another for an actor of Ashkenazi’s standing [Israel’s biggest star] to publicly underline the stance that Fox is taking. “When Walk On Water was released in Israel,” Fox says, “Askenazi broke with his own precedent [of never saying anything controversial, especially when promoting his films] and compared the things he did as a soldier in the West Bank with behaviour in the Holocaust. This drew extraordinary responses from Israelis, some denouncing him, but many – including soldiers – praising him and expressing their gratitude that he put into the open a subject they would never otherwise discuss.”

In the relatively benign political landscape of Australia, such intensity is seen as ‘over there’; and more’s the pity, because the reality is that Australian society has many socio political issues that deserve – or demand – open discussion and Australian filmmakers seem reluctant to engage with any of them.

Eytan Fox doesn’t come from an oppressed childhood or a broken home; he is not driven by poverty but by humanity. “I was born in New York, but soon after the family moved to Israel. My parents were Zionists and wanted to live here,” he explains from his Tel Aviv home. His mother, “an ever-elegant Manhattan lady, found the change very difficult. She was different, in her gloves and smart outfits, to all the other mothers and I was ashamed when she’d come to pick me up at school.”

But she soon became active in social work and helping minority groups, while his father nurtured an idealistic view of Israel. His mother died during the filming of Walk On Water, but she had read and approved of the screenplay. The film is dedicated to her memory and to her activities.

“I’m optimistic about what’s happening in Israel,” he says, “as people are starting to realise we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing. And this is especially true about the male psyche… the warrior mentality. And we must stop being afraid ….” 

"the past has a very important role"

And that view is in the context of history: “I think the past has a very important role in young people's lives everywhere,” says Fox. “I made a movie about young people, who just want to live and have fun, and think they are free and different from their parents, but actually they are haunted by the past, and in order to really become free, they have to make peace with it.”

Published May 5, 2005

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