Thanks to the worldwide success of “Yossi & Jagger” and “Walk On Water,” filmmaker Eytan Fox has earned a following well beyond his native Israel. But he still looks for inspiration close to home, in his childhood and his neighborhood.
Fox’s latest film, “The Bubble,” is set (and largely shot) along Sheinkin Street in the Tel Aviv neighborhood of young hipsters and artists where the gay director lives with his longtime partner, Gal Uchovsky.
The vibrant, funny and ultimately shocking film centers on a quartet of attractive 20-somethings whose sex lives usually take precedence over political activism. But when Noam begins a relationship with a Palestinian guy, he makes waves that not only engulf them, but also his gay roommate Yali and straight female roomie Lulu.
“The Bubble,” which screened at both the S.F. International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival and the Jewish Film Festival, opens Friday, Sept. 7 in San Francisco and Berkeley.
Like all of Fox’s films, “The Bubble” entertainingly combines an enthusiasm for contemporary pop culture — notably a soundtrack of catchy, often familiar tunes — with personal and political awakening.
“Some people don’t really like what I do, and don’t like the fact that I mesh these two,” Fox said with a shrug during a recent visit to San Francisco. “We have this dichotomy in Israel, where you have very serious political or ideologically oriented films and war stories. Then you have fluffy films that have humor.
“I told my [backers], ‘I want to make an Israeli-Palestinian relationship story but I don’t want to make it one of those heavy Amos Gitai films. I want to make a film that is true to life.'”
Fox is gregarious and speaks fast, fluent English, which may contribute to the reception he’s received outside of Israel. He was born in New York and was a toddler when his family moved to Israel in 1967. His late mother, his key influence, devoted her life to building relationships between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel.
Fox grew up in a posh Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem called French Hill. It had a nice playground, so the children from Isawiya, an Arab village in nearby East Jerusalem, would come and play with the Jewish kids.
“At some point,” Fox recalls, “the head of the neighborhood committee decided or heard that the Palestinian kids were hitting or beating the Jewish kids. He said, ‘We’ll stop the whole playing together.’ My mother was beside herself.”
In “The Bubble,” this becomes Noam’s pivotal memory. It peaks with a flashback of a party at the playground where the only attendees are Noam and his mother. That, too, has its roots in Fox’s experience.
“It was important to us to shoot in the places where these things actually happen,” Fox explains. “I [also] insisted on shooting in Isawiya, and we went to shoot in Isawiya, and you can imagine shooting there.”
With the same commitment to fidelity and realism, Fox shot at the Breakfast Club, a hot nightclub near Sheinkin Street, as well as in cafes and restaurants in the area.
Every Israeli filmmaker is asked political questions when they take their movies abroad to festivals and give interviews, and Fox has mixed feelings about being a de facto spokesman for Israel. He enjoys sharing his opinions, especially as an out and outspoken gay man, but like every artist he prefers that his films speak for themselves.
That poses its own dilemma, for “The Bubble” is a personal, deeply felt work that reflects Fox’s values and yet it will inevitably be viewed more broadly in the United States as a film about Israel.
“I care about what people think about Israel, and I want them to see the whole picture, the bad and the good, the beautiful and the ugly.
“On some issues and on some levels, we’re so conservative and so backwards, so full of fear and racism and paranoia against Arabs, Palestinians, Russians, foreign workers. But we have this ability to embrace other minority groups. The women’s situation in Israel is wonderful, the gay situation in Israel is wonderful.”
It’s all but impossible to squeeze that whole picture into, well, one picture. But Fox packs enough into “The Bubble” to give moviegoers ample food for thought.
“The Bubble” opens Friday, Sept. 7 at the Embarcadero in San Francisco and the Shattuck in Berkeley.