The Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival opens November 12 with a screening of “Karaoke,” a terrific comedy-drama about a couple and their upstairs neighbor. (There is a slight queer twist). Also of queer interest is a film in the festival’s shorts program (November 15), “Make Me a King,” about drag kings, as well as a brunch and screening of the Barbra Streisand classic, “Funny Girl” (November 18).
The festival’s closing night film, “America,” (November 19) is the absorbing new feature by Ofir Raul Graizer, the out gay director of “The Cakemaker.” This melancholic melodrama has Eli (Michael Moshonov) returning home to Israel after his father has died. He reconnects with his childhood friend, Yotam (Ofri Biterman), who is now engaged to Iris (Oshrat Ingadashet), an Ethiopian Jew. The guys share a kind of bromance, but when Eli and Yotam take a day trip together, an accident occurs. As Yotam lies in a coma, Eli forms a connection with Iris.
Grazier, who will participate in a post-screening Q&A at the festival, spoke with PGN about his lovely film that deals with love, loss, and letting go.
Like your previous film, “The Cakemaker,” “America” can be read as a kind of love triangle where a man gets involved with a woman to express his sublimated desire for a man that he loves but cannot be with. What prompts you to return to this narrative thread?
I don’t know that I see it as a triangle. This film is telling three different stories. Each story has its own angle and its own values and ideas about life. I was more motivated to tell, not a love story, but a story about a guy who immigrated to another country, was forced to go back and then forced to stay. We then cut to a woman who was cut away from her life and her roots and then was cut away again and had to survive in this new reality. The third story was of someone who was born and had to be born again and rebuild his life.
The relationship between Eli and Yotam is very moving. What observations do you have about male friendships, and the bond between men, and codes of masculinity?
I think that the world has constantly been destroyed by men. Men make wars and build weapons. Men are pretty terrible creatures, and I always hope to portray and show the sensitive human beings they can be. The relationship between Yotam and Eli is more than friendship; there is great love there. There is something deeper, a secret thing between them. Their relationship features a sensitive and healthy masculinity, which is not by the strength of one’s arm, or how you shoot, or fuck, or eat, but something more gentle and finer and more human. Eli is teaching children to swim. Yotam is working with plants and flowers. What is more gentle than this? The violence that comes comes because of the violence from the past. Eli is running away from the masculinity of his father, a war hero, and police officer, and wife- and child-beater. This whole violent, macho, patriarchal, militaristic manhood is something that Eli fought hard to resist. He tries to build a healthier alternative.
Iris, who takes over the story in the second chapter is a fascinating character. Can you talk about how you developed her character?
She is a small character who becomes the protagonist. Iris is like a flower — she opens up. She is cut away from her family and a religious traditional home. When she gets to know Eli, she realizes how similar he is to her. I created her from an image of this woman surrounded by flowers. I wanted to make a person who is sad and has a secret but is surrounded by beauty. I wanted to make a film about the beauty and power of nature. That’s how I built her character.
I came from a home that was half religious and half secular and I had a very complex relationship with religion and tradition, and part of this relationship is to define itself for my own way. Iris is like this — she had to start over and create her own life, her own home. The way she did it, and what she found, was through this handling of nature and flowers and plants.
Whereas “The Cakemaker” used food to bring the characters together, “America” uses plants and flowers. You use smells and colors. Can you talk about the visual style of the film?
Cinema is the art of the senses. When I started to build the story, what came to me was that I wanted it a sensual film — not in the sexual, erotic sense — but in the sense that you can smell it and feel it. The elements of life connect to a plant. If you have a plant and you give it water and sun, and love, it will grow and nurture and flower. It will give you fruit. That is the same with children. If you nurture and give love and care for them and feed them, they will grow up to be good people. For me, this story is about this gap between what we are as children and the people we end up being as adults. The flowers and colors reflect that. Eli’s world of water is what saved him. Iris’ connection to the ground and the earth, and Yotam’s warmth and sunny identity. He was very sweet and loving. Each character has this color reflected by the production and costume design and the camerawork.
“America” is about love, loss, and letting go. Why do these themes resonate so strongly in your films?
Life is suffering, mostly. [Laughs] It’s not roses. These are the kind of stories I want to tell. I always pick this drama and there is always a tragedy and some darkness that forces people to confront a new reality and adjust to a new situation. But there has to be hope. When I wrote “America,” my goal was to make a film that there is great sadness, pain, and a wound for all three characters. But the way I wanted to direct it, was in a beautiful and hopeful way. This is eventually about some people suffering, but they all get to experience some kind of redemption in their life.
There is a gay character in a minor role in “America,” but do you think you will ever make a true gay romance?
It’s about finding the right story. I’ve made these two heartbreaking dramas and I have a few more heartbreaking dramas planned, but I still haven’t found the right story. I love women, I’m not attracted to them, but I can’t imagine a film without a great female character. I always want to work with women in my films. I’m dying to do a super-gay story.