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April 2010 Email this to a friend
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An Unorthodox Love Story

By Jay Blotcher

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As the struggle for gay rights continues to slam against the battlements of religious doctrine, a new film sheds a wise, even forgiving light on the stalemate. Israeli director Haim Tabakman's film Eyes Wide Open explores a love affair in Jerusalem between Aaron, a butcher, and Ezri, a student who comes to work for him.
Aaron is married and a member of the rigid Orthodox community. As love awakens him, he tries to fight it and escape back into Scripture. But passion ignites a level of courage he's never felt.
This past autumn, Eyes Wide Open had its United States premiere at the Woodstock Film Festival. Guide magazine talked with Haim Tabakman at the screening.
Tabakman began work on the project in 2003 after screenwriter Merav Doster completed her script. Doster and the producer, who attended the same university as Tabakman, approached him. The connection was immediate. Despite having done only a few shorts before this, Tabakman was tapped as director.
After the Woodstock Film Festival screening at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck, people stay in their seats. The director strides to the front of the room and is immediately engulfed in discussion with the audience. Some question his motivation for making the film; others are candid in their sense of outrage. They cite arcane passages of the Talmud and Torah teachings and are quick to brand Tabakman as a traitor to his people. Tabakman, looking every inch the rabbinical scholar in his luxuriant beard, does not react with anger. His responses reflect the wisdom of someone decades older.
To better understand the film he was about to shoot, Tabakman interviewed several religious leaders. Before immersing himself in research, however, Tabakman looked inward.
"I first searched for things that I know about myself," he says. "Then I built the research on top of that and not vice versa."
The result is a love story of universal grace notes, void of condescension and with no awkwardness of narrative. Despite occasional histrionics, Eyes Wide Open is lyrical, painful and life-affirming.
As he prepared to film, Tabakman screened the 2001 documentary Trembling Before G-d, Sandi Dubowski's exploration of openly gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews striving for acceptance. He notes the contrast between the two films. Trembling Before G-d, he says, "is dealing with people that are exiled from the community." His own film, on the other hand, "is about somebody who is inside and doesn't even want to lead a double life. He respects his religion as much as he respects his authentic homosexuality."
Even though top Israeli actors rejected the starring roles, the project found its leads. Ezri, both sensual and mysterious, is played by Ran Danker, a pop-music star. Asked what motivated the national personality to tackle such a taboo role, he says with a wink, the fear of "remaining a teenage idol was greater than the fear of portraying a homosexual."
Zohar Strauss, who plays the butcher torn between passion and duty, is a veteran actor known mostly for supporting roles. Playing Aaron meant carrying a film for the first time.
"So, they jumped on the roles -- and then they jumped on each other," Tabakman quips. The film wrapped in 26 days.
Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, who wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for the landmark film Philadelphia, is Tabakman's chaperone during the Woodstock Festival. Their collaboration began a year earlier, when Nyswaner was in Jerusalem, representing the Sundance Film Institute. He offered a screenwriting lab and advised the film's screenwriter, Merav Doster, on how she could further develop the narrative.
Nyswaner gives Doster and Tabakman high marks for treating all the characters with sensitivity, "because people with prejudices are still human beings," he says. He also praises the director's handling of a love story born of repressed passion.
"When something is forbidden, it's sexy," he says. "You didn't see much body; you didn't see much flesh at all. And occasionally you got a glimpse of flesh and that was hot."
Subtlety is "something that we have forgotten with cable TV," Nyswaner adds, "where everybody's penis is spinning around here and there. Sometimes less is more."
Tabakman has faced outrage before at his screenings from pious Jews and fierce Zionists who feel that Israelis are maligned in his film. However, he admits, an earlier draft of the script was even less flattering, showcasing "more blunt ideas, like villains and stuff." Eyes Wide Open dissects a difficult situation and does not offer facile portrayals, whether depicting the embattled couple, Aaron's puzzled wife or the self-appointed "modesty guards" who patrol the area to enforce religious morality. Each character's motivation, however conflicted, seems plausible and stems from a genuine sense of humanism.
"That was very important for me," he says. "In this movie, I wanted to show a strategy that shows that everybody has their reasons."
Even the rabbi, the moral force of the community, has a pragmatic self at war with his religious side. As the community discovers and menaces the lovers, the rabbi sounds a note of compassion. He tries to reason with Aaron, suggesting that the relationship is a casual fling, an indulgence that can be easily ended.
"I wanted to make [things] down-to-earth between two friends," the director says. "To show that it's not only about your belief or your ideology, about fanatic people."
The film has screened at festivals worldwide before arriving in cinemas in France and Israel. (The film is a Israeli-French-German production.) While ticket sales were robust in France, religious resistance has limited box office returns in Israel, Tabakman says. Despite this, it netted the best film award at the Jerusalem Festival.
In February, Eyes Wide Open began an engagement at Cinema Village in New York City. The distributor, New American Vision, plans to release the film slowly in commercial theaters across America, while still screening it at film festivals.
"This film was a great challenge for me, personally," says the 35-year-old director. "It was an opportunity to explore all kinds of things. When you deal with things inside yourself, it can be very private. When you try to find yourself in a different society also, it's a very interesting journey."
Tabakman is not referring to challenges to his own heterosexuality, however; he is referring to the lure of Orthodox Judaism. While not Orthodox himself, he concedes that it holds a powerful appeal for those who crave a sense of belonging.
"Being Orthodox is always an option for a Jew," he says. "If I go [to that community], they will hug me, they will give me a wife in a wig and a home. It's always an option to clear your head in this time of disintegrating values."
Yet his film clearly chooses self-expression over doctrine.
"God gave you this life to live, to explore," he says. "It's an interesting conflict."

For information on where Eyes Wide Open is screening, visit Eyeswideopenfilm.com.

Click Exploring Israel for our December 2009 article by Matt Mills.

Author Profile:  Jay Blotcher

Jay Blotcher lives in the Hudson Valley of New York state.

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