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
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
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
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
For information on where Eyes Wide Open is screening, visit Eyeswideopenfilm.com.
Exploring Israel for our December 2009 article by Matt Mills.