Filmmaker Eytan Fox on His “Sublet” and Telling Queer Stories in Tel Aviv

"I'm not gonna shy away from those issues," says Fox. "They’re in my soul, they’re so important to me."

Eytan Fox approaches filmmaking as a process of understanding himself. With his latest film, Sublet, the 56-year-old explores the widening gap between gay men of his generation and queers in their 20s. “The world of young men and women—mostly young gay men—today is very different from the world I grew up in,” he says.

The film centers on Michael (Tony winner John Benjamin Hickey), an American travel writer visiting Tel Aviv who develops a complicated bond with a young local named Tomer (newcomer Niv Nissim). The process of making the film and developing the relationship between the two characters meant that Fox had to rethink a lot of his preconceptions about the Grindr hook-ups and one-night stands that he believed make up young people’s romantic lives. “I learned to be less judgmental,” he admits.

Ahead of the film’s premiere, NewNowNext chatted with Fox about May-December romance and how he wants Westerners to see Tel Aviv.

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What was the most striking contrast you found between your generation and gay men in their 20s?

When I was growing up, the concept of gay men [was]: all they care about are cruising parks and casual sex. I will never have a real relationship. No children, nothing. I won’t have that. I think my generation did fight to change that attitude, to say we can have that and we should have that. And then these young punks come along—of course, I’m joking—and say, We don’t give a damn about your revolution or the battles that you fought and won—that heteronormative bullshit! These are the approaches I started encountering.

I was initially going to ask you why you wanted to make a film about a May-December romance. But I’m not sure Michael and Tomer’s story is a romance. How would you characterize their relationship?

I hope people see the complications and the multilayered story we’re trying to tell here. It’s about a gay man who comes with a lot of baggage and grief and trauma. And the trauma is also growing up gay in the world he grew up in. He comes with all that baggage, and the experience of meeting this young man who is full of life and good energy, and Tel Aviv, this amazing city—they enable him to confront all this trauma and start some kind of healing process.

Fatherhood is a theme in the film as well, and that sort of casts Michael and Tomer’s relationship in a different light.

First of all, you have this age gap, so the more natural thing is for the older man to be some kind of a father figure to the younger man. But in our case, you’re not sure who’s a father to who, who’s a son to who. Sometimes the older man is more of a son to the younger man. He needs his guidance. I think relationships are complicated. This dichotomy, father-son, older-younger—it’s more complicated and the film tries to show that. And when people say, Why does this have to become physical? It’s a wonderful platonic relationship. Why are you putting in the whole sexual element? And I say again, Life is complicated. In a relationship, all these elements can come in and should be addressed.

So many of your films have been set in Tel Aviv. What did you want to capture about the city in this film—particularly through the eyes of an American character?

I want people to fall in love with it and understand how wonderful it is. But it also has to do with the fact that people are very critical of Israel—and there are reasons to be critical of Israel. And I somehow wanted to say, Ok, understand that Tel Aviv is not really Israel. Even if you are critical of Israel, Tel Aviv’s one of the most open-minded, progressive cities in the world.
 

Sublet feels like it’s in conversation with your 2006 film The Bubble, which was a much more political film. Sublet feels like it takes place in more of a bubble than The Bubble does.

I’ll tell you, even in The Bubble, young people in Israel think, Fuck, we can’t handle this anymore. We want to live our lives in Tel Aviv, enjoy life. Now, it’s become, We’re not part of Israel. We’re disassociating ourselves. So that’s even more of what you may call a bubble. People say, We don’t give a damn.

Do you find that disengagement troubling?

It’s interesting, in the Trump era in America, young people are becoming more and more involved, fighting for different causes. Israel’s more complicated. They have been very involved if they want to or if they don’t—they go to the army [for mandatory national military service] and they have to deal with the decisions that supposedly older and wiser men make here in Israel and neighboring Arab countries. So, it’s very difficult not to be involved. But it’s overwhelming. And I am sympathetic when Daria (Lihi Kornowski) says, “Maybe that is my [protest]: to live my life and not just survive.” I don’t want to just survive. I want to live, I want to thrive, I want to enjoy life. And Israel still is very much about survival.

Of course, the film is being released at a time when there’s a lot of international focus on Israel and in Gaza. What has it been like talking to people about the film in that context?

Well, the whole Gaza thing is an ongoing struggle I’ve been dealing with throughout my career. The Israeli-Palestinian wars are always there in the background. There is a fear, especially in Europe, but also in America, that people won’t want to see an Israeli film. It is an issue that was raised by distributers. Maybe people won’t want to see a film that presents Israel in such a positive way. My next projects are TV shows, and they have to do with the Middle East and Israel, and the connection between Israel and America as well. So, I’m not gonna shy away from those issues. They’re in my soul, they’re so important to me.

Sublet hits theaters June 11 and will be available on-demand starting July 9.

John Russell is a New York-based entertainment and lifestyle journalist. He has been called “the Courtney Love throwing Chanel compacts at Madonna and Kurt Loder” of his generation.
@john_russell