Q&A with Yair Hochner — founder of Tel Aviv’s first gay and lesbian film festival

Yair Hochner’s “Antarctica” – which opens Nov.14 at the Regent Showcase – begins with multi-screen images of one-night stands in the nocturnal life of hunky gay businessman Boaz (Ofer Regirer). The sexually graphic montage introduces some of the main characters of the romantic dramedy, which revolves around an interconnected group of queer friends in Tel Aviv. There is Omer (Tomer Ilan), a shy librarian who’s about to turn 30 but hasn’t found love or meaning in his life; Omer’s slutty friend, Micki; a marriage-shy lesbian; and a mom played by Israel’s reigning drag queen, Noam Huberman (a less campy version of the mama portrayed by the late Divine in John Waters’ “Hairspray”), among others. Before the 33-year-old Hochner made “Antarctica,” he shot his award-winning “Good Boys,” for $500; and founded Tel Aviv’s first gay and lesbian film festival. Along with fellow Israeli director Eytan Fox (“The Bubble”), he is fast emerging on the international scene as one of Israel’s premiere (and most daring) queer filmmakers.

JJ: How did you come up with the idea for “Antarctica?”
YH: In 1999, during my last year at Camera-Obscura art school in Tel Aviv, I was inspired by one of my favorite films of the year, Michael Winterbottom’s ‘Wonderland,’ which deals with the solitude of bachelorhood in the big city. I initially wrote my movie as a romantic comedy about a bunch of straight female characters, but when I came out of the closet and moved in with my partner, I decided to change it to a group of young, hot, lesbians and gay men in Tel Aviv with an ensemble cast that reflects familiar archetypes we all know in the queer community: the confused youngster who’s unclear about his life; the stud who only has one-night stands with a different guy every night; the mature lesbian who wants to have a baby and create a family; the shy boy who prefers reading books to going out on the town and thus will never meet anyone. We even meet a Jewish mother (Huberman, aka stage name Miss Laila Carry), who constantly nudges her kids at their jobs. She wants grandchildren, she match-makes, and behind everyone’s backs she…well, you’ll have to watch the film to find out.

JJ: “Antarctica” is deliberately apolitical, but – as the L.A. Weekly noted — “There is a subversive politicking in its insistence on portraying gay life as is, promiscuity and all. Which may be why the only Israeli theater that would show this lovingly goofy tribute to John Waters is a cinematheque. “What happened?
YH: Israeli distributors can be very hypocritical, because they show graphic sex scenes involving straight Israelis – “Late Marriage” had a 20-minute sex scene with erections – and “Antarctica” I think is less graphic. Of course, Israeli commercial distributors almost never screen any LGBT movies. So I took my film to Tel Aviv’s cinemateque, where it’s been screening for four months straight since August. Since then it’s been in 12 countries, everywhere from the Venice film festival to Sao Paolo, where it was the opening night at the gay and lesbian film festival last week. The audience was packed with 800 people; [viewers] came from as far away as Rio to see the movie. I was shocked, but everyone was laughing and crying – I never imagined that in a different culture, in a very different context, it would feel the same as it does at home.

JJ: There have been some Israeli films, like Eytan Fox’s “The Bubble,” a gay love story between an Israeli and a Palestinian – that have received support from the Israeli film establishment.
YH: Yes but those kinds of movies are very mainstream in a way – “The Bubble” involves the Middle East conflict, while others may deal in part with the Holocaust, which are all subjects that Israelis like to watch. My movie is purely about gay and lesbian love stories in Tel Aviv. I didn’t deal with Holocaust memories or Palestinians – which I think is boring to see so many times. I tried to get away from this. I just wanted to make a regular movie about regular people and their romantic lives.

JJ: Here in California gay marriage was struck down by our Proposition 8 this month. The lesbians in “Antarctica” discuss marriage, but same-sex marriage has never been legal in Israel.
YH: In the movie it’s obvious they can’t marry, but that’s not the issue. The ability to marry or not is not the problem, the issue (which is the subject of the movie) is, ‘How open are we to other people around us?”

JJ: Why did you choose to cast a drag queen in a woman’s role?
YH: I wanted to make a totally queer film without any straight actors, and Noam is a great icon in Tel Aviv, he has his own show. I’m a great fan of John Waters and Divine, but I told Noam I wanted to do something that was not necessarily camp, and that was more realistic. I told him, ‘Just act like an old Jewish woman and don’t be too extreme.’ I know many viewers are surprised when they see him because suddenly he jumps into the frame and it changes the vibe of the movie. The movie starts out very sexy, then becomes very realistic and dark, and then romantic and a bit campy. It’s like three films on one ticket.

JJ: Why did you title the film ‘Antarctica?”
YH: It has to do with transformation. The characters start out with very frozen hearts; they need to open themselves up to get warmer experiences in their lives. In Tel Aviv, like big cities such as London or New York, many people feel isolated, so they’re have online dates and one-night stands and they feel alone, and they’re waiting for that light to arrive to give us the opportunity to be open, to love.

JJ: Have you seen straight people in the audience as well?
YH: Absolutely. I think Israelis are tired of all the war movies and Lebanon movies and family dramas that we’ve seen in recent year. They just want to see something different – and they’re looking for something that will tell them something about their own lives.

To see a trailer of “Antarctica” visit http://www.antarctica-themovie.com/videofinal.html.

A Thaw in Relations

Who says that Israelis and Palestinians can’t work together?
On New Year’s Day, a group of Israelis and Palestinians embarked on a 35-day
expedition to Antarctica that culminated in the scaling and naming of an
unexplored mountain.

The group, Breaking the Ice, was honored this month for
diplomacy through sport by Search for Common Ground, a nonprofit organization
dedicated to conflict resolution.

“[I] felt paralyzed not being able to do anything,” said Heskel
Nathaniel, an Israeli living in Germany who launched the project in order to
make a contribution to peace. Nathaniel teamed up with an Israeli climber
friend, Doron Erel, to assemble the expedition.

Through their connections, including Israeli journalists
working in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, they found four Israelis and four
Palestinians willing to sail from the southern tip of Chile through the  Drake
Passage to Antarctica. They also organized an eight-person support crew,
including a physician, mountain guides and cameramen to produce a documentary.

The hikers included an Ethiopian Israeli who had lost most
of her family trekking across Sudan en route to Israel, a Palestinian from Jerusalem
who had been jailed for attacking Israeli troops with Molotov cocktails and a
lawyer who served in an elite Israeli army commando unit. Despite their
differences, members of the team knew how to “treat each other as human
beings,” said Olfat Haider, an Israeli Arab from Haifa.

But the expedition had plenty of rough spots. Crossing the
Drake Passage, which Nathaniel calls the “largest ships’ graveyard in the
world,” meant enduring waves nearly 50 feet high and winds up to 80 mph. Almost
everyone became seasick and two participants suffered bruises as the boat was
tossed around.

There also were political battles, like the one that
occurred when Nasser Quass, the Palestinian who had been in an Israeli jail,
said Jews have no claim to the Temple Mount.

“We were completely insulted,” Nathaniel said.

Avihu Shoshani, the Israeli lawyer who often butted heads
with Quass, was furious. Haider began to cry.

The parties separated, avoiding each other until the next
evening, when they had to continue navigating, Nathaniel said.

Now, with the trek behind them, Breaking the Ice leaders are
working to turn the event into an annual program — though not to Antarctica.
The next trip, slated for March 2005, will be a camel trek across the Sahara Desert
for Jews and Arabs from several countries.

The group also hopes to inspire children with the example of
bold adventurers who will symbolize a “new kind of hero,” Nathaniel said. He
explained that the group plans ultimately to create programs to instill
friendship among children from countries of conflict.

For more information about the program
and to read a diary of the trip, go to