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.

‘Superman’ Director Lives Out His Dream

“Whether you’re an immigrant or you’re born in the heartland, at some point we all feel like an alien.”

Those are not the words of an immigration rights attorney but rather of filmmaker Bryan Singer, whose last three films, the first two editions of “X-Men” and the upcoming “Superman Returns,” which opens on June 28 nationwide, all present parables on the current state of xenophobia pervading this country.

Of the famed Man of Steel, first introduced to comic book readers in the 1930s, Singer said, “He’s kind of the ultimate immigrant. He comes from a foreign place, adapts to the value system and has a special relationship with his heritage.”

Singer sees Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — two Jews who were sons of immigrants — as a Judeo-Christian hero, part Moses, part Jesus. Like Moses, Superman is the boy dispatched down the metaphoric river to be discovered in the cornfields, if not the reeds, of the Midwest. Like Jesus, he has a kind of doubling with his father, voiced in the new film as in the 1978 “Superman” by the late Marlon Brando, who says, “The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son.”

If Superman first entered popular culture when the Nazis were beginning to assert their power in Germany, he “never cleared up the problems in Europe,” Singer said. “He handled small problems; he served by example.”

Over the decades, however, through numerous incarnations in comic strips, animated shorts, television shows and films, Superman began tackling worldwide catastrophes, as he does in Singer’s new film, though he does not rescue Jews per se.

That does not mean that Superman lacks a Jewish pedigree.

As Michael Chabon suggested in his novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” Siegel and Shuster, in conceptualizing Superman, may very well have been inspired by the Golem, a mythic figure in Jewish folklore, who could be built from mud and clay, according to strict rabbinic instructions, and could vanquish all evil.

Yet “Superman Returns” never implies that its protagonist, played by Brandon Routh, is of any ethnicity other than Kryptonian. If he resembles any mythological creatures, they would seem to be Greek ones. Like Atlas, Superman lifts, if not the entire planet, a huge nefarious landmass, which he hurls into space. He also catches the ornamental globe that sits atop the Daily Planet Building, a structure modeled after the art deco former home of the New York Daily News. Of course, Superman’s strength is matched by his speed as he flies through the sky like Hermes, easing a plane carrying Lois Lane, played by Kate Bosworth, into an emergency landing on a ball field.

Superman may have been in drydock for five years, as we are told in the film, but unlike Roger Clemens, he doesn’t get the benefit of a trip to the minors. He must perform at a big league level from the start, although we do see flashbacks to his youth, when he runs through the cornfields and learns how to fly, a nice touch since Superman did not fly in his early comic strips.

The 40-year-old Singer calls “Superman Returns” a “dream project” and said “it was a fantasy of mine to have Kryptonian blood,” not surprising for a man who in the 1970s loved watching reruns of the “Superman” TV show starring George Reeves. But Singer did not read the comics as a child. To this day, he suffers from dyslexia, which still impedes his efforts at reading. He likes to read short stories, but he did not even know about the “X-Men” until he was assigned to direct the first movie of that franchise.

While “X-Men” and “X2,” which came out in 2000 and 2003, respectively, predate the current illegal immigration crisis, they, like all of Singer’s films, deal with the human capacity for evil and for persecuting outsiders, whoever they may be.

Like Superman, the mutants in the “X-Men” movies are not simply stand-ins for illegal immigrants. They are heroic, if in some cases demonic, fantasies of the other — the outsider in all of us.

As a gay, adopted, agnostic Jew, Singer has always been drawn to the otherness of these superheroes, though he chuckles when asked about a recent Los Angeles Times article that highlighted Superman’s gay appeal. “If you look at my career,” he said, “I’ve probably never made a more heterosexual movie before.”

None of his previous studio movies may have had an explicit gay theme to them, but “The Usual Suspects,” his 1995 breakthrough film, which received much buzz for its plot twists, subversion of the noir genre and brilliant ensemble cast, may be best remembered for the Oscar-winning performance of Kevin Spacey, essaying Verbal Kint, a criminal mastermind of dubious sexuality.

Singer followed that with 1998’s “Apt Pupil,” in which Brad Renfro plays a high school student obsessed with the Holocaust and with a former Nazi living in his neighborhood. The film featured some baroque horror touches, such as when Ian McKellen’s Nazi tries to stuff a cat in an oven, and Singer even framed a few longing looks between the 16-year-old boy and his Nazi mentor, cut next to a shot of the boy’s indifferent response to the sexual advances of his girlfriend.

Then came “X-Men” and “X2,” McCarthyite allegories that among other provocations featured McKellen, the Nazi in “Apt Pupil,” as a Holocaust survivor, who like Darth Vader has turned to the dark side.

“X2,” in particular, showed us non-Geneva-friendly torture taking place in prison cells that but for their high-tech gadgetry might remind one of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. There are also congressional and presidential calls for mandatory mutant registration, prescient in the wake of today’s immigration legislation proposals, and, of course, a teenage son coming out to his parents that he is a mutant, prompting the altogether familiar reply from his mother, “Can’t you just not be a mutant?”

While Singer wants as broad an audience as possible to enjoy the film, he particularly wants “older people and women to have an emotional experience,” he said. Unlike his past films, “Superman Returns” is, Singer said, “a romantic picture.”

It is also a film with a long and troubled past. Over the last decade, numerous actors and directors were attached to the film, whose budget, like its superhero, seemed to know no bounds. None of that history worried Singer, who got a chance to reshape the storyline and, indeed, has a story credit on the film. It also helped that he used some of his regular repertory of actors, such as Spacey, playing yet another notable villain: Lex Luthor.

Singer’s first real understanding of evil came when, as a boy of 9 or 10, he dressed up as a Nazi one day while playing a World War II game with his German neighbors in Princeton Junction, N.J. He came home wearing a swastika.

Singer’s mother admonished him, but it wasn’t until a few years later, when his junior high school teacher, Miss Fiscarelli, taught an entire unit in social studies on the Holocaust, that he gained a greater understanding as to why his mother had been so troubled. That class changed Singer’s “whole perception of what people are capable of anywhere,” he said.

“Superman Returns” is not directly about Nazis, and its diabolical antagonist is more over-the-top than menacing, yet Singer does not discount the possibility of future genocides.

“The German culture [at the time of the Holocaust] was extremely artistic, extremely sophisticated and extremely advanced,” he said, proving that “anywhere, any place, any century, it’s possible, and any person is capable of it.”

“Superman Returns” opens nationwide on June 28.