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 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.
After a 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 outrage. They cite arcane passages of the Talmud and Torah teachings and are quick to brand Tabakman a traitor to his people. Tabakman, looking every inch the rabbinical scholar in his luxuriant beard, does not react with anger.
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.
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 having the opportunity to carry 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 Philadelphia, is Tabakman’s chaperone during the Woodstock Festival where the film premiered. 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.”