The Bubble
Strand Releasing.

Eytan Fox

Eytan Fox
Gal Uchovsky

Ohad Knoller,
Yousef 'Joe' Sweid, Daniela Virtzer, Alon Friedman, Zohar Liba, Tzion Baruch, Oded Leopold, Shredi Jabarin

Unrated, 117 minutes

Go West
Waterbearer Films

Ahmed Imamovic

Ahmed Imamovic, Enver Puska

Mario Drmac, Tarik Filipovic, Rade Serbedzija, Mirjana Karanovic, Haris Burina, Jeanne Moreau

Unrated, 97 minutes

Life During Wartime
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, February 2008
A shorter version of both films appeared in Outcome, June, 2008


Forbidden romances usually make for the most interesting love stories, and The Bubble, the latest film from Isreali filmmaker Eytan Fox (Yossi and Jagger) is no exception. The setting is Tel Aviv in Israel and the star-crossed lovers are two gay men; one is Jewish, the other is a Palestinian.

The Bubble is a powerful film that combines comedy, romance and political drama. Two young gay Israeli men and one straight women share an apartment on Sheinkin Street - a gay-friendly section of Tel Aviv that is not unlike New York's Grenwich Village. Happy and carefree, these young bohemians seem almost oblivious to the horrors that are tearing the Middle East apart. Aside from their plans to hold a "Rave Against The Occupation" on the beach, they generally avoid politics. This is all about to change when a young gay Arab named Ashraf (Yousef 'Joe' Sweid) enters their group.
Noam (Ohad Knoller - who also appeared in Yossi and Jagger) works in a record store. When we first meet him, he is satisfying his yearly military requirement by spending a month at a West Bank checkpoint. He is out of step with the other soldiers and, when he returns home, he becomes himself again by shedding his unifrom to reveal a Rolling Stones Voodoo Lounge tour T-shirt. This simple touch immediately endeared him to me as being an un-stereotypical gay man who marches to the beat of his own drum - as opposed to his roommate Yali (Alon Friedmann), a restaurant manager who is addicted to watching the finals of Israeli Idol. Rounding out their small cocoon is Lulu (Daniela Virtzer), an aspiring fashion designer who works in a trendy bathworks store.
Their carefree existance and their ideology is put to the test when Noam becomes romantically involved with the young Arab. Ashraf, of course, presents a problem. He is in Tel Aviv illegally and, if discovered, will be sent back to his devout Muslim home where he is deeply closeted and his family has picked out a nice girl for him to marry. The trio's solution is to give Ashraf a Jewish name - Shimi - and let him work in Yali's restaurant. For awhile, this arrangement works but Ashraf misses his family and, as much as he loves Noam, he plans to return home soon to attend his sister's wedding. This will be the catalyst that eventually sets tragedy into motion.
To say any more would give too much of the plot away but this is a forbidden romance and, in the grand tradition of stories like Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, it is simply impossible for it to end happily. I will warn my readers who think that this might be a cute date movie that The Bubble resembles Bob Fosse's Cabaret in many ways. It begins as a celebration of "divine decadence" but it isn't long before the characters' bubble is brutally burst. Violence is a stone's throw away and the conclusion is one of the most devastating that I have seen in years.

This is not a bad thing however; I sometimes think that young gay audiences need to be shaken up a bit more because there are way too many fluffy and "fabulous" queer films out there right now. The Bubble is a terrifying reminder of just how dangerous the world is that we inhabit. I read a review on that called the ending of this film "unconscionable" and I beg to differ. We live in a world where the pope calls homosexuality a threat to society, where the president of Iran claims that there are no homosexuals in his country, and AIDS sufferers are being thrown into prison in Egypt. The Bubble is an entirely credible film.

The Bubble may not be the end-all film on the subject of being gay in the Middle East, but it is a window into a world that we as Americans know nothing about. On the one hand we can see a beacon of hope and it is a pure pleasure to see these people living their lives openly in Tel Aviv. I was especially intrigued by a scene where Noam and Ashraf attend a live performance of Martin Sherman's Bent. It was fun watching Noam wearing a Morrissey T-shirt and talking about which Pet Shop Boy he had a crush on - if it weren't for the foreign language and the subtitles one could almost forget for awhile where this film is taking place.
But then there are subtle reminders like the woman in Lulu's bath shop who giggles while saying that a stinky bar of soap "smells Arab." Ashraf loves the opportunity to live his life openly as a gay man in Tel Aviv but he is also angered by the anti-Palestinian sentiments that he cannot help observing. Is trouble brewing on the horizon? Of course, but don't expect this film to develop the way you think it will. Many red herrings will mislead the audience. Be prepared for the unexpected.
Most of The Bubble is fun before things shift to the dark side and there is nothing wrong with that - though perhaps it would have been better if the DVD box didn't look so much like the advertising for Shortbus and gave some hint that the film will make heavy demands on its audience. While it might seem to some that two different movies were spliced together, ask any opera fan if they are troubled by the melodramatic finales that are almost always preceded by hours of bubbly arias. I am also reminded of Francois Truffaut's delightful Jules and Jim and its shocking denouement. Director Fox does a nice job juggling the various characters' storylines and he does a masterful job at making each one unique and well rounded while still embodying the myriad contradictions that make us all human.
Because many of the queer films that I review are low-budget labors of love, this old school film student doesn't often get to write about new moments of pure cinema that get my heart racing the same way that it does when watching older classics. Indulge me for a minute while I describe an extraordinary scene transition that occurs early in The Bubble. Lulu has just gone to bed with her new boyfriend. We watch a tightly cropped shot of the back of the man's head as it travels down her body, past her breasts to her stomach. There is a cut to Lulu's smiling face but when the camera cuts again to the back of the man's head we suddenly notice that the stomach beneath is covered with hair. As the head raises, we see that we are now with Noam and Ashraf! This is a small detail but it illustrates the director's craft that is displayed throughout the film.

It is interesting to note that, according to, the American cut is 27 minutes longer than the Israeli release. I guess that a few moments were deemed too racy for his own country. The DVD includes a nice documentary that was aired on Israeli television, trailers and a music video. This is a remarkable film and it should not be missed.



Go West is also a "forbidden" love story set against a backdrop of war. The film begins in Sarajevo, in 1992, as the conflict in Bosnia was exploding into genocide. Milan, a Serb "playing hookey" from the patriarchal village where he grew up, is attending the university. His secret lover is a man named Kenan; a Muslim cellist. Their taboo relationship is about to get very dangerous, not just along sexual lines but also from racial ones. The lovers are forced to flee the city as Serbian troops begin to indulge in the practice that has since become known as "ethnic cleansing."
Soldiers are forcing all men on the street to open their trousers at gunpoint and, because he is Muslim, Kenan will be killed on the spot when his circumcism is discovered. Escape is now their only option and it looks, for a moment, like the game is over when they are rounded up with other refugees in a train station for inspection. In desperation, Milan cuts off some of his long hair and borrows a scarf to disguise his beloved as a woman, and this deception saves Kenan's life. The two men "go west" across the war-torn country, taking shelter in Milan's home village, a remote mining town, until they can acquire papers in order to escape to Holland.
The tone of Go West reminded me of early Czech cinema with its strange mix of wartime horror and dark humor. The film's opening recalls the night scenes from The Third Man as a military transport patrols the city. A beautiful, if incongruous, image follows as Kenan runs across the street, carrying a cello case, on his way to a concert for peace.While Kenan plays his cello, Milan is humiliated by a nationalistic student in his martial arts class. Milan knows that there will soon be bloodshed but Kenan refuses, at first, to run. It isn't long before we are plunged into the heart of darkness and many of the early scenes are almost unbearable. But Go West lightens up for a bit during its middle third when the lovers reach Milan's village. Their ruse fools the villagers, including Milan's jubilant father. Kenan makes a convincing, if plain, woman, and smart audiences will relish the irony as the town throws the "lovebirds" a traditional wedding.
One of the charms of many foreign films is the way that they are steeped in native customs and folklore, and Go West has these in abundance. Many supporting characters are fully realised eccentrics straight from a Dostoevsky novel. A leg-less, bearded, Orthodox priest descends from on high by being pushed down a mining track in a rickety wheelchair; he is wont to bend his sermons into political rants. A band consisting of electric guitars and an accordion performs a song about Serbian independence to music that sounds like slavic Elvis. Two villagers have fun with chainsaws. Ranka, the local "witch," bonds with her new "girlfriend," Kenan, and asks her/him what Milan is like in bed.
Ranka and Kenan share some of Go West's finest moments, in addition to providing the film's broadest comedy. The women in the village won't speak with Ranka, (and the men only want to have sex with her) and she revels in her good fortune to have a new friend. They bond while doing chores and smoking pot. God has made their well gone dry, Ranka tells Kenan, because their people once "purged" a Muslim village and that is why they are walking to that deserted town for water. "They keep the trace of the people," Ranka explains when Kenan notices the shoes laid on the steps of the empty houses and wonders if a similar fate has befallen his own family. Ranka is a lusty Earth Mother, and she's also pretty damned nosy, and so it is a foregone conclusion that she will eventually discover that Kenan is a man. When she does, be prepared for one of the most uncomfortably funny scenes I have ever seen in a movie.

Though the village scenes are light compared to the opening terror in Sarajevo, they are nevertheless bleak; the color sometimes bleached out of the celluloid. Director Imamovic dedicates the film to Sergio Leone, and the famed filmmaker's influence is apparent in the visuals of the mining town. The odd music during these scenes evokes The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

"Somehow in the Balkans," Kenan announces in the film's first shot, "It is easier to accept a family member who is a murderer rather than a fag." Imamovic's film created a firestorm in his native Bosnia. According to the BBC, one of the country's leading magazines denounced Go West; its editor writing that "by addressing the issue of homosexuality in a film about the Bosnian war, it belittles the real issues at stake during the conflict." Yet Go West is not an explicit film by any means. With the exception of the wedding kiss (during which the entire village thinks that Kenan is a woman) the few scenes that depict any signs of physical affection between the two men are filmed in near darkness. Even so, the director has received death threats while, at the same time, his film wins awards at festivals all over Europe.
The acting throughout is superb as is the director's visual sense. Some of the photography is a bit muddy but hey, this film was made in Bosnia, not Hollywood. Go West is a powerful film that deserves to be seen. It's also a stark and scary reminder of the power of art to transform while at the same enraging the status quo. One of the first reviews I ever wrote, in Outcome, was of a lesbian film called Fire that also caused an uproar in its native India. In America we have crackpots like the Reverend Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kansas railing about a country that "worships on Brokeback Mountain" but we are living in Oz compared to other regions of the world. Many eye-opening moments, in both of these films, were like a cup of hot coffee thrown in my face.