Utah Film Center Damn These Heels 2021: Sublet, Cicada excel in authentic presentations of romantic relationships, highlighting queer cinema’s storytelling strengths

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Two feature-length narratives, each featuring romance-based story lines around gay characters, which are receiving Utah premieres in the Utah Film’s Center’s 18th annual Damn These Heels Queer Film Festival exemplify distinct approaches to achieving authentic representations of sexual identity and relationships on the cinematic screen. From one of Israel’s best known directors of film and television, Sublet incorporates the director’s direct experiences as a gay man in Tel Aviv. The other features the director and one of the co-writers as the actors portraying the gay men engaged in romance. The films are available for streaming on demand, with purchased tckets, through July 18.

Sublet

Set in Tel Aviv, Eytan Fox’s Sublet is a solid, mature, wisely framed intergenerational narrative about a gay New York Times travel writer from the U.S. and a young aspiring horror filmmaker who is subletting his place.

While Fox may not be widely known in the U.S., he is one of Israel’s most popular and widely produced directors of film and television. Sublet, his first film in English, centers around Michael, a travel writer in his middle 50s who comes to Tel Aviv on a weeklong assignment from the U.S., and Tomer, 25, an aspiring filmmaker who listed his apartment for subletting. Michael comes on the heels of news that an infant child conceived in surrogacy died, and the writer believes the trip gives him an opportune moment to escape dealing with the loss, especially as his grieving husband David already is looking toward the prospects of having another child. 

Sublet, directed by Eytan Fox.

Michael’s arrival at his Tel Aviv sublet catches Tomer off guard who had not yet prepared the place for the American’s arrival. Both men quickly settle on a deal: Tomer can stay on a couch in his apartment in exchange for showing Michael around the city. 

The 30-year age gap nicely sets up the tensions for dramatic purposes as well as comedic relief. Tomer is impulsive and can seal a Grindr hookup within minutes. Michael does not dare consider exploring outside the boundaries of the long-term monogamous relationship he has with his husband. Within the week in which the story transpires, the unease of the initial meeting gradually transforms into a friendship that produces equally compelling epiphanies for both men. The actors — John Benjamin Hickey (Michael) and Nev Nissan (Tomer) — are paired effectively together to elicit the authentic chemistry that is essential to Fox’s success in cinematic and broadcast storytelling

In an interview with The Utah Review, Fox, who is approximately the same age as the character of Michael, says he started working on Sublet when he turned 50. Born in New York City, Fox was barely three years old when his family moved to Israel. “I always am doing a therapeutic look inwards at the issues that have piled up in my mind and soul,” he says, adding that he uses filmmaking to make sense of the issues that are acutely relevant to him at the time of the creative production process. In 1997, there was the Israeli hit television series Florentine, with the first broadcast episode in the country featuring a gay character. In 2002, the film Yossi and Jagger highlighted two Israeli army soldiers falling in love with each other. In 2006, The Bubble, set in Tel Aviv, told the story of a gay relationship between an Israeli and Palestinian. The Bubble script was written by Fox and his longtime partner, Gal Uchovsky, a television personality and magazine writer.

“Growing up in Israel as a gay man, the experiences reflect the trauma that have left scars in the soul, especially where homophobia and a macho identity are part of a conservative, relgious, nationalistic and militaristic society as well as that associated with the AIDS epidemic,” Fox explains. In Sublet, there is a gay man in a long-term relationship who struggles with the choice of deciding to remain childless. In his current situation, Fox also has chosen not to have children. “As a young man in Jerusalem during the 1980s, I would have thought it crazy and foolish to think that one day we could be married, have families and raise children,” he adds. 

Thus, Michael’s situation embodies the experiences Fox has internalized throughout his life. The matter of surrogacy also is prominent in Israeli news. On July 11, Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that the rights of gay couples and single men should include the choice of becoming parents through surrogacy. The ruling came days after the Israeli government bypassed the option to enact a law covering surrogacy, claiming that it was unfeasible.

Fox explains that gay Israeli men up to now have had to pursue difficult and expensive paths to surrogacy, which included traveling to the U.S., India and the Far East. The tragedy that besets Michael and David in the film also echoes the experiences of a couple whom Fox knows as friends. The couple was set to travel to Oregon but then received the news that their surrogate infant daughter had died at birth. “It devastated them,” Fox adds.

As for Tomer, Fox says the character epitomizes a counterpoint of sentiments among many young residents in Tel Aviv. In the film, Tomer tells Michael to ignore his prearranged list of destinations and allow him to show local restaurants and activities that are not published in tourist guides. Fox says some Tel Aviv viewers of the film thought that he showed too much of the city’s unflattering scenes while others thought it was elitist or too bourgeois at the expense of showing the harder edged gritty nightlife scene of the urban community.

Some other reactions reflect cultural differences in the acceptance of intergenerational relationships as shown in the film. Fox acknowledges that such relationships in the U.S. tend to be more readily accepted than in Israel. Some questioned his decision to include sexual elements in the film’s storyline as they wondered why he did not keep the relationship platonic between the two men. “Many people find it difficult to handle ambivalence,” he adds. 

Nevertheless, the film has been well received in Israel. Earlier this month, the film screened in the small town of Mitzpe Ramon in southern Israel, which held its first Pride parade ever. Fox initially planned to skip attending the screening because of the long driving distance. But, after the local council leader made anti-gay remarks ahead of the Pride event, Fox decided to go. “It was a wonderful experience,” he says. “People loved the film and were not representative of the leader’s remarks. A few wondered about a couple who attended the screening, believing that they were father and son but, in fact, they introduced themselves as a couple.” 

Sublet succeeds precisely because of Fox’s thoughtful approach in finding a cinematic language that avoids either being too melodramatic or relying on madcap comedy shtick. In sum, it is an ideal date night movie with intelligent heart, charm and thematic substance.

Cicada, directed by Matt Fifer and featuring Sheldon Brown.

Cicada

Cicada, directed by Matt Fifer and featuring Sheldon Brown who also has a writing credit for the film, coherently synthesizes elements of trauma, race and self-affirmation of identity. Fifer and Brown are in front of the camera as the film’s two leads, strengthening the narrative potential for its convincing premise.

In its elegantly understated frame, Cicada achieves a strong sense of verisimilitude in tracing the evolution of the relationship. This makes it quite easy for the viewers to invest themselves in the characters, Fifer and Brown demonstrate sincere empathy. It becomes natural to relate to how the relationship enters its most complicated and daunting phase, as each character confesses their deepest pains and vulnerabilities to each other. Because of the unique circumstances in the creative collaboration in front of as well as behind the screen, Cicada brings the viewer in closer to the most intimate dynamics than what other films might achieve in representing the most acute elements, which resonate in relationships much like those Fifer and Brown share. 

There is no necessity to pitch or amplify the dramatic impact but, in Cicada, the utterly natural flow and ebb of humor relief and complex introspection achieve a credible rhythm. The fact that Fifer and Brown bare so much on the screen explains the definitive accomplishment marked by the blurring of realism and performative representation. Yet, the film’s subtlety also commands viewers to be as focused as possible on the screen or otherwise the full effect of the screening experience becomes diluted. 

This is emblematic of Damn These Heel’s feature-length narratives for this year’s festival slate. Without a doubt, the narrative offerings this year are the strongest of the festival’s 18 years. Indeed, independent queer cinema has found a worthy spot on the spectrum of storytelling in the romantic couple genre. Utah film audiences have been treated generously to one of the most encouraging developments in queer cinema.

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