One Complex Family, One Complex Country

Tomer Heymann looks closely at his own family in ‘The Queen Has No Crown,’ and captures a changing Israeli society too.

07/19/2011
Staff Writer
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Early in Tomer Heymann’s new documentary, “The Queen Has No Crown,” the director’s twin brother, Erez, stares directly into the camera and says in a low, cold voice: “You’re extinction, that’s what you are. … Biologically, you’re useless.”

Tomer is gay, and “The Queen Has No Crown” is full of quietly devastating moments like that. The film premieres at the JCC in Manhattan on Tuesday as part of NewFest, New York’s LGBT film festival, and Heymann is hoping audiences will take his brother’s comments the same way he does — in jest.

“He really loves me,” Heymann said in an interview from Israel, where he lives. “This is the kind of teasing you can only do with people you love.” Still, he acknowledged an undercurrent of truth in his brother’s comments: “Something underneath makes him feel strange about the lifestyle I live. If it’s a good relationship, you can say what you feel.”

How you define a good relationship is at the heart of Heymann’s film. “The Queen” details the breakdown of Heymann’s family, from his parents’ divorce after 35 years of marriage, to his mother’s grief as three of her five sons emigrate from Israel.

The film also asks a larger question about the future of Zionism: whether Israel can be true to the founding generation’s belief in a democratic and open society, or whether those ideals will be compromised by an increasingly powerful religious right wing.

“I’m very critical of the country,” Heymann said. “But I hope [the film] says we have to fight for Israel, from within Israel. We have to be behind it.”

The disappointment with Israel is reflected in three of Tomer’s brothers’ decision to move to America in pursuit of better lives. Tomer himself debates the decision, but throughout the film he is consistently pulled back both by the thought of leaving his mother alone, and the fragility of the country’s democracy.

Perhaps the most frightening scene comes amid the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade a few years ago. Heymann decides to participate only after pre-parade news spreads that religious Jews are planning a counter-protest. Heymann shows up at the parade with his camera, and viewers hear the torrent of hate poured down upon the gay marchers.

“Stop shooting your sperm in other people’s ---holes and ears!” one religious Jew shouts at them. “God punishes!” implores another. A religious woman in a sheitel, or wig, cries out: “Nazis! Nazis! You’re worse than the Nazis!”

Heymann told The Jewish Week that when he showed that footage to his mother, she cried. “That a religious woman would call her son a Nazi,” he said, “when she saw it, she had tears in her eyes. She talked about her grandfather who actually experienced Nazis 70 years ago in Germany. For her it was too much; she almost asked me to take it out.”

In the past decade, Heymann has become one of Israel’s leading documentary filmmakers. His 2006 film “Paper Dolls,” about illegal transvestite Filipino immigrants in Israel, won a major prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, and many of his subsequent films, including “The Queen Has No Crown,” have also screened there.

“The Queen” is actually part of a much larger film project that began, depending on how you count, 40 years ago, 20 years ago, or just three years ago. Heymann is 40, and the film chronicles all of his life, condensing almost a thousand hours of homemade family films into less than 90 minutes.

But the film mainly focuses on the last 20-odd years of Tomer’s life, marked by the moment he came out to his family. That’s also about the same time Tomer started to question many of the values his parents instilled in him.

“To be a good Israeli, you need to go to the army. To be a good person, you needed to start a family — these were the things my parents taught us,” Heymann said. “But I’m not sure this is for everybody; I’m not sure it’s for me.”

Yet it was only three years ago that Tomer and his brother Barak, 35, who co-runs their film company, Heymann Brothers Films, decided to make a documentary about their family.

“This is very private stuff,” said Barak, in an interview from Germany, where he is working on another project. “I was looking at the film from the role of a producer and I knew beforehand that it was going to be a long and complicated journey.”

One main challenge was getting approval from their siblings and parents. Their mother, Noa, now 69 and one of the film’s central figures, was actually OK with it. “We told her, ‘Listen, there’s a lot of private stuff. Do you want to see it before we finish it?’” Barak recounted. “She said, ‘No, I trust you guys. I give you the green light.’”

Their father, Zvi, now 73 and re-married, was also willing, even donating the crucial reels of his own homemade films. But it was mainly their brothers — and Erez, Tomer’s twin, in particular — who had the most reservations.

“They’re very private,” Barak said, “but eventually” — after Tomer showed them the footage he was considering, seeking their approval — “they gave us permission.” Although the brothers do not always come off in the best light, Barak said: “I think they were in the end OK with it because of their love.”

“The Queen Has No Crown” was edited from an eight-part series, “The Way Home,” which was completed in 2009 and won that year’s Jerusalem International Film Festival prize for best documentary series.

After the series’ success, it was edited into two stand-alone features. “I Shot My Love” (2010) was the first film, and it focused on a romantic relationship Tomer began at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival, where he was screening “Paper Dolls.” He fell in love with a German dancer, and the film pays close attention to his mother’s reaction to it: as the daughter of German Jewish refugees, it was not easy.

Tomer’s mother Noa — equally obdurate and vulnerable — captivated viewers. And in part because of her magnetism, Tomer decided to focus on her again in the second feature, “The Queen Has No Crown.”

But Tomer sees his own internal tension — about whether he should settle down and start a traditional family, albeit with another man, or continue living promiscuously — as rooted in his mother’s teachings. “It’s from my mother, that’s where it comes from, and why I focus so much on her,” he said.

Isaac Zablocki, director of the Israel Film Center at the JCC in Manhattan and the one who chose to screen the film, said he first saw it at the Berlin film festival in February. He had been following Heymann’s films for several years, but he was particularly drawn to how this one raised larger questions about Israeli society through the experience of one family.

“It’s an interesting reflection of Israeli society,” Zablocki said. “It really shows the breakdown of the Israeli family, and of Zionism really. … The [Heymann brothers’] focus on Israel, on the Zionism of their parents, is not as black and white as that of their parents.”

The JCC is presenting the film under its own LGBT festival, the Faigele Film Festival, which is now in its sixth year. But for the past two years, the festival has been cross-programming with the much larger NewFest, which runs from July 21-28.

Zablocki is hoping that the recent passage of New York’s gay-marriage bill will help attract more viewers than the predominately gay audiences that typically attend. “I hope it’ll bring a little more joy and a little more attention.”

For his part, Tomer hopes a larger non-gay audience will provoke a debate within the gay community. He feels the gay community is too insular, and focuses too much on its own issues — whether marriage or gay pride.

“I think we, as gays, need to criticize ourselves more,” he said. “I think gays forget that there are more communities, and that you don’t need to be gay to protect gay rights. All you need is to be human.”

“The Queen Has No Crown” will screen at the JCC in Manhattan on Tuesday, July 26, at 9 p.m. The JCC is at 334 Amsterdam Ave. (646) 505-4444. The film screens with the short film “Camp.” $11. Film director Tomer Heymann will be at the screening for a Q&A session.

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