In his mid-to-late thirties, whilst filming a documentary during a hot summer parade in Tel Aviv, director Tomer Heymann spotted two men kissing in the middle of the thronging crowd. Thinking he recognised one of them from a bar he’d been at several months earlier, he turned to a friend and asked who they were looking at. Incredulous, his friend joked, “Come on? Tomer? You don’t know that’s Jonathan Agassi? You’ve never masturbated over him?” Despite his protestations to the contrary, as one of the world’s most successful gay porn stars, Tomer’s story about a late-night bar sighting seemed like a prudish fiction.
Captivated, and intent on speaking to Agassi, Tomer sent him a message on Facebook and arranged to meet at Jonathan’s hotel when he was next in Tel Aviv. Breathless and excited about the prospect of meeting his next subject, Tomer arrived at Jonathan’s hotel room to be greeted by a man wearing nothing more than a “very tiny towel, very, very small, covering just his penis.” Side-stepping questions about his sexual fantasies, if he preferred top or bottom, and whether he intended to pay in dollars or shekels, Tomer eventually convinced Agassi that, no, he really did just want to make a documentary about his life. From there, having secured the approval of Jonathan’s mother, Anna, Tomer began work on Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life – a film that was more than eight years in the making.
What results is a fascinating story, and a truly tender portrait of an industry that’s so often demonised. An international porn icon, Jonathan Agassi, has had a meteoric rise to fame, but at what personal cost? Tomer’s film sensitively explores the tension between professional success and personal loss in a way that’s never once prurient or judgemental. It’s a moving examination of loneliness, addiction and trauma that deserves to be seen. Ahead of the film’s centerpiece screening at this year’s BFI Flare we spoke to Heymman to find out more about what to expect from one of the hottest docs of the year.
You filmed this over 8 years. Did you form a close bond with the family during that time?
For sure! This film is so much about trust and friendship. I went through so many feelings, I got so involved, financially, emotionally, in so many crises. I can’t separate Anna and Jonathan from myself, they’re really deep in my heart. It wasn’t just a case of making a movie over a couple of months and then you go your own way. It’s in my blood. We went through very intense highs and lows together. Depression, happiness, fears, worries, and through it all, love. Even though the movie is quite dark, I hope the film conveys the love I have for Jonathan and Anna, and the love they have for one another.
When you form such a close bond like that, and you’re documenting a downfall or a difficult parts of someone’s life, did you ever struggle to know where your role as documentary maker ended, and your role as friend began? Did you ever think, should I be stepping in?
From the beginning, I told Anna and Jonathan that they will decide the limits of this movie, they will decide how far we go. Jonathan told me shoot, shoot, all the time, don’t stop, I don’t want to pretend. He said, as long as you give me the choice later of what goes in and what’s out, I feel safe and free. When he came to the editing room he really pushed me to include hard things in the movie. We started editing about three years after his crisis, so we had perspective, we had time to reflect. When I first witnessed the drug issues, the crisis, the emotional mess, I was really shocked; but honestly, after 100 times, when I saw it on a daily basis, I realised it was just part of the movie. I was filming someone who has these addictions. Not sharing that with the audience would have been hypocritical. It really shook me, but you come to realise this is an important aspect of Jonathan’s life, he is someone who has this self-destructive impulse. I couldn’t stop. I was worried for him, I wanted to protect him, to cover for him in Israel and London and Berlin, to help him, but at the same time I didn’t want to make a fake movie about successful porn stars. I tried to balance my commitments to Jonathan and to the film.
Who do you think Jonathan Agassi is saving? Is it himself? His mother? You perhaps?
That’s a big question for the audience and for myself. To a certain point Jonathan Agassi is this persona who saved Yonatan from being a lonely, beaten up, miserable child. He had a very hard life in this macho society, being someone who was very feminine. It saved him for a couple of years. But as the movie progresses it asks, is this jail or freedom? I don’t think we answer that, I don’t know if we can answer than. Jonathan Agassi offers freedom – it’s something big to discover your sexuality and to take joy from it, he loves sex, he enjoys it, he makes money from it, he takes his mother to Mykonos, he’s strong. But it’s also a prison, sex everywhere, anywhere, with anyone, with two, with five, with ten people. It’s also asks questions about how we think about sex as we get older? How should we think about people who buy sex? Is that good? Is that bad? The movie tries to come from a place of no judgement. I’m not God, I’m not a judgemental director operating from a position of moral authority. I want to give people access to a life that’s normally underground. If the film has any answers it’s that there’s only one person who can save Yonatan, it’s Yonatan.
How do you think his mother feels about his career in this film? Her pride and love for him is undeniable, but there are also moments when she seems hesitant perhaps?
I think Anna is a very interesting and complex person. She offers the world a very brave option, but like anyone she has also made mistakes. Anna has supported Jonathan from such a young age, she saw how much he was being bullied, she saw others encouraging him to commit suicide, to literally eat shit, she saw that he couldn’t bring himself to go to school. Having witnessed all that she arrived at the conclusion, ok, my son has gone far in this direction, and it might not be a direction that I would have chosen, his values sometimes are not my values, but I’m not closing the door on him. Even if society has certain expectations, I love him, he’s my son, he’s making tough choices, and I will always provide a space for him to be protected. Jonathan used to say, over all the years I shot him, he said, I won’t live past 30. The guy is 35 and he’s in a good position right now. So you know in some ways she succeeded, she kept him alive, and she helped him prepare for his next chapter. She’s a strong woman. It asks the question, what is your limit? How far are you prepared to go? It’s not just about porn, it’s about what happens when your child does something you don’t believe in. Do you project the values that society gives you? Or do you form your own position? Anna said fuck off, fuck your position. Of course she made mistakes, but the audience can take something from her lesson.
How do you think people will think about porn after watching this film?
I think this movie kills the joy of porn. This wasn’t the purpose either! My camera found this angle and I didn’t want to be dishonest about that. It’s one gate to the backstage of sex work. You know I’ve had a varied life, I discovered I’m gay, I’ve been to parties, I’ve been to saunas, I’ve had relationships, I’m not someone who came from the moon yesterday, but still honestly, I never thought that people would inject their penises. It happened all the time. The illusion of this sustained erection, where you can fuck for so long? It’s fake. Chemical. I choose to show it so you can see how it’s made.
This film only ever claims to offer one perspective, but as that revelation began to dawn on you, did you worry it might perpetuate negative stereotypes about the industry?
This is very specific about Jonathan. I met other porn stars who are at university, people who had quite boring lives, one who was a physiotherapist. This film is about a hole in Jonathan’s soul that he filled with drugs and sex. It’s not about porn stars, or the industry. Jonathan is a radical guy which is why this film looks radical. It’s not an easy, light movie, because he’s not an easy, light character. I wasn’t looking for a specific angle, but when you see it, from the inside as I did with Jonathan, you’d need to be blind not to look at it and say, this is the opposite of what they sold us.