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Unorthodox

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When Israeli parliament member Naomi Blumenthal was sentenced to eight months in prison on March 14 for bribery and obstruction of justice, the images that flashed across the country's news programs showed a thin-lipped, aging woman with a sagging chin. For thirty-one-year-old filmmakers Nir and Tommer, however, Blumenthal provided the perfect muse. Three weeks before the Israeli elections and forty miles from the Jerusalem hospital where Ariel Sharon lies comatose, Tommer and Nir film their Blumenthal-inspired adult film in a room at the Tel Aviv Sheraton City Tower, the same hotel where Blumenthal tried to buy the votes of several fellow party members in late 2002.

From top, Faith and Uriah film their opening scene for The Wet Party; Nir instructs his cast; spot-editing the script; Tali on a break with Tel Aviv behind her.

    "I want Israelis to write 'Ratuv' on their ballots instead of choosing from the list of the current parties," says Nir, referring to the name of their production company. "There is no more trust in our current politicians."

    "And sex is no less dirty than politics," adds Tommer, a computer engineer of Yemenite descent with thick locks of black hair, who, when he's not directing porn, works for a large corporation. Both men are frustrated with their country's increasingly corrupt central government and want to make a statement. So today, in this nondescript room at the Sheraton, the peach taffeta curtains are tightly drawn. Turkish coffees and oily boxes of burekas, a popular Middle Eastern pastry, are scattered among containers of wet wipes and lube. Lights and camera equipment, smuggled past the concierge in the lobby, are standing on tripods about the room. Nir yells "action!" and on the sofa, the four actors begin to buy and sell the support of a fellow political party with sexual favors. The cameraman moves in close as the two filmmakers hover just outside the frame, whispering instructions into his ear.
    Their film is called The Wet Party. The plot takes Blumenthal's crime and lends it a twist: to gain entry into the Knesset, Israel's parliament, the fictional Wet party bribes fellow politicians with sex instead of cash. Their platform includes a pledge: if elected to power, they'll allow women to divert a portion of their paycheck toward breast-enhancement surgery, sort of like a 401k.
    Tommer and Nir find their actors by placing classified ads in newspapers and soliciting online. Faith, a half-American, half-Israeli veteran porn actress with ashen skin and a ballerina's body, plays the main candidate. Uriah and Shlomi, the two floppy-haired male leads, are lean and boyish. Following her sex scene with Uriah, who plays her campaign manager, Faith reclines on the bed with a pack of Parliament Lights, her black hair stuck to shoulders still slick with perspiration. "It's wonderful irony. Absolutely precious," she says of filming in the same hotel Blumenthal committed her crime in. "It has some sort of poetic justice. I'm not really into politics, but in this case, ha
ving politics as a part of the film makes it seem less dirty." But for Nir and Tommer, politics

The plot of the film takes legislator Naomi Blumenthal's crime and lends it a twist: bribing fellow politicians with sex instead of cash.

are the reason they're here today. The Wet Party, they insist, is about expressing their democratic right to criticize the government.
    "These films are only the beginning for us," says Nir, his round face beaded with sweat under the powerful lights. "We have something to say to the public, and we think they'll agree with it."
    "Which is that sex is a good thing," adds Tommer. "Our films are holding a mirror up to society and saying, 'Hey, look at your political parties. Look at your government. We think [sex] is the very thing that can change the world — instead of money.'"
    In the Middle East, where freedom sometimes feels like it hangs by a thread, the production of porn is a political statement unto itself, and young people are making that statement consciously and deliberately. The name of Nir and Tommer's Tel Aviv-based pornography outfit, Ratuv, means "wet" in Hebrew; their website is also in Hebrew, suggesting that they wish to brand themselves as unmistakably Israeli. Surrounded by countries where sex is regulated, policed and discouraged by religious beliefs and, in some cases, theocratic governments, the streets of many Israeli cities seem to be thick with lust. Pickup bars abound, hookers provide services both through escort agencies and alleyway quickies, and young urbanites treat anonymous hookups as casually as their American peers.
    The Israeli pornography industry is nascent, but burgeoning, according to a woman who calls herself Adi, and is the head of Israel's first and largest adult-film production company, SexStyle. "The industry is expanding in recent years because of more open-minded Israelis," she says, sitting among boxes of dildos and vibrators awaiting her approval for sale in one of her eighteen stores around the country. "It is a new generation." Another reason for the increasing popularity is female consumers, she says. "Before, women didn't buy porn and they didn't come to the store. Now, there is not as much shame."
    Yet Israel remains a country of contradition, in some ways a liberal blip in a socially conservative region, but one where about fifteen percent of the population practices Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox Judaism, an extremely traditional interpretation of Jewish law. Tommer himself was raised an Orthodox Jew and says that many others working in porn were as well. "The whole Israeli porn industry is run by people who were once religious," he insists. "Because porn was forbidden, it just explodes out of you." As he waits for his military-themed film, Restricted to Base Camp, to upload onto his computer, he talks about transitioning from strict Judaism to the adult-film world. "Becoming secular didn't happen overnight. It was a three-year process." His parents, still fervently religious, are aware of his work. "They think it will fade away," he says, "but this is what I've chosen to do."
    Indeed, Ratuv seems to be a choice Tommer and Nir have fully dedicated themselves to. Ratuv.co.il hosts about 10,000 visitors per day, and the industry emerging around them keeps the mood competitive. They charge about ten shekels, or roughly $2.10, per download. They also hope to take their films abroad. "Most people in America think Israelis live in a desert and wear veils," says Nir. "We want to change all of that." Their goal is to stream through a U.S.-based webmaster into American homes within three months.

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A hundred miles to the north and east, in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, a strategically located plateau between Israel and Syria, lives a well-muscled twenty-nine-year-old Ratuv actor named Izhar. Izhar resides in a place that's been fought over for decades by two countries: one democratic, the other authoritarian. Home to about 20,000, it's one of the most politically fraught areas in the world.
    "If the Israelis decide to give us back to Syria, the Syrian government will probably kill us," he says over the phone. "The political situation in the Golan Heights is very difficult."
    So just in case his neighborhood should be transferred back into Syrian hands — a scenario that's come close to reality several times since Israel seized the Heights in 1967 — "I participate in
porn as a way to express

Top three, shooting the bribery scene for The Wet Party; bottom, Tali and Faith.

democracy," he says.
    A resident of one of the Heights' Druze communities (a religious offshoot of Islam that incorporates Greek philosophy), Izhar feels a kinship with Israel and has taken to wearing a large Star of David around his neck. "I like these people," he says of Israelis. "I think these people are right. I don't feel they are how the Middle East has
explained them. I think the murderers are there in the Arab world, where they kill people for opening their mind. They don't respect human rights at all."
    So far, Izhar has starred in two Ratuv films — The Masseuse and The Wet Girls — and has no plans to stop. "I live in a democratic country and I'll do what I want." He pauses before adding, "As long as it's not against the law."
    Porn is legal in Israel, but getting involved in the industry can still land you at the center of an ongoing cultural struggle, depending on who you are and where you live. Thirty-eight-year-old Amal Kashua and a young Palestinian identified only as Amir are both members of Israel's Arab minority. In December 2002, they starred in a
movie titled Yussuf and Fatima, an adult film produced by SexStyle and marketed to Israeli Arabs. When word got out in their hometown of Tira that they'd appeared in a porn film, they were beaten badly enough to send them to the hospital.
     With a lacerated face and broken arm, Kashua told reporters, "I didn't want to insult Islam. I just wanted to make some money. I was addicted to drugs and needed cash to feed my kids." Days later, in the middle of the town square, Kashua's family publicly renounced their ties with their daughter. "If I could, I would eat them both raw and spit them out," Kashua's brother told Israeli television. From her hospital bed, Kashua pointed out the hypocrisy of her former neighbors: "A lot of people in Tira saw that movie."

    Israeli Arabs compose approximately fifteen percent of Israel's population and are often clustered into certain cities, such as Tira. There, Islamic rule can circumvent democratic rights when it comes to something like porn. There are no hard numbers to indicate how much of Israel's pornography is consumed by Arabs, but Nir and Tommer confirm Kashua's assertion that despite their outrage, Israeli Arabs are indeed watching porn. "Both Arabs and Jews are watching my films. I can tell from the names on the credit card transactions," says Tommer.
 
   Other films made with Israeli Arabs drew less publicity than Yussuf and Fatima because masks hid the actor's faces. In a SexStyle film called Dukiyum, which means "co-existence" in Hebrew and has the political connotation of a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, the video box encourages viewers to "witness an exchange between an Arab and a Jewish couple fulfilling an exciting peace in the bed zone. Here everyone fucks each other till they have no power left." But the owners of SexStyle have stopped making Arab porn since the messy aftermath of Yussuf and Fatima. "It got ugly. If it gets ugly, we don't do it anymore," says a producer at SexStyle. "The publicity is good, but the Arabs are good customers and we don't want to do this to them." Despite this, they haven't pulled their profitable Israeli-Arab adult films from shelves. Yussuf and Fatima remains available for rent in any SexStyle shop in Israel.
    For members of Israel's Orthodox population, pornography goes against a higher law as well. In many insular ultra-Orthodox communities, rabbis enforce local public regulations according to religious beliefs, an arrangement that is understood and largely tolerated by the government and the Israeli Police Force. Twenty-two-year-old Omar Klein's journey through the adult-film

Kashua was beaten by a mob from her hometown of Tira for appearing in an Israeli-Arab porn. She later pointed out their hypocrisy from her hospital bed: "A lot of people in Tira saw that movie."

world shows the limits of democratic rights when it comes to making porn in that country. Like Kashua and Amir, he didn't set out to make a political statement — the statement was forced upon him.
    When he was sixteen, Klein traveled from his ultra-Orthodox community of Bnei Brak to Tel Aviv to see a free striptease show being sponsored by a radio station. When he was spotted there by the religious police, the event marked the beginning of Klein's gradual exile from his home. "These religious police do a lot of illegal things, but they're unstoppable," he says. "They have the support of the big rabbis. These men make sure religious boys don't go out with girls and don't go to clubs. If you're caught, they tell the rabbis and you are beaten." Klein narrowly escaped a beating for his trip to Tel Aviv, even though his father and rabbi were informed. Harrowing fights with his family ensued for months afterward until Klein decided to abandon Orthodox Judaism and run away to a youth hostel. Before long, several men showed up looking for him. "Five cars surrounded the hostel," he says. "The kids there threatened the religious men with knives, so they decided to leave." For a while after he ran away, he maintained contact with his parents, but by the time he appeared in his first adult film, The Secrets of Nina, his relationship with them had flat-lined.
    With his translucent skin and chestnut-brown hair, Klein is more waiflike than your typical porn star. In Nina, he plays a nondescript twenty year old who has sex with a former female
army buddy. His second adult-film role was far more fraught with cultural sensitivity. In that film, Between the Sacred and the Profane, he plays a deeply religious man who's having sex
with his bride for the first time, acting out one of Orthodox Judaism's most infamous myths: sex through a hole in a sheet.
    Klein, predictably, received an onslaught of media attention. Following the release of these movies, "days were not days and nights were not nights," he says. "My family wanted nothing to do with me. You can't imagine what it's like for an Orthodox family to find out their son is a porn star." Klein decided he'd had enough and left the industry. Today, he pumps gas on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. "There were so many empty promises [in the porn industry]," he says. "After my producer didn't pay me for my work, I'd had enough."
    The same day Klein was tossed aside by his producer, his parents asked to see him. "It was when I met with my parents to reconcile, that I decided to drop the work." He says that today his relationship with them is stronger than ever.

"When it comes to pornography, both the women and the Orthodox are against it," says Etti Livni, a member of the secular movement in the Shinui (Hebrew for "change") Party. "It is part of a concept that women are the tools who bring enjoyment and are to be used by men."
    But many of the young Israelis who will go to the polls today don't see it that way. They're post-feminist in their views toward female sexual freedom. One nineteen-year-old female screenwriter, Inbal Strauss, makes clear her
that she intends to use the controversy to her benefit. She's currently working on an erotic film about an affair between a Palestinian suicide bomber and an Israeli secret service agent. An angelic-faced, self-described "political slut," Strauss sees politicized porn, and all the free media publicity that it generates, as her ticket to fame.
    "You have to do something provocative to break through," she says from a rusty park bench in her hometown of Tel Aviv. "My producer is going to invite politicians [to a screening]. This will create a big debate." And in this case, as in Naomi Blumenthal's, Strauss expects politics to spin her film into cash.
     "Without that political debate," she says, "no one would watch this film."
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© 2006 Marisa S. Katz & Nerve.com

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
  Marisa S. Katz is an New York-based freelance journalist. She has contributed to the Chicago Tribune, Jerusalem Post, New York Post, Dazed and Confused, ESPN Magazine and many other publications. She was born and raised in Los Angeles.