Award-winning Israeli director Tomer Heymann is touring the United States in support of his latest documentary, Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life, a film that has earned praise in newspapers as geographically disparate as The New York Times and Israel’s Haaretz.
There was talk of Agassi, the subject of the film, joining Heymann for the U.S. theatrical opening. But work obligations have kept him for the time being in Tel Aviv, where he currently makes a living in a rather more mundane field than the gay porn that formerly brought him notoriety.
The film doesn’t manifest a prurient interest in Agassi’s career in adult entertainment, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t explicit. Within roughly the first two minutes of the documentary, Agassi has pulled out his, uh, equipment, matter-of-factly preparing for a live sex show. Heymann tells Deadline an uncensored depiction of Agassi’s work was essential to his filmmaking approach.
“My origin point was that there was just something so powerful about Jonathan, which I wanted to find out about. And that includes his profession and, of course, the tools used to take part in this profession, which is his penis,” Heymann says. “I had to understand Jonathan and where he comes from and what he does. And for that, I had to go to all that length.”
Heymann adds, “I felt almost from the outset that there has to be some sort of gap between this fantasy that Jonathan represents to millions of people and what is actually happening inside. And I was curious to find out what that gap was.”
It’s a film of startling intimacy—not so much sexual, but psychological intimacy. It explores the downward spiral of a man ostensibly on top of the world, but whose craving for a kind of adulation masks deep wounds and unresolved trauma.
Agassi, who is in his late 30s now, was born Yonatan Langer in Brooklyn, and grew up in Holon, outside Tel Aviv. He recalls being teased as a boy for looking feminine, but he accepted his sexual identity. Even before he was out of his teens he says he had embraced his exhibitionist side, beginning with a nude photo spread for an Israeli publication.
“’You want to shoot naked?’” he remembers the photographer asking him. “’Yes, of course I do!’ I was 17 or 18, when I was shooting [stills] for the first time, full naked, for the biggest gay magazine in Israel. And I did it and I never understood why I’m so open with my sexuality.”
When Heymann approached him about the documentary project, Agassi seems to have viewed the idea as something of a lark.
“The main reason that I wanted to do this film at the beginning was to show everybody how beautiful my life is and how successful I am,” he recalls. “I’m this Jewish gay guy from Tel Aviv–not even from Tel Aviv but somewhere near Tel Aviv. It was that I just wanted to show off.”
By that point Agassi had become one of the top gay porn stars in the world, signed to an exclusive contract with Lucas Entertainment, a big industry player. He supplemented his income by working as an escort. In fact, he says when Heymann first contacted him, he assumed it was to engage his sexual services.
“I was a porn star and I was doing escorting and everything. And this guy that I don’t know [Heymann] sent me a message on Facebook, like, ‘I’ve got an offer for you.’ So I said, ‘Okay, no problem. My address is… you should come at this time, I will wait for you,’” Agassi recalls. “I almost wore nothing [when Heymann showed up]. ‘How do you pay? And what do you want from me?’ And then he said, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no. You can go get dressed. I just need to talk to you about something completely different from what you think.’ And I said, ‘Okay, no problem.’ I went and I got dressed.”
In the film, Agassi explains that he felt his surname sounded too ordinary, so he chose something more exotic as his nom de porn. Really what he was doing was adopting an alter ego.
“[Jonathan Agassi] is a character that takes over me whenever I need his help,” he says in the documentary. Despite this apparent insight into himself, Agassi at that stage had never reflected on what compelled him to do porn, and then later to nearly disintegrate into drug addiction.
“It’s the opposite of Hollywood, this movie. It’s the dark side of Hollywood, in some way. It’s the backstage of the sex industry,” Heymann notes. “I work hard for this—not to come from judgment. I think it’s very easy to come from the moral aspect: ‘I’m a better person; I judge you.’ You don’t get that in the movie.”
Agassi’s mother, Anna Langer, plays an important role in the film. She is a constant emotional support to her son, expressing unconditional love for him. It’s a bond that veers toward co-dependency at times, especially as mother and son deal with a problematic figure in their lives—Jonathan’s absent father Raviv, Anna’s ex-husband. A dodgy and possibly manipulative personality, he split when Jonathan was a baby and as his son was growing up in Israel he was living in Germany.
A key moment in the film comes when Jonathan recalls visiting his father at about age 11. His dad, sizing him up as feminine, called him a “homo,” the adult Agassi recalls. Worse, according to Agassi, he says his father tried to get him to have sex with his German girlfriend.
“I never saw it as something traumatic,” Agassi told Haaretz in 2018. “Perhaps my salvation was that it wasn’t part of my consciousness.”
Making Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life involved an intense discovery process for the film’s subject.
“Tomer and I… we were starting to talk about more emotional stuff and more emotional parts of my life and things that happened and didn’t happen. I was completely oblivious about what had happened with my father,” Agassi observes. “I learned so much from this film about myself… When I saw the film for the first time, I couldn’t believe how emotional it was. I still now, to this day when I watch it, I cry.”
He adds, “This film, it taught me, where did I come from?”
Agassi says his mother has also found the film a healing experience.
“I’m sure that during the filming my mom had her reservations, but I know now for sure that she’s very happy with it,” he says. “She feels like it kind of saved my life and actually gave her some kind of approval for the way that she had acted with me, the way she was there for me all the time and she was supporting me all the time… She was always hesitating, like, ‘Did I do the right thing [when Jonathan was younger]? I was his mother and didn’t say, “No, you are not doing porn!”’ She got this approval [from the film] and it empowered her completely and I am so happy for that because I always told her, ‘You were the best mom. I mean, you did the best you could do back then because I was trouble. I was really trouble.’”
Heymann will be taking part in a Q&A for his film tonight at the Village East by Angelika in New York City. The documentary opens Friday in the Los Angeles area at the Laemmle Glendale, with the director participating in Q&As there on Friday and Saturday. Heymann released an earlier version of the film in Israel a few years ago, but plans for a U.S. release were interrupted by the pandemic.
“Basically, we were supposed to come out two and a half years ago. The movie was on the shelf,” Heymann explains. “I was depressed. I felt, wow, this movie has not arrived to the States, to New York, to L.A., really?”
When the opportunity for U.S. exhibition finally came about, the director decided to revisit his earlier cut. He made changes to the score and to other elements.
“I felt that the film, when it got to the ending point, the impact wasn’t as strong as it could be. So I felt like that moment needed enhancing,” he says. “Secondly, I felt the film had some fat that needed to be trimmed. I didn’t feel it when originally it came out, but re-watching, revisiting it, preparing for this U.S. release, I decided to cut them out… The final thing is that it became important to me at this point to give an update about what was happening in Jonathan’s life, which wasn’t in the original film.”
The news on the Agassi front is positive.
“I’m happy to say that I’m clean from drugs for almost five years. And I’m happy to say that I work in a very regular job and I have a really like regular life, but happy life,” he tells Deadline.
Agassi is working at a supermarket, which is what kept him from traveling to the U.S. for screenings here. Sometimes people recognize him in the store from his earlier career.
Agassi says, “Mostly people are interested to know that I’m okay, that I survived this thing. And I have.”