Jonathan Agassi was the most famous, extravagant and celebrated porn star of the ‘80s and now his life is coming to the big screen in the most honest and uncensored way.
With “Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life”, director Tomer Heymann (“Mr. Gaga”, “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?”) shows us the man behind the sexual dances, raunchy porn and steamy parties. We caught up with Heymann to talk about his edgy documentary, his friendship with Agassi and documentary making. This is the first part of our interview.
Liselotte Vanophem: Hi Tomer, how are you doing?
Tomer Heymann: I am at a really interesting place in my life. On the one hand I am full of excitement about travelling with “Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life” and I am surprised by the amazing welcome at the UK premiere and the great response the movie received. I was so happy to read a Guardian article about the impression and reflection on the movie and how it most literally saved my protagonist’s life. It is so powerful to see the impact and influence documentary films can have on people’s lives – both on their subjects and their audiences.
At the same time I feel empty and only now I realize how crazy and intense the last ten years of my life have been. All that I went through in that time changed my life forever. I am ready
LV: Congratulations on your latest and eccentric documentary “Jonathan Agassi saved my life”. When did you know that Agassi would be the perfect topic for a movie?
TH: Thank you very much! It has been amazing sharing this story with the world. I believe that certain people have a specific energy around them, something that draws you to them and leaves you with this feeling inside that you have to explore. Well, the first time I saw Jonathan I had this feeling and it kind of tempted me to find out more about this beautiful person. So in that sense I didn’t choose Jonathan as the subject of my movie, he chose me. He chose me on one very colorful day.
I was shooting the gay pride in Tel Aviv with my assistant when I noticed among the hundreds of people dancing and singing, and the all the rainbows around, two guys kissing each other very passionately. We approached them with the camera and recorded this very sensual and powerful view. They did not seem to care or notice anything around them, nor did they see my amazement and that made me so jealous. They were existing in this very intimate moment, just the two of them and they didn’t care about the rest of the world.
So I found out that one of the guys was Jonathan Agassi and that he was an internationally famous porn star. He was an icon for gays around the world and he had great success in movies and photo sessions for the best gay magazines. People around the world loved and adored him and I was there, capturing him with my own camera. I wished to find out more about him and to get more of this feeling, of his energy, so I arranged to meet him in private.
LV: How did you approach him and telling him that you wanted to make a documentary about him?
TH: Jonathan lived in Berlin at the time, so we arranged to meet at the hotel during the day. So I go there full of excitement to see him and looking forward to sharing my desire to film him. He opened the door wearing nothing but a tiny cloth on his hips and he just casually asked me about my sexual fantasies and if I prefer to pay in euros, dollars or shekels. When I denied his proposition he was utterly surprised. I asked him to get dressed and when he returned I introduced myself and explained why I wanted to meet him. I warned him that I don’t pay my heroes, I do not buy trust and people’s history.
All I wanted was honesty, between me and him and between him and himself. We talked for hours and I asked about his family, his career, his passion for porn. I think he noticed my enthusiasm and admiration for him because he agreed to let me into his crazy world. He took great pride in his image of a star and what I felt was pretty clear to him, but it was not yet clear to me, was that this free choice of the life he was leading was anything but free. I realized that part of my attraction for Jonathan was to understand what happens behind that perfect image he was living up to. As a director I was looking for the breakdown, for the emotional baggage I imagined he was hiding.
LV: This documentary is very open and certainly not shy of sexual related topics. Obviously because sex was a big part of Agassi’s life. How was it for you to be part of that world for a while?
TH: Jonathan made love to the camera. He was so comfortable and confident exposing his body and the world of porn where he was the king. With such an ease he dragged me into this eccentric and highly explicit world and I have to admit I was a bit overwhelmed at the beginning by all the nudity and sex. But this is not a movie about porn, this is a movie about Jonathan. We tried to cut every time they reached the sexual act. What you see on screen is half of what I witnessed with my eyes. I joined Jonathan at hardcore parties, witnessing crazy sex, unsafe sex and very intense situations between Jonathan and other men. All that mattered to Jonathan in these cases was that he would eventually look beautiful. He wanted to stay beautiful in all harsh scenes, he was scared of appearing in a bad light.
What mattered to me was to convey reality with all the beauty but also with all the sights that make you feel uncomfortable or that make you look away. This is why this film is uncensored, it is honest and transparent in its portrayal of Jonathan and it delivers the reality of his world which is so very radical. Becoming part of it helped me understand and reflect on the porn industry, but moreover, it helped me understand Jonathan himself. I believe that it is important to consider that his professional and personal life walk hand in hand.
LV: In “Jonathan Agassi saved my life” there are also a lot of family members, friends and some clients involved. How was their reaction when they saw that they were being filmed?
TH: It took me by surprise that many of Jonathan’s clients were actually very excited to be filmed with him. They regarded him as almost an idol and were excited to be able to shine next to the star. Of course, I do not expose faces as it is important to protect their privacy, but what I learned from Jonathan is that people take great joy in sharing their sex life. It surprised me that people thrive on exposing this very intimate and private act.
I was very happy that all the family members and all the people around Jonathan gave me permission to film them and let me in a sense ‘invade’ their personal space with my camera. I believe they did that out of love and care for Jonathan. His brother and sister came to me after the premiere to share that the film built a bridge for their communication with Jonathan and allowed them to connect with him in a different way. Jonthan’s father felt that the movie was very fair and honest to him as it also allowed him to share his side in this very complex story.
What was most important for me was not the permission itself, but the support that Anna, Jonathan’s mother, brought to this movie because she invested herself and she went all the way to make sure her son would be able to look at himself in the mirror. What’s more, this movie also acts as a mirror for other people in this generation who can see and relate to the struggles and pains Jonathan experienced.