The Film Collaborative

Taboo Review: Doc Remembers Amos Guttman and Mentors Lost

2024 Toronto Jewish Film Festival

7 mins read

(Israel, 77 min.)
Dir. Shauly Melamed


One can hardly begin to count the number of lives cut short by the AIDS epidemic. This number offers doubles with generational loss as the epidemic wiped out countless elder men who didn’t get to share their experiences and wisdom with the younger folks who followed them. It’s therefore touching to recognize that Taboo director Shauly Melamed was born in 1993, the same year that his subject, filmmaker Amos Guttman, died due to complications from AIDS. Melamed obviously never got to meet Guttman in person, but the elder filmmaker’s influence is evident in the touching portrait that he receives here.

Taboo looks at the brief but significant career of Amos Guttman, who is credited for making the first openly LGBTQ+ Israeli film with 1983’s Drifting. The documentary tells about this one filmmaker’s remarkable impact with only four feature films and a handful of shorts. One doesn’t need to be especially familiar with Guttman’s work, either. Taboo features extensive footage from Drifting and Guttman’s subsequent features Bar 51 (1985), Himmo, King of Jerusalem (1988), and Amazing Grace (1992)—although Melamed, like a good cinephile, keeps the conversation lively without giving too much of the films away. One might be readily inspired to dive into the films afterwards.

The film complements Guttman’s work with an impressive range of archival footage in which he considers his career. The array of footage, moreover, illustrates how Guttman’s films really got people talking in a culture that’s comparatively behind the times when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights. One observation, for example, notes that Guttman’s father doted on him, but skipped the premiere of Drifting.

Especially revealing, however, is a previously unpublished interview shot shortly before Guttman’s death. The filmmaker, gaunt from the ravages of AIDS, speaks in depth about his process, the impact of his work, and his desires to create boundary-pushing cinema that invites audiences to confront their discomfort. Shot by Guttman’s young assistant, Anat Dotan, this interview forms the spine of the film. It allows the filmmaker to leave a mark in his own terms.

Taboo also features Guttman’s voice, or something like it, extensively in voiceover. AI-generated technology vocalizes the words of Guttman’s unpublished writing. The absence of voices from his time, moreover, underscores the loss of which he was apart. Moreover, posthumous reflection adds a layer of significance to Drifting by noting that its original title translates roughly to “infection.” The work therefore anticipates the affliction that would mark Guttman’s life and those of many contemporaries.

Born Sita Buzăului in Transylvania, Romania in 1954 and relocating to Israel with his family at age seven, aspects of Guttman’s biography filter through the film-within-a-film interview and the ghostly AI narration. Guttman expresses discomfort and ambivalence towards aspects of queer life even though he made groundbreaking portrayals of gay experiences. For example, he evokes resistance to the label of a “gay filmmaker,” preferring to describe himself as a filmmaker who’s attracted to men. Melamed characterizes Guttman as a maverick who reluctantly stepped into the spotlight. His dashing looks outrival many Hollywood A-listers, but there’s a sense of each film allowing Guttman to cautiously work out aspects of himself and his relationship to sexuality. His works evokes a journey alongside the audience.

At the same time, he notes that his aim was to confront taboos about sexuality and not gay experiences specifically. One sees this in the extensive sequence about his sophomore feature Bar 51. The film, Taboo notes, made good on a plea by Guttman’s father to stop putting all that gay stuff on screen. Instead of two men, the film depicts the story of a man with an unshakable sexual attraction to his sister. Taboo shows how Guttman provocatively probed questions of desire regardless of orientation. His own lover appears in contemporary interviews, too, and further underscores the sensitive artist who carved a unique space in cinema through his own vulnerability.

The doc also explores the subtle effort to comment upon cultural divides with relationships between Arab and Jewish men in Guttman’s films evoking the cultural divisions and tensions between Israel and Palestine. His play on the laws of desires offers shared humanity between characters across divides. For a filmmaker who didn’t consider himself political, the film finds some shrewd readings of his work.

The film isn’t all flattery, though. Taboo notes how critics were brutal to Himmo, King of Jerusalem and audiences steered clear. Melamed uses the perspectives to build a case that Guttman was still finding his voice and knew his best film was still to come. But even with a limited oeuvre, the film makes a case that he deserves consideration alongside names like Fassbinder, Jarman, and Almodóvar, whose work echoes in the images that appear.

When the film gets to Amazing Grace, his final work released a year before his death, Taboo suggests that Guttman hit his stride and rebounded after Himmo. Amazing Grace might not have Drifting’s “first” moniker, but time generally positions it as Guttman’s best work, in part because his streak ended there. Perhaps the best tribute one can give to a mentor is to ensure that his work endures and is seen for generations to come.

Taboo had its Canadian premiere at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, which runs until June 9.

Amazing Grace also screens online June 4-5.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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