Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life *****
Director: Tomer Hermann
If you’re wondering where you might have heard the name Jonathan Agassi before, the answer is porn. The Israeli adult star is the subject of filmmaker Tomer Hermann’s new documentary, for which he followed Agassi for eight years, documenting both his personal and professional lives. As one of the biggest stars in gay adult entertainment, this could easily have been a prestige piece about the muscled and tattooed performer, but in reality this is something much, much darker.
We meet Agassi in Berlin at the height of his fame. He has appeared in dozens of movies, performs real sex on stage at nightclubs and is enjoying the celebrity he has found within the gay community. He travels regularly to visit his mother in Tel Aviv and she seems to be wholly supportive – if a little bewildered – by his choice of career. He gives fashion parades of his fetish outfits and proudly shows off the acting scenes from his movies, before stopping them before the sex. He seems happy, self-assured and supported. But of course, there’s much more to him than that.
If Hermann had only followed him for a few months, this would have been the impression of Agassi that would have dominated the film, but due to his long-term commitment to the project, we see a remarkable trust form between the documentary filmmaker and his subject. He confides about his past, he shares his personal life and begins to let him see his escorting, drug-taking and the party lifestyle that develops alongside his on-screen career.
The name Jonathan Agassi is, of course, a stage name and a persona behind which the real Yonatan Langer hides. Early in the film, high on his success, he says that Jonathan Agassi “saved” his life because he was able to leave the damaged version of himself from his teens behind, but as the film progresses it becomes increasingly clear that the reverse is true. While Agassi is an expression of who he wants to be, he is still the Yonatan Langer of his youth; damaged, hurt and rejected by his father.
Though they are estranged, the fact Jonathan now lives in Berlin (where his Dad moved to) is clearly no coincidence and after they finally reconnect and meet – in a fascinating scene of emotional manipulation – he transgresses to the misery of his former self. Early in the film, we witness a moment when Jonathan becomes overwhelmed by stress and physically shuts down, falling asleep mid-interview. His lover explains that this is something he does frequently, so when we see him confronting his past demons later, his extreme shutdown and destructive behaviour becomes so severe that Hermann and his team are forced to intervene.
The Jonathan Agassi we see at the end of the film is a shadow of his former self; pale, drawn and reserved. His earlier declarations of loving sex and loving his job are replaced with going through the motions and resorting to more and more extreme ways to perform sexually. We witness him and his co-stars injecting stimulants into their genitals in order to perform, despite the “agony” they explain comes after. There’s nothing sexy about what’s happening off-set.
It would be easy to dismiss Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life as just another fly-on-the-wall porn-doc, but that would be doing it a real disservice. Agassi is a hypnotic subject; endearing, damaged and remarkably handsome, witnessing his rapid decline and fall is both tragic and compelling viewing. From the opening moments when he masturbates before a shoot with his co-star who is telling him of the death of his sister, it’s clear this is a film that has absolutely no interest in titillating or glamourising the world of porn.
With a lot of time spent with his mother, as well as frequently reverting to photographs of his childhood, we are constantly reminded that the man who has been built up by the adult industry as little more than a face with muscles and a dick is someone’s son and someone’s brother. Yonatan was effeminate as a teen, exploring with gender and self-expression, before becoming the hyper-masculine Jonathan Agassi and as you look back and forth between the two, you can’t help but feel his authentic self is not the one projected to the world today. As he parades in front of his mother in a harness, rubber gimp-mask, suspenders and stockings, it’s the feminine items he is most excited about wearing, but then later talks only of the importance to him of appearing masculine.
This is a remarkable documentary. A heart-breaking portrait of a man broken by the Porn Age, Hermann has found in his subject a resounding truth that exposes the dark underbelly of the sex industry. While there is no talk of exploitation, Yonatan is a vulnerable young man who is projecting strength as part of his stage persona. With reports of so many adult performers meeting untimely ends at the hands of drugs and violence, you can’t help but wonder how many of the hundreds of thousands of performers have followed a similar pathway. A mesmerising piece, this documentary filmmaking at its finest.