International porn icon Jonathan Agassi had a meteoric rise to fame – but at what personal cost? A new film by Tomer Heymann reveals what happens when the camera stopsrolling.

International porn icon Jonathan Agassi had a meteoric rise to fame – but at what personal cost? A new film by Tomer Heymann reveals what happens when the camera stops rolling.

In his mid-to-late 30s, whilst filming a documentary during a hot summer parade in Tel Aviv, director Tomer Heymann spotted two men kissing in the middle of the thronging crowd. Thinking he recognised one of them from a bar he’d been at several months earlier, he turned to a friend and asked who they were looking at. Incredulous, his friend joked, “Come on, Tomer? You don’t know that’s Jonathan Agassi? You’ve never masturbated over him?” Despite his protestations to the contrary, as one of the world’s most successful gay porn stars, Tomer’s story about a late-night bar sighting seemed like a prudish fiction.

Captivated, and intent on speaking to Agassi, Tomer sent him a message on Facebook and arranged to meet at Jonathan’s hotel when he was next in Tel Aviv. Breathless and excited about the prospect of meeting his next subject, Tomer arrived at Jonathan’s hotel room to be greeted by a man wearing nothing more than a “very tiny towel, very, very small, covering just his penis.” Side-stepping questions about his sexual fantasies, if he preferred top or bottom, and whether he intended to pay in dollars or shekels, Tomer eventually convinced Agassi that, no, he really did just want to make a documentary about his life. From there, having secured the approval of Jonathan’s mother, Anna, Tomer began work on Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life – a film that was more than eight years in the making.

What results is a fascinating story, and a truly tender portrait of an industry that’s so often demonised. An international porn icon, Jonathan Agassi, has had a meteoric rise to fame, but at what personal cost? Tomer’s film sensitively explores the tension between professional success and personal loss in a way that’s never once prurient or judgemental. It’s a moving examination of loneliness, addiction and trauma that deserves to be seen. Ahead of the film’s centrepiece screening at this year’s BFI Flare, we spoke to Heymman to find out more about what to expect from one of the hottest docs of the year.

You filmed this over eight years. Did you form a close bond with the family during that time?
For sure! This film is so much about trust and friendship. I went through so many feelings, I got so involved, financially, emotionally, in so many crises. I can’t separate Anna and Jonathan from myself, they’re really deep in my heart. It wasn’t just a case of making a movie over a couple of months and then you go your own way. It’s in my blood. We went through very intense highs and lows together. Depression, happiness, fears, worries, and through it all, love. Even though the movie is quite dark, I hope the film conveys the love I have for Jonathan and Anna, and the love they have for one another.

When you form such a close bond like that, and you’re documenting a downfall or a difficult part of someone’s life, did you ever struggle to know where your role as documentary maker ended, and your role as friend began?
From the beginning, I told Anna and Jonathan that they will decide the limits of this movie, they will decide how far we go. Jonathan told me shoot, all the time. When he came to the editing room he really pushed me to include hard things in the movie. When I first witnessed the drug issues, the emotional mess, I was really shocked; but honestly, after 100 times, when I saw it on a daily basis, I realised it was just part of the movie. I was filming someone who has these addictions. Not sharing that with the audience would have been hypocritical. It really shook me, but you come to realise this is an important aspect of Jonathan’s life, he is someone who has this self-destructive impulse. I was worried for him, I wanted to protect him. But at the same time, I didn’t want to make a fake movie about successful porn stars. I tried to balance my commitments to Jonathan and to the film.

Who do you think Jonathan Agassi is saving? Is it himself? His mother?
That’s a big question for the audience and for myself. To a certain point, Jonathan Agassi is this persona who saved him from being a lonely, beaten up, miserable child. He had a very hard life in this macho society, being someone who was very feminine. It saved him for a couple of years. But as the movie progresses it asks, is this jail or freedom? I don’t think we answer that, I don’t know if we can. Jonathan Agassi offers freedom – it’s something big to discover your sexuality and to take joy from it: he loves sex, he enjoys it, he makes money from it, he takes his mother to Mykonos, he’s strong. But it’s also a prison – sex everywhere, anywhere, with anyone, with two, with five, with 10 people. It also asks questions about how we think about sex as we get older: how should we think about people who buy sex? Is that good? Is that bad? The movie tries to come from a place of no judgement. I’m not God, I’m not a judgemental director operating from a position of moral authority. I want to give people access to a life that’s normally underground.

How do you think people will think about porn after watching this film?
I think this movie kills the joy of porn. This wasn’t the purpose: my camera found this angle and I didn’t want to be dishonest about that. It’s one gate to the backstage of sex work. I’ve had a varied life – I discovered I’m gay, I’ve been to parties, I’ve been to saunas, I’ve had relationships, I’m not someone who came from the moon yesterday – but still honestly, I never thought that people would inject their penises [with drugs to last longer]. But it happens all the time. The illusion of this sustained erection, where you can fuck for so long? It’s fake. Chemical. I choose to show it so you can see how it’s made.

This film only ever claims to offer one perspective, but as that revelation began to dawn on you, did you worry it might perpetuate negative stereotypes about the industry?
This film is very specifically about Jonathan. I met other porn stars who are at university, people who had quite boring lives, one who was a physiotherapist. This film is about a hole in Jonathan’s soul that he filled with drugs and sex. It’s not about porn stars, or the industry. Jonathan is a radical guy which is why this film looks radical. It’s not an easy, light movie, because he’s not an easy, light character. I wasn’t looking for a specific angle, but when you see it from the inside as I did with Jonathan, you’d need to be blind not to look at it and say, this is the opposite of what they sold us.

Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life screens at the BFI Flare this March.

Follow Thomas Curry on Twitter

Enjoyed this article? Like Huck on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.