How do you make a documentary about the downfall of a porn star without leaning in to some of the more problematic stereotypes about people in that industry? Tomer Heymann’s fly on the wall examination of Jonathan Agassi manages to be a cautionary tale without ever demonising its subject, or the industry he works in. It perfects the fine balance of showing how somebody could go so far off the rails while working in porn, while grounding itself enough in the reality of this world to show that this is the exception, not the rule.
Heymann, who won the Ophir Award (the Israeli equivalent to the Oscar) for best documentary, is granted fly on the wall access to the porn icon, but it’s not the warts and all access to live sex shows or paid hook-ups that linger on the memory, so much as it is the exploration of how one man’s choices are defined by his fractured family life. Filmed over the course of eight years, Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life is a stereotypical rise and fall tale – not entirely dissimilar to the arc of Dirk Diggler, Mark Wahlberg’s character in Boogie Nights, unfolding in real life. As it becomes increasingly difficult to watch, diving deeper into a tortured childhood and several unflinching sequences where Heymann’s camera lingers on its subject overdosing, the film’s most assured quality is that it never becomes sensationalist. Jonathan Agassi has said seeing this footage saved his life and made him become sober. It’s not hard to see why.
In 2009, Jonathan Agassi was plucked from obscurity by a porn director making a film in Israel, and instantly became a superstar. Director Tomer Heymann initially intended to make a feel good movie about the unexpected international porn icon, but soon ended up digging into something deeper. As the years go by, we see Agassi’s addiction laid bare, his conflicted relationship with his father, and his transition from “mainstream” gay porn to whatever he can do in order to make money.
The heart of the film, and the thing that keeps it from becoming a depressing cautionary tale, is Jonathan’s relationship with his mother, and how this evolves across the years. When Jonathan first returns home to Tel Aviv, he happily opens a box of his porn DVD’s, showing her the few scenes of him in action where he isn’t fucking. Their relationship is incredibly open, largely because he takes after his father (a man who has evaded serious relationships for no strings sex his entire life), although with a much stronger commitment to his family. As the years go by, his mother largely remains the one constant in his life; accompanying him to porn shoots in the Mediterranean, or offering him critiques of outfits that she thinks are a bit too much. Heymann keeps returning to this family life in order to subvert the stereotype that porn actors often come from under privileged backgrounds – here showing that Jonathan’s trauma isn’t a consequence of the care he’s afforded by the mother who close to single handedly raised him.
When we do see Jonathan in his lowest moments, the camera never turning away even when he’s deteriorating and overdosing before our eyes, the film doesn’t become problematic even as it lingers. Instead, it’s a natural part of a story that simultaneously charts how recreational drug use can become something altogether more encompassing, grabbing hold of somebody vulnerable and slowly eating into the aspects of their life where they appear to have everything figured out. It’s bluntly shown, but never sensationalist, which is why it’s all the more harrowing.
It’s hardly one of the most crowd pleasing films in this year’s Merlinka Festival, but Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life is a powerful depiction of addiction that is hard to ignore.