Director Eric Steel on the set of Gay Brighton Beach’s movie ‘Minyan’
Sign up for our PoliticsNY newsletter for the latest coverage and to stay informed about the 2021 election in your district and across New York
“Minyan,” directed and co-written by our gay filmmaker Eric Steel (“The Bridge”), is an observant, melancholy, and coming-of-age drama set in Brooklyn during the winters of 1986 and 1987.
The film, based on a short story by David Bezmozgis, features teenage David (Samuel H. Levine) struggling with being Jewish in Brighton Beach’s close-knit Russian Jewish community and being gay in the era of AIDS. However, “Minyan” is not a coming out story, but rather an immersive drama that shows how David struggles to find a sense of self and belonging in both communities.
Despite the friction with his parents, David is devoted to his grandfather, Josef (Ron Rifkin), who moves into subsidized housing. His neighbors are Itzik (Mark Margolis) and Herschel (Christopher McCann), two widowers who are now a discreet gay couple. David also secretly explores his own homosexuality, sneaks into a gay bar, and ends up getting intimate with the sexy bartender, Bruno (Alex Hurt).
The film enjoys an impressive internal performance from Levine and strong support from across the cast. Steele spoke with Gay City News about his movie.
KRAMER: “Minyan” uses writing by James Baldwin, the song “Giant” (with the lyrics “How can someone know me / when I don’t even know myself?”), And other works for explore identity. Can you discuss the film’s ideas on identity, religion, sexuality and community?
STEEL: I read James Baldwin when I was in my early teens. When I went to boarding school, I discovered “Giovanni’s room”. As soon as I saw this story in writing, I knew that this life could exist somewhere. This push and pull between identity and being – who am I and where do I belong? – that’s how I put it. I didn’t feel like a Jew. I remember being one of the few Jewish kids in a WASPy elementary school and the temptation to pretend I wasn’t Jewish – how strong that was. These things work like pull-ups in my life, and I have continued to find answers in books and poetry. When I found “Giovanni’s room”, I didn’t want to return it to the library. I wanted to keep the book. It was around the time you wrote your name in the book. Who else is reading this? Then I can find out where I belong or who I belong to. Young people today take it for granted that they will see representations of gay or queer people, and that is not how the world was in 1980-82. Gay bars did not have rainbow flags. You were knocking on a door and had no idea what was on the other side.
KRAMER: The film offers fragments of David’s life to piece together, which is a nifty approach. What can you say about the way you created the drama, which is more episodic?
STEEL: Maybe this is my idea of how the meaning and shape of his life accumulates instead of being molded. I consider myself a queer storyteller. I think there is a weird way of telling a story. I saw how the story unfolded, where there were fragments that were happening in one part of David’s life that informed something that was going on in another part of his life, like seeing [Itzik and Herschel’s] toothbrushes. This jump and this sewing work is how I naturally tell stories. The model of what straight romance looks like in the movies doesn’t apply so easily, in my experience, to gay life. Interruptions, omissions and secrets are what you need and learn to see. You learn them as a queer person but also as an immigrant – hide where you’re from, hide your identity.
KRAMER: What observations do you have on the characters’ relationship to religion and its influence as a guiding force?
STEEL: I didn’t have a lot of Jewish education when I got involved in this. A rabbi told me, and he did not invent this interpretation: be kind to strangers because you yourself were once a stranger in a foreign land. It’s about those kindnesses and things that one person does to another person to help them move forward on a journey. The idea of a minyan for me – I understand these are the 10 men you pray with – but there is the gay family you are building. There are also 10 men who gather around [David] and move him through prayer and want to help him move forward in this world. All of these people touch him that way. Be nice to a stranger. Here is this young person who shows a real interest and who wants to see and acquire knowledge and who wants to learn so that they move and guide him.
KRAMER: What can you say about the portrayal of Itzik and Herschel? This relationship becomes quite important and more impactful for David than his other relationships.
STEEL: One thing that was important to me was this sense of transmission, what you convey. Joseph passes on the wisdom and experience he gained as a Jew. The same things are transmitted by Herschel and Itzik, but you see them in a slightly different phase. Later, the taxi driver also communicates things to David. Even the bartender gives David wisdom.
KRAMER: Can we talk about David’s relationship with Bruno?
STEEL: For me, the 1980s was still a time when there was a big question mark next to same-sex relationships. No one knows that Herschel and Itzik shared a bed. The person [Bruno] that David sees at the bar and who attracts him, brings him to his place and he has access to another space. And I think Bruno gives and doesn’t give at the same time. There are a lot of things he gives David – a sex playbook and a place to put his head. There is a link. Whether it’s romance or not, part of it depends on Bruno. It’s not that Bruno is a heart breaker; he knows what’s going on in the world. Bruno sees this young man as a version of himself.
MINYAN | Directed by Eric Steel | Opening October 22 at the IFC Center | Distributed by Strand Releasing