Trans in the Holy Land: ‘Marzipan Flowers,’ Tal Kallai, and the Shattering of Israel’s LGBT Taboos

Tal Kallai is a gay man who does drag, playing a coke-dealing and fast-talking transgender woman in ‘Marzipan Flowers.’ Don’t mind the bombing on set, that’s what happens when you film in a war zone.

Itay Gross

As he was about to begin shooting his first-ever movie in November of 2012, Tal Kallai’s life couldn’t get any sweeter if it were covered in chocolate and dipped in caramel.

After years of pounding the pavement, Kallai, a well-known Israeli drag performer, had finally landed his big break: the lead in a new indie movie called Marzipan Flowers. It was the role of a lifetime: a coke-dealing, fast-talking, ball-breaking, couldn’t-give-a-fuck, transgender woman you can’t help but love.

It not only had a kick-ass part, it was the first Israeli movie featuring a transgender character in a leading role. “It seemed as though everything in my life was leading to this one moment,” said Kallai. “It was absolutely perfect.”

This being his first time starring in a feature film, he knew there was always a chance he could bomb on set. But he never expected the set to be bombed. On the first day of shooting, Kallai and his film crew found themselves smack-dab in the middle of a war zone. That morning, Israeli Air Force launched Operation Pillar of Defense in response to hundreds of incoming rockets from Gaza. The movie was scheduled to begin shooting less than three miles from the border.

You’d think that would be enough to cancel the shoot. But this is the Middle East, after all, where budgets are small, and wars are plentiful. “It was crazy,” said Kallai. “We were running to the shelter pretty much every hour on the hour. We would wait for the noise from the helicopters to pass and for the sirens to stop sounding, and then we went on filming.”

Ironically, the war did not slow things down at all. In fact, it brought a sense of urgency to the set. “We were laser-focused,” said Adam Kalderon, the film’s writer and director. “There was no need to manufacture the drama. There was so much external drama going on around us, we were able to harness it and use it to our benefit.”

“When people say ‘boom’ on set, they usually mean a long microphone,” said actor Sharon Friedman, who plays one of the lead’s love interests. “For us it meant running for cover. We shot the movie during a war and premiered it during another. Welcome to Israel,” he said, laughing.

The movie, which is about to hit theaters in Israel, had its first screening at this year’s Jerusalem International Film Festival, where it was awarded best fringe film, ironically during yet another war, this past summer’s Operation Protective Edge.

Marzipan Flowers tells the story of Hadas Regal, a 48-year-old woman living on a kibbutz in southern Israel. After her husband dies in a freak accident, Regal moves to Tel Aviv. With unexpected help from her transgender roommate, Regal finds the strength to put her life back together.

Sitting at a cozy café in the center of Tel Aviv, Kallai looks nothing like the feisty woman he plays on screen. As he arrives, it takes me a minute to recognize him. His black bob wig is replaced with a military buzz cut, the tight colorful leotards with a grey hoodie and faded blue jeans. No stilettoes in sight. Kallai is so straight-laced, he looks as though he’s just stepped out of a Sears catalog.

As we chat about the movie, we’re constantly interrupted by a steady stream of star-struck fans wanting to introduce themselves. Kallai is not quite a household name, but he is well-known among trendy Tel Avivians and gays. Having played mostly female and trans characters has made him somewhat of a celebrity among the disenfranchised. “I feel as though that is my mission in life, the reason I was put on this earth: to be different.”

At 30, Kallai is happy with the way his life has turned out so far. A seventh-generation Jerusalem native on his father’s side, Kallai is no stranger to the spotlight. His great-grandmother, Thelma Yellin, was a world-renowned cellist. His great-grandfather, David Yellin, was a prominent Zionist scholar and Israeli pioneer.

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He was always interested in acting, but it wasn’t until he saw his first drag show, at 16, that he fell head over heels with the art of female impersonation. “I realized early on I had a knack for playing women’s roles.” Soon, he began performing under the drag name Talula Bonet (inspired by the flamboyant Tallulah Bankhead), an alcoholic, no-nonsense, femme fatale. “It took off so quickly, I had to come out sooner than I thought,” said Kallai.

He knows people are going to be confused by his latest role. “It’s a lot for people to take in,” he laughed. “I’m a gay man who does drag, playing a transgender woman.” But he insist his character, Petel (Hebrew for raspberry) has a universal appeal. “She simply wants love, but doesn’t know how to act with love.”

The movie is already generating a lot of buzz in Israel, especially among the LGBT community. “The last year in particular, was one of the most visible for the trans community in Israel,” said Shai Doitsh, head of The Aguda, Israel’s largest LGBT task force. “The community has worked hard to end violence against trans people. For the first time, it’s been able to successfully change laws when it comes to reassignment surgery.”

Last May, Israel lowered the minimum age for gender reassignment surgery from 21 to 18. As part of the new law, candidates only have to prove they’ve lived as the requested gender for one year instead of two. Once approved, the surgery is paid for by the country’s public health system.

Israel is considered one of the most progressive countries in the world when it comes to LGBT issues, in no small part thanks to trans singer Dana International. In 1998, she was selected to represent Israel in the prestigious Eurovision contest, winning first place. “She not only won the biggest singing competition in the world, her song “Diva” became a trans anthem,” said Kallai. “She really broke barriers in that arena way before anyone else did. Everyone in Israel was in love with her, even straight people. Suddenly it was OK to be gay.”

Still, not everything has been milk and honey when it comes to trans issues in the Holy Land. In January, eleven masked men armed with pepper spray and an electric prod attacked a transgender woman near a nightclub in Tel Aviv. The investigation revealed the attackers were members of Israel’s Border Police.

Adding insult to injury, media reports about the incident reeked of insensitivity and transphobia, with one newspaper describing the victim as “a man dressed in women’s clothes.” In the police statement following the attack, the victim was described as a “coccinelle,” the derogatory Hebrew word for transgender. The incident was a painful reminder of the long road ahead in the battle for equality.

Producers of Marzipan Flowers hope the movie will help change people’s attitudes in a region known for its conservatism. “It’s a bold movie,” said Udi Yerushalmy, head of Tazfilm Productions. “But it has a hopeful message that resonates with anyone whether they’re gay or straight. You just have to be human.”

Whether or not the movie inspires change remains to be seen. But Kallai is certain that, unlike during production, the movie won’t bomb where it matters most: the box office.

“This is a story of a strong trans woman,” he said. “She’s depicted in a positive light even when her behavior is less than admirable. I think audience members will have a hard time resisting her charm. It’s a far cry from how movies used to portray trans characters. She’s still a bit dark, but she’s not hopeless. That’s progress.”