‘It’s not important if you love your country or you hate your country,’ says Nadav Lapid. ‘It’s more important who you are.’
This is a simple, almost banal koan, but, for the filmmaker, it’s loaded with meaning. As an Israeli native (born, in 1975, in Tel Aviv), Lapid has a conflicted relationship with his homeland, the contradictory feelings greeting him every morning. When he wakes up in Tel Aviv, he opens the window, sees the blue skies, the trees, the birds, and feels at home. Then he opens the newspaper, and all those good feelings suddenly vanish. ‘Israel is ill,’ Lapid diagnoses, coldly. ‘It’s a very sick society. A lot of us recognise that this is the case, but it’s hard to recognise any possible remedy. Israel is my society, so I feel like we share the same disease.’
Running with the metaphor, Lapid offers that ‘the political and the psychological have combined to create a cancer in the collective soul’. The root causes, he suggests, are the forces of globalism, nationalism, Zionism: ‘This feeling of being the “chosen people” or “chosen nation”, it was never really based on something, but today it is definitely based on nothing. There is nothing special here. It doesn’t feel virtuous to live here.’ He laments that the contemporary dialogue, in politics and media, doesn’t allow for ‘any form of complex view or dialectical argument’. Which is, of course, where his films come in.
At first blush, there’s nothing linking his three features. Policeman (2011) delivers a bifurcated narrative that looks at two groups who eventually collide: a squad of counterterrorism officers and a motley crew of would-be revolutionaries. The Kindergarten Teacher (2014) – a film remade in 2018 by Sara Colangelo as a high-profile American indie – tells the story of its titular character, who becomes obsessed with a five-year-old student she believes to be a poetry prodigy. And his latest film, the Berlin Golden Bear–winning Synonyms (2019), is a cine-memoir about a young Israeli who moves to Paris, out to renounce his heritage, to cure himself of his ‘Israeli sickness’. But Lapid sees his films as kin – ‘they improvise on the same melody’ – as each is essentially a study of conflicts, be they internal or external, ideological or sociological. Israeli nationhood is founded on conflict, national identity is rife with conflict (‘On one hand, we see ourselves as an empire; on the other hand, as the eternal victim’) and daily life in this ‘hermetic’ nation percolates with conflict. And so Lapid’s films dramatise their dialectical nature. Policeman makes this pronounced with its unique structure: the split film first follows the police, before abandoning them to pick up with the radicals. In The Kindergarten Teacher, the protagonist’s admiration for, and belief in, poetry stands in defiance of the greater forces of materialism and capitalism. In Synonyms, the lead character (a proxy for the director) is torn between both love and hatred for his country – and, in turn, for himself.
These themes are reflected by the visual construction of Lapid’s films. While he shows a fondness, in each film, for discursive, Claire Denis–like outbursts on nightclub dance floors (which, in Synonyms, turn into full-blown dionysian fantasy), his movies are meticulously, starkly constructed. They’re formalist works that almost never employ non-diegetic score, and carefully frame action with an oft-confrontational sense of frontality; Lapid explains that this visual approach is a way ‘to look straight-on, from [his] perspective, at strange things, or at ordinary things that, when you observe them closely, become strange’. Though his films are filled with stilled frames and plentiful silences – he cites Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, Abbas Kiarostami, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Carlos Reygadas as influences – they are all, in some ways, also studies of language, tackling ‘this dialectical, often contradictory battle between the words we hear and what we see […] The relationship between what is said and what is seen: to me, this is cinema.’
All three films are contemplations on the power of words, which often exist in (futile) opposition to the power of the state. In Policeman, the young radicals spend much of their time preparing a manifesto that will be read aloud as part of an act of insurgent terrorism. ‘The Jewish State has become a state of masters and slaves,’ spits Shira (Yaara Pelzig), ‘an evil state yelling at us to stay tranquil. Tranquillity is a lie; silence is mud.’ Hearing this, the group’s leader, Nathanael (Michael Aloni), responds critically: ‘It’s still too sublime. Revolution is not poetry – it’s prose.’
Yet, in The Kindergarten Teacher, poetry is its own minor revolution. For teacher Nira (Sarit Larry), who grew up so poor that ‘the only books [her family] had were prayer books’, the discovery of poetry has come only in middle age, giving her a born-again zeal. When she becomes obsessed with the talent of five-year-old Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), it’s an ideological crusade, waged against a culture in which kids soak up more vulgar/violent football-crowd chants than poetry. ‘When I look around me, at my five-year-old pupils, I realise how hard it is to be a poet in this world,’ she explains to Yoav’s uncle (Dan Toren). ‘Being a poet in our world is opposite the nature of the world.’ When she defies the wishes of Yoav’s father (Yehezkel Lazarov), a wealthy restaurateur who disdains the non-careerist prospects of poetry, there’s due social symbolism. ‘She wants to […] use the power of words to combat a culture that has made them vulgar and ignorant,’ Lapid explains. ‘[It’s] her rebellion against the hierarchy – the moral and political hierarchy – of Israel.’
For its part, Synonyms finds its protagonist (Tom Mercier) – also named Yoav – fresh out of the military, fleeing to Paris, with dreams of becoming French. He does so via language: endlessly reciting lists of French synonyms, whose negativity – ‘Odious. Repugnant. Fetid. Obscene. Vulgar. Lamentable. Sordid. Crude. Bestial. Ignorant.’ – communicates his supposed hatred for his homeland. ‘He tries to deny his Israeli past, to forget it, to annihilate it,’ Lapid offers. ‘He feels like […] each word in French is a small victory over himself, over his past, over his origins.’ Much like The Kindergarten Teacher, Synonyms contains autobiographical elements. The poems in the former were made up by the director himself when he was aged between four and seven – before he abandoned poetry, fearing that it wasn’t ‘compatible with masculinity’.Nadav Lapid, quoted in Uri Klein, ‘Mysterious Kindergarten Teacher Tops Israel’s 2014 Cinema Crop’, Haaretz, 29 January 2015, <https://www.haaretz.com/life/television/.premium-kindergarten-teacher-tops-14-cinema-crop-1.5366434>, accessed 18 August 2019. The experiences depicted in the latter are based on his own ‘gap year’, post–military service, when he moved to Paris with hopes of leaving Israel – and his Israeliness – behind.
It was in Paris, of course, that Lapid discovered his love of film. He’d initially hoped to become a writer, but formative art-cinema experiences in France (including his first ever viewing of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 classic Theorem) opened his eyes. ‘I understood that films might be, could be, should be objects of discussion, of analysis, of agreement and disagreement,’ he recounts. ‘That extremely beautiful texts could be written on cinema.’ Enrolling at film school in Jerusalem upon his return, he ‘touched a camera for the first time at twenty-four’. This was despite having grown up with a father who was a writer (Haim Lapid, with whom he co-wrote Synonyms) and a mother who was a film editor.
‘This film is dedicated to its editor: my mother, Era Lapid’Synonyms was co-edited by Era Lapid, Neta Braun and François Gédigier. reads a title card at the end of Synonyms. The late Era edited all three of Lapid’s features but was diagnosed with terminal cancer during the making of Synonyms, the editing of which proceeded side by side with her treatment. ‘It was terrible,’ Lapid laments, of the experience. With some distance, though, he’s more sanguine, grateful for their collaboration and her ‘huge influence’ on both his life and his work. ‘As an editor,’ Lapid muses, ‘the only thing she was battling for was the truth that she saw in the materials. This is something that I took from her.’
For Lapid, these truths are often hard truths: ‘I try to punch them, insult them, provoke something from them,’ he says, of his audience. And, often, these hard truths are about his homeland: that place he both loves and hates. In Policeman and Synonyms, especially, he’s exploring ‘this obligation that exists [in Israel] to love your country, to love it entirely, with all your heart – to think, always, of it as glorious’. Policeman opens with its anti-terrorism squad cycling in the mountains, and the first line of dialogue finds one member marvelling: ‘This is the most beautiful country in all the world.’ Forty minutes into the film, when we suddenly abandon the policemen – after a discursive, unrelated scene in which unknown punks smash a car until it’s a wreck, weirdly evoking a bonus stage in the videogame Street Fighter IISee Jennifer Sherman, ‘Street Fighter II’s Car-smashing Bonus Stage Gets VR Remake’, Anime News Network, 21 November 2017, <https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/interest/2017-11-20/street-fighter-ii-car-smashing-bonus-stage-gets-vr-remake/.124290>, accessed 18 August 2019. – to take up with the revolutionaries-to-be, they, too, are in the mountains. Their relationship to their ‘glorious’ homeland is diametrically different: brandishing weapons, they open fire on an olive tree, peppering it with bullets. ‘This is a symbol of their hate, of their appetite for destruction,’ Lapid says.
Setting these groups in opposition, Policeman is a provocation. Its counterterrorism squad is full of bros and macho blowhards. They bike, wrestle, bully a cancer-stricken member, Ariel (Gal Hoyberger), to take the rap for a fatal assault on Arab targets and, though ostensibly family men, openly objectify women. In a scene that leers with a male gaze, Yaron (Yiftach Klein) – the squad’s alpha male, all shirtlessness, push-ups and carrying his pregnant wife upstairs – tries it on with a cafe waitress who, it turns out, is only fifteen. Undaunted, he asks if she’d like to stroke his gun, this shiny phallic symbol offering all manner of suggestiveness, in both flirtation and sociopolitical symbolism.
For the young dissidents, guns don’t represent male potency or social status but tools of revolution. They see themselves as, essentially, radical anti-capitalists: ‘It’s time for the poor to get rich and the rich to get dying,’ reads their manifesto. ‘We, the daughters and sons of the ugly Israel – born in a cruel, racist, violent and ignorant state – announce to you, the rich of Israel: being so rich in a country where there is such poverty is a crime. Your corpses, like crosses, will mark the scenes of these crimes.’ This invective cant, and the group’s radicalism, comes in rebellion against their own backgrounds of wealth. Shira, their poetic voice, lives in a luxurious apartment owned (but not lived in) by her parents; Nathanael, their charismatic leader, carries the unmistakable ease of privilege; and the dutiful Yotam (Ben Adam) is a violin virtuoso, evidently the product of years of (expensive) classical schooling. Their manifesto is about the haves and have-nots, but also the loud nationalists and the pacified masses. ‘The majority is numbed with hatred of the Other,’ Shira reads. ‘The minority, perceiving itself as free, is numbed with individual freedom and free sex.’
The two sides of this (dialectical) divide finally collide in the film’s third act, when the revolutionaries take hostage ‘three criminal billionaires’ at a wealthy wedding, largely to get media coverage – employing ‘the theatre of terror’ so that Shira can broadcast their poetic manifesto. But both the dreams contained within it and the revolutionaries themselves die at the hands of the counterterrorism squad, who arrive on the scene gung-ho, a team ready for the big match. ‘Tonight is our night. It’s our war!’ Yaron exhorts. As the commanding officer preps for the mission, we learn that Nathanael and crew have already been profiled by secret services: files chronicling ‘all sorts of nonsense’, like protesting for animal rights, or against the occupation. Despite claims of solidarity from the hostage-takers – ‘Policemen, you are not our enemies,’ shouts Shira, through a megaphone. ‘Policemen, you are also oppressed’ – the squad sees these local ‘terrorists’ (they can’t believe they’re Jewish!) as targets to be eliminated, and the film ends with a tactical raid that wipes out our hot young idealists with a brutal swiftness.
Lapid’s films all conclude with the victory of the state over the wayward dissidents, rebels and romantics who try to challenge it. ‘Words lose in the battle against the baddie; the baddie has only grown stronger,’ the director says, simply. Shira’s poetic manifesto, in Policeman, is never heard by the masses. And Yoav’s poetry, in The Kindergarten Teacher, is no piece of dissident art, only the inspiration for its titular character to make a host of terribly misguided decisions. The latter film finishes with Nira having disastrously kidnapped the child prodigy in hopes of liberating him from the anti-intellectual oppression of Israel (she calls the Ministry of Interior to see if she can take her ‘nephew’ out of the country without a passport). Having taken him to a seaside resort in Sinai, she’s soon apprehended, in another military sting by heavily armed police. Yoav is taken out of Nira’s hands and into the loving arms of an anonymous police officer – and, thus, of the all-powerful state (whose citizens are, if they behave, free to indulge in mindless poolside bacchanalia).
Colangelo’s remake has its own great ironic finish: its pint-sized poet, Jimmy (Parker Sevak), sitting alone in a police car, pronouncing, ‘I have a poem!’ to an audience of no-one, his voice no longer heard. Lapid calls the American Kindergarten Teacher an ‘interesting exercise’, noting that, even though ‘it stays super loyal to the original script’, they are ‘totally different films’. The remake is a ‘psychological profile’ of a woman undergoing a mid-life crisis, whereas the original is about how the story reflects on the society around it. ‘The kindergarten teacher is the first official representative of society,’ Lapid explains, on his initial intent. ‘Like a delegation sent from the state […] to explain to [children] what is right and what is wrong, what is appreciated and what is rejected, according to the values of the society they live in.’
There’s added social symbolism with this state representative’s workplace: the kindergarten a fenced-in enclave for children of prosperity and privilege. Wealth comes up often: Yoav’s nanny (Ester Rada) gossips about how much his father makes; his father mocks poetry’s paucity of financial reward and his brother’s middling career as a copyeditor; and the poetry teacher (Gilad ben David), who owes his literary career to a wealthy wife, asks Nira straight-up: ‘Is your husband rich?’ Nira’s husband (Lior Raz) isn’t, but he’s still ‘an engineer for a government agency’ who comes from a family far wealthier than hers, her childhood poverty and newlywed naivety creating an initial imbalance in their marriage. He even laments that their son is pursuing a career in the military after his mandatory service because ‘nowadays, an army career is for morons or poor people’.
There’s a strange scene in The Kindergarten Teacher that sits, for five minutes, with a five-year-old being taught the distinctions between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. And, when they perform songs and a play in school, it’s the story of Hebrew hero Judah Maccabee. Nira casts Yoav as the conquering hero and herself as Antiochus, the Hellenistic emperor who ruled the Jews in the second century BCE and the antagonist of this nationalist tale. For Lapid, this is symbolic: ‘The Israeli myth embraces this Jewish, very loyal, quite ignorant soldier [as] the hero, while those who try to make society cultivated and educated were the villains.’ Nira is a ‘rebel’, out to defy a society ‘where Judah Maccabee is a hero, but the poet, he is nothing’. Thus, making her the titular protagonist of his film, and making the audience identify with her, is a forceful way of offering ‘a different reading of national myth’.
In Synonyms, the victory of the state over the wayward individual is more abstract, but Lapid is at pains to point out that it’s there. When Yoav finally leaves Paris to (we intuit) return to Israel – as Lapid himself did – it’s a defeat. ‘I was really afraid that people would think the final reel of the movie was saying, “There’s no place like home,”’ Lapid says, but ‘going back to Israel isn’t admitting, in the end, that it’s not [as] bad as you thought it was’. This tale of a failed émigré is, after all, based on his own experience: following his own military service, Lapid felt that ‘Israel is a demon and this place is a hell’, and pledged to ‘run away and never come back’. So he fled to France ‘with nothing but a desire to die as an Israeli and be reborn as a Parisian.’
The director’s on-screen stand-in finds himself in France with nothing. In a memorable opening sequence, Yoav arrives in Paris and lets himself into a grand, abandoned apartment, only to have his belongings stolen while he’s in the shower – left naked and alone in a new city (the full-frontality of such nudity leading one interviewer to ask Lapid whether Mercier’s ‘big dick’ was intended as a symbol of Israeli masculinityDaniel Kasman, ‘Unstable Ground: Nadav Lapid Discusses Golden Bear Winner Synonyms’, MUBI, 18 February 2019, <https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/unstable-ground-nadav-lapid-discusses-golden-bear-winner-synonyms>, accessed 18 August 2019.). He finds rescue, and friendship, in Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), a handsome young couple both born into wealth (‘Like I give a damn,’ the former says, when Yoav tells him he won’t be able to pay back a loan of cash). Their lives of intellectualist leisure – Emile is writing a book called ‘Nights of Inertia’ – stand in stark contrast to Yoav’s subsistence-level expat existence in Paris: he has only one winter coat, moves into a grim ‘shoebox’ room, eats the same depressing meal straight from the pan every day (its total cost: €1.28), finishes off discarded cigarette butts and does various random jobs, including nude and life modelling as well as working with a security team at the Israeli embassy. There, he becomes friends with a militant Zionist (‘an Israeli on steroids’, Lapid laughs), Yaron (Uria Hayik), this odd couple symbolising the conflicting feelings – both across the social divide and within the filmmaker – of both Israeli pride and shame.
Yoav’s only desire is ‘to be French’, which he hopes to achieve by renouncing his homeland (‘I’ll never go back,’ he declares; ‘Israel will die before I do’), his mother tongue and, eventually, his stories. Illustrated in flashback, he poetically recounts his military tales – ‘Emile, my love, and Caroline, who saved my life, did I tell you about how I played the machine gun and perforated an Arab terrorist?’ – then bequeaths these stories to Emile, the bourgie writer with no life experience. In both its lists of French words and told stories, Synonyms is, again, about words: wielded as tools of destruction, employed as extensions of self. ‘Stories are experiences, but the way you recount them is with words,’ Lapid offers. ‘In a way, the words that you use to tell your stories are the only things you really have.’
Elsewhere in the film, there’s more explicit sociopolitical symbolism, too. Yoav recounts a symbolic story about Hector of Troy, who held out in an enclave, surrounded by Greeks intent on his destruction. While working at the embassy, Yoav lets a crowd waiting in the rain inside the gates, shouting, ‘Go on, cross the border! There is no more border!’ And a French-citizenship integration class demands that new citizens pay heed to the fact that it’s a secular country (‘God does not exist!’ exhorts their teacher, played by Léa Drucker, star of Xavier Legrand’s incredible 2017 film Custody).
Like Yoav, Lapid found that his attempts to assimilate only made him feel alienated. ‘The more my French improved, the more I felt the lack of intimacy I had with this place.’ So he returned home, just as his character does – and just as so many young Israelis who plan on emigrating do. Upon Synonyms’ release, Lapid received ‘enormous quantities’ of self-identifying reactions from people who’d also left the country intent on ‘renouncing Israel’, only to find that desire thwarted, and for the pull of their homeland to be unexpectedly, inexorably strong. Which leads to Lapid in the here and now, living and working as one of contemporary Israel’s most interesting filmmakers. Every day brings with it – with the latest round of headlinesSee, for example, Yonatan Touval, ‘Israel’s Identity Crisis’, The New York Times, 29 July 2011, <https://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/30/opinion/30iht-edtouval30.html>; and Hen Mazzig, ‘Op-ed: No, Israel Isn’t a Country of Privileged and Powerful White Europeans’, Los Angeles Times, 20 May 2019, <https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-mazzig-mizrahi-jews-israel-20190520-story.html>, both accessed 18 August 2019. – questions about what it means to live in Israel, to be Israeli. But renouncing his homeland is something he left in the past long ago, now just a story from his past, to be told. ‘With all of this said,’ Lapid muses, after much decrying of his country, ‘I still hope, most of all, to be buried in Tel Aviv.’
|1||Nadav Lapid, quoted in Uri Klein, ‘Mysterious Kindergarten Teacher Tops Israel’s 2014 Cinema Crop’, Haaretz, 29 January 2015, <https://www.haaretz.com/life/television/.premium-kindergarten-teacher-tops-14-cinema-crop-1.5366434>, accessed 18 August 2019.|
|2||Synonyms was co-edited by Era Lapid, Neta Braun and François Gédigier.|
|3||See Jennifer Sherman, ‘Street Fighter II’s Car-smashing Bonus Stage Gets VR Remake’, Anime News Network, 21 November 2017, <https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/interest/2017-11-20/street-fighter-ii-car-smashing-bonus-stage-gets-vr-remake/.124290>, accessed 18 August 2019.|
|4||Daniel Kasman, ‘Unstable Ground: Nadav Lapid Discusses Golden Bear Winner Synonyms’, MUBI, 18 February 2019, <https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/unstable-ground-nadav-lapid-discusses-golden-bear-winner-synonyms>, accessed 18 August 2019.|
|5||See, for example, Yonatan Touval, ‘Israel’s Identity Crisis’, The New York Times, 29 July 2011, <https://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/30/opinion/30iht-edtouval30.html>; and Hen Mazzig, ‘Op-ed: No, Israel Isn’t a Country of Privileged and Powerful White Europeans’, Los Angeles Times, 20 May 2019, <https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-mazzig-mizrahi-jews-israel-20190520-story.html>, both accessed 18 August 2019.|