“It’s time for the poor to get rich, and for the rich to start paying,” declares Shira, the 22-year-old protagonist of Nadav Lapid’s Policeman. Founders of an Israeli protest movement that’s like a violent version of Occupy Wall Street, Shira (Yaara Pelzig) and her friends plot to kidnap a wealthy CEO at his daughter’s wedding. Once their plan is in motion, Yaron (Yiftach Klein), squad leader in an elite anti-terrorism police unit, is ordered to free the hostages, leading to an unavoidable clash between the two groups of charismatic protagonists: five police officers acting on behalf of homeland security, and four revolutionary youngsters fighting in the name of “the 99 percent.”
Policeman, Lapid’s debut feature, was written and directed shortly before the demonstrations that broke out in summer 2011, when tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest the ever-rising cost of living. When the film was released in Israel that August, the governmental film rating authority (analogous to the MPAA in the U.S.) limited admission to 18-year-olds and up, a decision viewed by Lapid and several Israeli journalists as an attempt to censor the film’s troubling depiction of economic inequity leading to civic uprising. Following the media frenzy, the age limit was revised from 18 to 14.
FILM COMMENT spoke with Lapid, whose film opens next Friday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, about censorship, anarchism, and the pros and cons of working with an editor who happens to be his mother.
The opening shot depicts Yaron and his squad members—four Israeli alpha males—biking down a hill. There is a strong emphasis on their physicality throughout the film. Why did you limit the use of dialogue and focus instead on body language?
I recently read an interview with Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas in which he explained that there’s a unique richness to an opening shot, because everything is still possible and unknown. The spectator’s mind can wander in infinite directions because she is not yet enslaved by the narrative. For me the opening shot was a way to put together the main assumptions and materials the film deals with. It begins with a naked land and yellow-brown hills, a place that is both paradise and hell, much like Israel—a state embodying the tensions between the reality of the desert and the fantasy of “the promised land.”
In that sense, these five “Israeli heroes” are not just passing through the land; they are, rather, conquering and appropriating it as they go along. The hills belong to them. At the end of the sequence they shout out their names and their voices echo through the empty valley. They see it as a way of putting their mark on the landscape. That’s why I think there is no need to talk. These people do not need small talk. In fact, they see small talk as a form of weakness. It is a tool of the stranger, the visitor, the one who is not at home.
At the same time, it seems that their masculinity is constantly threatened. One policeman struggles with terminal cancer, others face an internal investigation over a recent rescue mission.
The moment we have empathy towards them, their weaknesses and struggles become more apparent. The film, however, does not celebrate this inevitable decline. They begin as almost mythological figures, and as the story unfolds, they face the mediocrity of life.
We should also remember that they are serial killers in the name of homeland security. They face legal problems for having killed unarmed Palestinians civilians. Their justification is “we kill the bad ones to protect the good ones,” and this is what they believe in. But they also hide behind legal technicalities and try to manipulate the system.
Another characteristic the five policemen share is patriotism. After the biking trip, Yaron gazes at the vast landscape and shouts: “This is the most beautiful country in the world.”
Yes, and this is the pivotal sentence of the film. For me, there is something strange in describing an empty desert as “beautiful.” This is the key to understanding the rupture between the policemen and the anarchists. In a scene that mirrors the opening shot, Shira and her friends shoot a tree in the middle of the desert as an act of rage and hatred toward the country.
There’s a huge difference between shouting your name and shooting at a tree: It is the difference between those who feel rooted in this land, and those who feel detached and estranged from it. At the same time, detachment has its merits: it brings about a great capacity to see the blind spots others ignore. An Italian thinker once said: “My motherland is the state in which I’m ashamed.” Shira and the others are ashamed, and therefore they have the urge to struggle.
After the kidnap takes place, the policemen are confused by the fact that they are forced to deal with Israeli—rather than Palestinian—terrorists. At the same time, the young anarchists argue whether they should mention the Occupation in their manifesto.
Policeman is a film about the Israeli “collective soul.” The Palestinians are a part of this soul, even when we try to ignore their existence. They are the constant phantom of the “enemy.” Their guilt is pre-proven. I think there is no inner debate regarding the Occupation within the Israeli society since the Palestinians now function as the ultimate “other.”
The film also deals with rituals. In that sense the manifesto-writing scene is very naïve. These young people try to write a manifesto according to the way they think subversive groups write their manifestos, much like the policemen imitate cinematic heroes.
The film presents a very complex approach to violence. On the one hand, it is the thing that brings people together and creates a sense of camaraderie; on the other hand, it can have unpredictable and deadly consequences.
I agree with that observation. Violence is not only a negative force. Within a group you can find friendship, gentleness, fraternity, while the violence and aggression are targeted toward the “outsider.” The policemen are embodiments of the state, but they are not the ones making decisions. The “bad guys”—those who call the shots and send them to their missions—are invisible to us, and in a way they are the main source of violence.
Did you anticipate the 2011 civil protest in Israel when writing the film?
I think this question has two answers. Technically, I didn’t predict anything. Policeman is a pessimistic film about social immobility and incapacity to change reality, while the civic uprising was, for a short time, a surprising success.
The second answer might be that I identified a huge elephant in the Israeli living room: social injustice and inequality. Unlike historians or sociologists, a filmmaker has the privilege of imagination. I wrote a story about an imagined group shortly before similar groups came to life. In that sense it is an interesting case of the relationship between fiction and reality.
Were you surprised by the fact that Policeman was initially limited to 18-year-old viewers?
Yes, since it was an attempt to censor the film. It provoked a wave of criticism in the press, which led to a decision to ask the film rating committee to re-watch the feature and reconsider their decision. Following this second screening, one committee member said: “I have no issues with the policemen, only with the anarchists. We wouldn’t like to give the Israeli youth dangerous ideas.” I found this to be a very sincere answer.
For me, the most surprising part was the realization that people still believe in the transformative power of cinema. The idea that an Israeli teenager will watch such a film and then purchase a gun and kidnap someone seems quite unlikely to me. As a filmmaker, I wish cinema had such power, but I tend to believe that this medium has a more limited, and less immediate, influence.
You wrote the script for Policeman during a Festival de Cannes Residence, and last month premiered your second feature, The Kindergarten Teacher, at the festival. Could you describe your experience there?
It was a magnificent experience. Screening a film for the first time is always traumatic. You hope for the best but prepare yourself for the worst. Apart from the question of whether people will love or hate it, there is also a question of how they’ll understand it. I hope the films I make are not didactic. I want them to be open-ended and confusing, so the viewers could come up with their own answers to the questions.
In both Policeman and The Kindergarten Teacher you avoid the use of non-diegetic music. Instead, you make your characters sing.
That’s true. I feel that I don’t really know how to use a soundtrack or external music. I prefer the idea of throwing it on the character: Yaron is the one who decides when to do it. I love the idea of characters pronouncing themselves in different forms. One of the most powerful, creative, and sexy ways to pronounce oneself is by singing or dancing. Yaron listens to an album in a way that reveals his personality.
Your mother, Era Lapid, edited both your features. Could you describe the work process with her?
A film is always a collective work. It is a constant dialogue, and sometime there are disagreements in which you—as the director—are forced to exercise your authority. I remember sitting in the editing room with my mother and telling her, “I’m the director”—to which she replied: “Well, I’m the director’s mother.”
In general, the relationship between editor and director has to move fairly quickly from the stage of politeness, otherwise no film will ever get made. We have known each other for over thirty years, so we can skip the introductions and be very open about things. My mother is not an easy person. She is very direct and not afraid to tell me the truth. It might not always be a good thing as a parent, but it sure is an advantage for an editor.