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ND/NF Interview: Tom Shoval

By Neta Alexander on March 24, 2014

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Taking place in an Israeli suburban town, Tom Shoval’s debut feature juxtaposes a family melodrama with a psychological thriller haunted by the specters of class struggle and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Teenage brothers Yaki and Shaul (played by twins David and Eitan Cunio) kidnap a wealthy high-school girl and hold her in their basement, hoping to use the ransom to cover their parents’ debts. This “master plan,” however, quickly goes awry, and as time passes, they realize that their family home has been transformed into a battleground, where any passing child or neighbor might turn them over to the police.

Unlike recent successful Israeli war movies such as Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort (07) or Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon (09), which play out in familiar sites of war, Youth can be seen as part of a new wave of Israeli features describing how the ongoing military conflict invades and changes the domestic sphere. In a similar manner to Nadav Lapid’s Policeman (11), Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales’s Big Bad Wolves (13) or Jonathan Gurfinkel and Rona Segal’s Six Acts (13), Shoval’s drama has a melancholic and morbid tone, guided by a suffocating sense that violence could erupt at any given moment.

FILM COMMENT spoke with Shoval, whose film will have its U.S. theatrical release later this year, about the proliferation of violence in contemporary Israeli cinema, the central role Hollywood movies play in the life of Youth’s young protagonists, and his dream project.

Youth Tom Shoval

As a term, Youth stands for a broad range of ages and as such offers different meanings. Why did you choose this title? Did you have any specific connotation in mind?

There are a few answers to this question. The first is that I wanted to make a film about what it means to be young in Israel, where “young” means between the ages 13 and 18. When you turn 18, you have to serve in the army, and are told that from now on you are capable of protecting the country and its borders. And so, overnight, you are no longer a “youth” but a “man.” There is something disturbingly arbitrary about this transformation. It creates a weird, sometimes absurd, gap between the inner world of the soldier and the actions he is forced to perform on a daily basis. Yaki, the older brother who was recently enlisted, is no different in that sense.

Another possible answer is that the term “youth” refers to the generational gap which stands at the center of the film. The original Hebrew title, HaNoa’ar, is an archaic word used by our grandparents to lament a perceived lack of responsibility and values in younger generations. At the same time, it can also imply “the best of the youth”—the future with all its potential—and there exists a tension between these contradictory meanings.  

Another constant tension which gives the film its emotional depth is the gap between the brothers’ Israeli identity—their language, military service, upbringing, and so on—and their immersion in a fantasy world shaped by Hollywood genre movies. Shaul works at a cinema multiplex, and the tiny room he shares with Yaki is covered with movie posters.

I think you are right that there are two layers to the film: the first is the level of reality—the family’s financial struggle and Yaki’s military service. The film is full of actions and gestures that turn these realities into a very concrete vernacular experience. The second layer is that of fantasy: the siblings immerse themselves in the cinematic realm to escape from reality. They imitate the action heroes they admire by way of body language and tone of speech. So there is a struggle between these two layers and as the story unfolds we are waiting to see whether these two worlds will somehow connect. This can also explain why I chose twin brothers to play the leading roles: one relates to cinema and the other to reality. The film is a juxtaposition of the two options. In the end, however, the gravity of reality prevails. Cinema is not a solution. If you choose to live in a world of fantasy, your sense of reality will eventually become too distorted.

Interestingly, Yaki and Shaul’s definition of “cinema” is very narrow: they only watch B movies or action films. Considering that Youth, as well as your earlier short films, work within the conventions and tradition of art-house cinema, I assume your own definition of the term is much wider.  

While the film incorporates some autobiographical elements, it is not about me. When writing the script I tried to see the world through the eyes of a 17-year-old living in an Israeli suburb. I remember going to American action films and feeling that the suspension of disbelief is most intuitive, as well as pleasurable, in Hollywood cinema. When you’re young, you are fully immersed in the experience.

As a film critic and a film student, I developed a much more eclectic cinematic taste. I love the British filmmaker Alan Clarke, who made Elephant and Scum. Maurice Pialat’s L'Enfance nue was a major influence on Youth. It is a coming-of-age story evoking the same feeling I was trying to capture: that growing up can be like a miracle, but it is also cruel, brutal, and filled with anxieties.

Youth Tom Shoval

You didn’t mention any Israeli filmmaker as an influence on your work. How do you understand the fact that Israeli films such as Big Bad Wolves, Six Acts, The Slut, The Cutoff Man, and many others present a violent and melancholic portrait of Israeli society, without directly relating to the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians?

All the works you mentioned were made by filmmakers from the same generation. We are all in our thirties, which means that we were born shortly before the first Lebanon war broke out in 1982, and grew up during the Second Intifada. Therefore we reflect similar anxieties and impressions that translate into similar stories. The occupation has a constant presence in all of these movies. It is always in the background, in one way or another.

In a central scene in Youth, shortly after Dafna (Gita Amely) was kidnapped, she asks the brothers “Are you Arabs?” to which they furiously reply with “No.” Why did you include this dialogue?

It seems that we need “the Arabs” to project our repressed violent impulses onto someone else. We refuse to believe that we are capable of deliberately inflicting pain on another human being. But sometimes our souls are the ones corrupted.

You did, however, serve in the military, in the IDF spokesperson’s filmmaking unit.

Yes, I did. I was directing propaganda movies, the sort of movies demonstrating how to put on your gas mask in case of a chemical weapon attack. But most of the time I was performing absurd, Kafkaesque tasks like “guarding” empty army barracks.

The society depicted in Youth is militaristic, chauvinistic, and aggressive. Being a young man is challenging, and yet it seems that the brothers have more agency than the girl they kidnapped and victimized.

We live in a sexist society, and I think it is a real problem. But I also think that Dafna is much more than a victim. She is very strong. She is able to manipulate the brothers although her mouth is gagged most of the time. You don’t know a lot about her, but you do get glimpses of her very complicated life. She runs away from home, lies to her parents. In the beginning, the brothers look at her in an entirely instrumental way: they need her to get the money. But after the kidnap they start to see, little by little, that she is not that different from them. She is lost, and is desperately looking for meaning.

Tom Shoval Youth

You and your cinematographer, Yaron Scharf, maintain a strong emphasis on the body and its anguish. The acting is heavily based on body language and facial expressions rather than on a spoken dialogue. Was that a deliberate choice?

Yes. I love physical cinema. One of the most substantial qualities of cinema is that you can see bodies move. It is all about movement, and the movement tells you everything about the character’s psychology. The physicality offers a pathway into the soul. The way Yaki and Shaul hug each other tells you more about their emotional state than any dialogue between them.

While the brothers’ physicality is youthful and confident, the siblings’ father, Moti (Moshe Ivgy), walks around like a ghost, unemployed and about to lose the family apartment.

I have known people like Moti, who were fired and could no longer support their families. I wrote the script before the Israeli civil protest that broke in summer 2011, when tens of thousands Israelis took to the streets to protest the continuing rise in the cost of living. But I was always very much aware of the problems middle-class families are facing. Like Nadav Lapid and other young Israeli filmmakers—we all saw our parents and our friends not being able to make ends meet. Many of the activists who initiated the protest are filmmakers themselves.

You are a part of a new generation of Israeli filmmakers who started out as film critics in publications like Maarvon (“Western”) or Takriv (“Close-Up”). Would you say that your experience as a critic has served you as a screenwriter and director?

I always ask myself that question. I want to be immersed in cinema in every possible way: writing about films, making my own films, coming up with new theories. Cinema evokes so many ideas and feelings; sometimes you feel the need to write them down, and the beauty of it all is that occasionally just by linking two films together you can create something new.

Youth Tom Shoval

Would you define yourself as a filmmaker or a film critic?

I see myself making more films, so I guess I would say I’m a filmmaker. I remember they called me to the stage for a Q&A in the Berlinale [at Youth’s world premiere] and introduced me as “filmmaker Tom Shoval.” That was such a weird moment. But I’m more of a cinephile or film  enthusiast. I used to work as a projectionist and archivist in a film library. It is all part of the same passion.

And soon you might pursue this passion with Alejandro González Iñárritu as your mentor.

Yes. It is exciting. I was chosen as one of three finalists in a new mentorship program initiated by Rolex. Apparently they showed him 10 movies made by young filmmakers from all over the world, and he picked Youth as one of his three top choices. I will meet him in L.A. next month and pitch him my new project, and if I am chosen, we will begin a year of mentorship.

Let’s pretend I’m Iñárritu, and right this moment you had to pitch me your dream project. What would it be?

I want to make a modern remake of Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana set in contemporary Israel. It will be a black comedy about a girl from a very rich family who tries to solve all the problems of the Israeli society. Her methods become more and more creative, crazy, and absurd. But they do seem to work.

So will she solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Possibly. Money can solve everything, as we know all too well.

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