Israeli director Nadav Lapid is a creative whirlwind, a literary cinephile and former journalist who writes novels and screenplays simultaneously. His first feature film, Policeman, recently earned critical praise at NYFF and drew fresh attention to the Israeli cinema, but as of this writing, still lacks a U.S. distributor. Policeman follows two factions, a group of cocky counter terrorism experts and a group of idealistic radicals, both vehemently trying to do what they believe is right for Israeli society while heading towards a violent confrontation.
This interview was conducted with Lapid through e-mail as he made his way from the BFI Festival in London to the Viennale, only a fraction of his busy international festival schedule. Here Lapid discusses his decision to explore both sides of a conflict, and comments on his distinctive stylistic choices. Explaining that Israel is “a country of heroes,” he also reveals his startling personal experience with the split between Israeli civilians and policemen.
Keyframe:How did you conceive of the idea for Policeman? In reporting on Israel, the media in the US focuses almost exclusively on Arab-Israeli conflict, but we haven’t heard much if anything about Israeli radicals acting violently against their own government. How pervasive a phenomenon is this?
Nadav Lapid: Policeman is a film divided to two parts. The genesis of each of them was a little bit different. As for the part which deals with the revolutionary group, it began in Berlin in February 2005. I had a short film in the Berlinale, and someone told me that near by, in an art gallery, they were showing an interesting exhibition about [esthetical] aspects of political terror in Germany [or something like that]. I had a day off and decided to pass by. On the walls there were plenty of manifestos written by Baader Meinhof members. Reading them made me first think about this form of manifesto, always so declarative, dramatic and self-confident. And then, reading the descriptions, all full of fury and rage, about West German capitalistic society of the 70’s with it’s social injustice, huge gaps between rich and poor etc. I realized that all of this could be easily and rightly said about Tel Aviv in 2005. Israeli society is governed by a few powerful wealthy families, and yet in Israel nothing similar has ever been done. All this concept of the struggle from within, of class conflict, is repressed by the deeper Israeli taboo: the fundamental Jewish cohesion against the external enemy forever determined to destroy us. This idea of: we are all Jews, members of one big family, always in situation of alert due to the permanent existential menace which in a way, defines us as a state and defines our values (it’s important to be a brave and strong warrior). Under this myth, fake but very efficient, few Jews exploited over the years Jews and non-Jews, preventing them from the basic human right, to hate (and to struggle against) the person who oppresses you because we are all Jews, all brothers…
At that period, social fracture in Israel was completely absent in the media: in art, in cinema, especially in fiction, hidden by the well known national conflict (for me as I explained both are attached). I wanted to put this masked conflict on the screen, and to try to examine the system of repression of the class struggle in Israeli society, this fake cohesion, by challenging it with a radical group that will try to overcome this taboo of unity. Personally, I am participating in demonstrations against the separation wall where as a born Israeli who grew up in Tel Aviv, served 3.5 years in the army and is still doing his reserves duty you pass this fascinating shock when your own soldiers shoot tear gas on you- a shock because in Israel the soldier is yourself, your brother, your father or son or best friend.
As for the policeman part, it reflects my long term reflections about Israeli manhood. In Israel there is a clear and inevitable connection between being a man and being a soldier, between manhood, patriotism, battlefield, fighting for your country. Thus physical and political and sexual themes are mixed in a very strong, sometimes perverse way.
I had another feeling that although army, soldiers etc. were often shown in Israeli narrative films, most films were either praising this fraternity of warriors, this brotherhood and devotion, ignoring or minimizing the atrocities and terrifying deeds done by this fighters for instance in the territories, or condemning politically these fighters and ignoring their moving, human, personal sides, by creating theoretical descriptions and neglecting the important physical essence. I didn’t want to praise or condemn. I saw and heard during my military service awful things done by these Israeli men and heroes to “others”, Palestinians most of the time, and I witnessed their moving tenderness and devotion towards each other. I wanted to capture this complexity. Not complexity on the sense that one part of the equation softens the other. Their mutual friendship and love doesn’t compensate for their cruelty and violence towards the “others”, outside the group. In certain ways it makes it even worst. At the same time there is something fascinating and even moving about their relations one towards each other. They have this strong connection, mainly physical. I wanted it to be beautiful and horrible.
Keyframe: In your director’s statement, you write: “Members of both groups share a combination of great naivety and great violence. Physical violence in the policemen. Rational violence in the revolutionaries.”
This gives the impression that the policeman’s section would be very visual or action-oriented, while the radical’s story would be very dialogue heavy, almost two films with potentially very different styles. Were you concerned about the two halves not fitting together into a whole, especially as they were kept in separate halves? How did you try to connect them?
Lapid: This two parts-two groups issue was one of my main concern preparing the movie. I discussed it a lot first with the director of photography (Shai Goldman), should we have different style for each part? Different aesthetics? Different politics of framing? Of shooting? And then with the editor during the editing process, should we have a different tone? A different politics of cuts? And the way the actors are acting, their presence in front of the camera, should it look alike or be separated? At the end we understood that it would be too easy, not intelligent, and mainly wrong regarding the film’s intentions to create two films. That’s why the editing is quite similar; in both cases we tried to create an editing that will not be spoiled, that will not let the sometimes stylized scenes to enjoy too much their from their own existence, a tough editing, not a lot of cuttings, right on the contrary, but cuts that will be well felt, not hidden ones, cuts that will create a tension, kind of dialectic tension, between the two sides of the cut.
I feel that in both parts the camera acts more or less in the same way. In both parts the camera stands there and calls the characters to stand in front of her and to declare one time after the other the fact they exist, then trying to define again and again in front of the camera what is this existence about, from which materials they are composed. Because in a way this is the main activity of characters on both parts in the movie. They use rituals and ceremonies in order to declare again and again in front of the camera who are they. Like this 5 policemen in the opening scene shouting there names to the valley.
For me, despite there huge differences, there are a lot of common things between both groups. Both are obsessed, as I said already, with rituals, ceremonies, dealing in a way with ceremonial representations of the thing instead of the thing itself. Ceremony of brotherhood and fraternity on the side of the policemen. Ceremony of terror and revolution on the side of the young radicals. And both are complete prisoners in their own universe, of their own moral system, of their own values, a kind of deadly innocence, a totally autistic devotion to their causes, which is both impressive and frightening, and a total luck of capacity to make one step towards the other, an existential autism that enables them maybe to act, but assure the deterministic failure of the tentative to bring about a change.
Keyframe: Could you say more about your decision to tell the story in separate halves, rather than switching back and forth between the policemen and the students?
Lapid: Using a parallel edit in this film would put the focus on the narrative way that these two groups and two main heroes, the policeman and the radical young woman pass till their dramatic confrontation. While he is dancing to his wife, she is dancing in a club etc. But for me how they meet in the end is absolutely not the question. Their meeting is the most evident and least surprising thing. It results from their nature. Nothing is more natural for the ultimate guard of existing order, the policeman, than to confront those who try to transgress it, they are the classic enemies and all his life is devoted to these frontal meetings with the enemy. And radicals know that when they’ll move into action sooner or later they will confront the armed power of the state; with such a radical action, it will surely happen very soon.
So the mythological confrontation between these social forces is natural and evident. The question that I tried to deal with was: who are they? I tried to create an existential portrait of these two groups, dealing with their crucial and marginal moments that for me had the same importance, with their choice of words, their vocabulary, their physical gestures, the expression on their faces, I tried to dig in as deep as I could their existence. That’s why I needed two separate parts.
But there is another thing. When policeman and revolutionaries are ready to move one toward the other, each to make a single step towards the other, then regimes fall, radical changes happen. We just saw it happen in Egypt.
However, this phenomenon is extremely rare. There is a huge gap between the bourgeois radicals, those who live in nice apartments and express beautiful ideas, and the policemen, who dream about nice apartments and serve the “bad ideas”. In Israel where the manipulative national cohesion is so efficiently used, the separation, the deep misunderstanding between these two groups, seems impossible to shake. I think it is shown in a clear way when only few meters separate the policemen and the radicals, the policemen hear the radical calling on the megaphone: “Policemen you are not our enemies. Policemen you are also oppressed”, but they don’t feel oppressed, and their distance from these radicals is endless. I felt that this separation, which is a main theme of the film should be kept in the construction. Also in the film they don’t mix. Even in the film it’s impossible for them to mix, there is no possible cut that can connect between them.
Keyframe: One of the most unexpected and wonderful scenes in Policeman is Yaron’s dance for his wife after his bike ride. This almost seems like an improvised moment; was it originally in the script? Is the song, which Yaron sings in other scenes in the film, well known in Israel, and does it have any larger significance?
Lapid: I must say that not only that the dance wasn’t improvised but we worked a lot on it. My main instruction to Yiftach Klein, the actor, was to attack the lens, to attack the camera. The second one was to declare his existence in front of us. For me, in a way, his body shouts to us all the time: “Here I am! It’s me! I exist!”.
The song is a well known Israeli tune from the Eighties. It has something naïve, simple, almost foolish about it. The lyrics are nice but quite limited. You can find of course a sexual connection: “She loves the radio to bang hard”, especially by the way he moves his hips. So in a way it is also about a couple who discusses their sex life. But mainly it’s a simple and enthusiastic song, that nice Israelis love to sing, because our policeman is mainly, for me, a nice person.
Keyframe: You assembled an incredibly talented cast for Policeman. What was your casting process like? Yiftach Klein seems well known in Israel, but how did you discover Yaara Pelzig?
Lapid: I worked with Yiftach Klein in my former film, “Emiles Girlfriend“, a 50 min. film shown in Cannes in 2006 and distributed in France. For me, Yiftach has this special, not easy to define touch of a hero of cinema. I mean that he has this special touch of the classic heroes of cinema like, for example, Montgomery Clift. He can create not only powerful moments in the film, but also touches a mythological level of cinema. And he is also an Israeli hero. It strange because in Israel, a country of heroes, where each second kid is educated to become a hero, there are very few “heroic actors”. Most of our famous actors are anti-heroes, in a way, sorry for the cliché, very Jewish.
Yaara Pelzig was still an acting student when I cast her for the role. I prepared myself for long and hard auditions for this very difficult role. But after the first audition of Yaara it was clear for me that she is the perfect Shira. Despite the fact that in the script Shira is described as black hair young woman while Yaara is blond. A part of her acting capacities, I admired her attitude, the feeling she gave and that penetrates her acting: she doesn’t try to please, but she is not apathetic either; she is serious, direct. There is something completely impersonal about her attitude, and she is very obedient, putting attention to the smallest details, just like Shira.
Keyframe: There are elements and moments in Policeman that recall other great films. The policeman’s pregnant wife recalls the one in Munich; the gasping, dying woman recalls Full Metal Jacket; the group of revolutionaries recall the revolutionaries in La Chinoise and Le Gai Savoir. Do you acknowledge these films as reference points, and if so, what is your thinking in how you reference them?
Lapid: Except for Munich which I haven’t seen, all the other films you have mentioned served as references. I watched the last scene in Full Metal Jacket two or three times, and I watched La Chinoise two or three times. La Chinoise is for me a theoretical film in a more clear way than Policeman, gaining real life and substance because of the genius abilities of Godard. In Policeman I have tried to play all the time in this no man’s land between concrete and real, and theoretical and metaphoric. I look for moments when the spectator is not totally sure on which cinematic territory he stands, what is the tone, ironic? Dramatic? Tragic? What is the genre? These moments of disorientation and incapacity to classify are for me a possibility for the spectator to look at the film itself, pure and naked, and not at all the definitions and the references that exist in his mind.
I am watching a lot of films and clearly influenced by some directors. I think that a lot of cinephiles will enjoy recognizing in the film all sort of traces. But at the same time I feel that Policeman is very different from all those films.
Keyframe: Your biography on the Cannes Cinefondation website says you initially worked as a film and television critic and studied Literature at the University of Saint Denis in France. How did starting out in a critical, literary profession inform your perspective as a screenwriter and director?
Lapid: I worked as a journalist and as a critic. I think that maybe the main influence of this past on my cinema is that I look automatically and instinctively at my films throughout history and presence of cinema. I mean that I don’t live almost at any moment this isolation of myself and my idea. It exists off course, but cinema, its history, exists there almost all the time as well.
As the same time, I was also a novelist and I’m writing parallel to my new script some novels, so I always look firstly at myself as a creator.
Keyframe: Your film seems to introduce a bold new form of filmmaking to Israeli cinema, but perhaps we do not know enough about its history. Are there important Israeli films and filmmakers that you would like to draw attention to in relation to your work?
Lapid: For me, what is called by some the new wave of Israeli cinema is characterized, unlike for example the new Romanian cinema, by the fact that it has no similar cinematic characteristic or handwriting. Everyone does his film and the only thing we share in common is the fact we have the same passport. I know personally almost all the Israeli new directors. Tel Aviv is tiny and artistic milieus are almost always familiar. But I don’t think I can mention one of these films as a source of inspiration or as an example of similarity for my film. Some spectators have mentioned a classic film of Assi Dayan, Life According to Agfa. It is an excellent film. I don’t see the similarity. But maybe.
Anna Bak-Kvapil is a film critic, filmmaker and actor. She contributes to the website Not Coming to a Theater Near You.