When Nadav Lapid’s film “Synonyms” took the Golden Bear award, the most prestigious prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, two weeks ago, Israel shook with excitement in celebrating what may have been its most important cinematic victory ever. The display of enthusiasm this week over Gil Nattiv’s Oscar victory for his short film “Skin” may have been even greater. The intensity of the celebrations came as a surprise. Since when does the general Israeli public take an interest in elitist film festivals?
The Golden Bear is one of the most esteemed awards in international cinema and the prize has turned Lapid into the hottest rock star of the cinematic world – at least until the Oscars ceremony stole his spotlight.
But this week, after pulling off his tuxedo, relaxing his cheek muscles from the endless smiling and stretching his arm muscles after the hard work of waving around the heavy golden statue – “On the day of the award a lot of people came up to me and every time it was a person I didn’t know, I waved the bear in front of him. I discovered it saved a lot of words,” he says, beaming – Lapid allowed himself to step back and take it all in with a sober and critical look.
On the flight from Berlin to Israel, many passengers wanted to take their picture with him and his bear. They told him how they watched the ceremony and how excited and happy they were, he said. On the streets of Tel Aviv, too, lots of people stop him, congratulate him on the prize and propose stories for him to direct. “And it’s strange, because it’s a film about a young man who opens a dictionary and says all the worst words he finds in it about Israel. So it feels a bit like Netta Barzilai – but I’m not Netta Barzilai,” says Lapid. “Here there is an enormous thirst for success and recognition, and the win for ‘Synonyms’ is seen exactly like the Eurovision win or a judo medal. There is a sort of familiarity in this enthusiasm that is heartwarming, but in my eyes it’s a bit funny to talk about Israeli pride in the context of this film, which also has reproach for Israel.”
The shame Lapid is talking about is that Yoav, the main character in the movie, runs away from the country he grew up in – he decides to erase his previous life and began anew in Paris in order to cut himself off from Israel and all the horrible things he thinks about the country. In one of the most powerful scenes in “Synonyms,” these thoughts are embodied in a series of synonyms rapidly fired from the character’s mouth in anger, with a force that would not embarrass an Israeli Army machine gun. “Evil, despicable, disgusting, odorous,” Yoav says about his home country, followed by a few more unflattering adjectives.
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“He describes a country that is also miserable, evil, idiotic, and his intention was also mine: to insult the Israelis,” says Lapid. “You love your country so much, you are convinced that everyone needs to love it, and I wanted to say: ‘Look, I’m Israeli and I can hate Israel, say terrible things about it and curse it without end.’”
The film tells a story that is much broader than just a few hate-filled words directed at a certain country, but it could have easily become the newest number one enemy of Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev. When the film “Foxtrot” was screened at the Venice Film Festival in 2017, Regev attacked it, saying that the it slanders the Israel Defense Forces. This time Regev made do with sending a belated and dubious congratulatory message to Lapid in which she expressed the hope that the film is in compliance with Israeli law.
Lapid also feels a bit torn. On one hand, the past year has been brutal and complex for him. His mother Era Lapid, who usually edited his films, fell ill with cancer. She died just before she finished working on the movie, before the birth of her first granddaughter, and before her son won the Golden Bear. Now Lapid is allowing himself a moment to rest and enjoy the prestigious prize and the huge public embrace that comes with it. (“It’s a pleasure, we don’t need to be Puritans,” he says with a smile.) But at the same time, all this recognition and approval bothers him a little – it doesn’t agree with his tendency to defy, lash out and stick to the margins.
“This country doesn’t have an opposition in a deep sense, and this thirst for successes especially bothers me with film journalists,” he says.
“Everyone is interested in the Oscars. Who cares about the Oscars? Unimportant films compete against each other so someone can make money. And that’s true to the same extent about the prize I received. A lot of mediocre films won the Cannes, Berlin and Venice festivals, and they’re meaningless. There is a sort of automatic identification with power and success, everyone wants to be in the coalition, with the winners, and what’s missing for me is the person who will stand up and say: ‘Who cares about the Oscar and Golden Bear?’”
According to Lapid, Israel is lacking a rebellious instinct. “We need someone to be in the opposition, to upset the power structure of cinema, to want to lock horns with it,” he says, adding that it’s impossible to respect the ratings, the festivals and the Oscars all the time.
And Regev actually does that, and rather well, too.
“I don’t want to talk about her too much, but I wasn’t waiting for a telephone call from her, I don’t expect the Israeli establishment to embrace me. There is a phrase I like, that an artist must bite the hand that feeds him. I don’t expect hugs, and I don’t feel like an ambassador of Israel. But I still represent something of Israeliness, and if I love Israel or hate it, I’m still an Israeli and so my achievements in the world are connected to Israeli cinema. They organically represent a whole country, whether I like it or not. But I don’t think of myself as an ambassador, and don’t need to prove to myself that I’m good for Israel.”
You talk about biting the hand that feeds you, but the Culture Ministry’s logo still appears at the beginning of your film.
“I believe that it’s true that the hand feeds you and you bite it. If Israel funds you, it does not exempt you from the bite. I don’t think there should be a harmonious relationship with the place. And when artists are up against demands for political censorship, they need to insist that art has the right to be chaotic and wild, to go to extreme and dangerous places.”
In the face of a tsunami
Lapid, 43, lives in Tel Aviv with his partner, actor Naama Preis. Their first son was born a few months ago. In recent years he has become one of the most esteemed Israeli directors in the world. His first full-length feature film, “Policeman” (2011), won the second most important prize at the Locarno Festival and “The Kindergarten Teacher” (2014) was screened at the International Critics’ Week at Cannes. The two films won a long list of awards, both in Israel and abroad, and earned a quite a bit of critical acclaim, which marked Lapid as a director who uses innovative and daring cinematic language. The 2018 American remake of “The Kindergarten Teacher,” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, also picked up the prize for best direction at the Sundance festival.
“Synonyms” is the first film Lapid shot outside of Israel. It was produced by Saïd Ben Saïd, a major French producer, and Lapid says that filming in Paris was a real joy: “They are better at it. Here there is less money and time, but in France there are people who are happy with your vision, who want to be your partners. They were born in the kingdom of cinema.” The period of filming was no less than one of the happiest in his life, he says. But the minute he landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, reality hit him with a ringing slap in the face.
Lapid’s father, writer Chaim Lapid, who cowrote the screenplay for “Synonyms,” picked him up and told him the news that his mother had been diagnosed with cancer a month and a half earlier. Lapid was in shock. All throughout the filming he was in daily contact with his mother, send her what he filmed so her editor’s eye could examine it.
When he arrived home, his mother was waiting for him in the living room. She wore a scarf on her head – her hair had already fallen out. This was the first time her son had seen her like this. Nonetheless, the next morning they went to the editing room and began their work.
“It was a progression from a high, the highest high, to hell. This story is so cruel and dramatic, that I sometimes feel the need to dry [the emotion out of] it,” says Lapid. “My mother came into the world to edit films. That is what she loved, to be in the editing room and edit. So the fact that such a woman spent her last days editing her son’s film is so tragic that sometimes I feel a bit of a need to take out the drama and make it clear that my mother did not get cancer so it I could make the dramatic transition from the paradise of filming to the hell of editing. She got cancer because the world is a merciless place and because there are people who get cancer and die within seven months.”
There were days that began in the oncology ward Tel Hashomer Hospital just outside of Tel Aviv and continued with an editing shift. “When you discuss [movie] scenes in the oncology ward, and talk about chemotherapy in the editing room, hell is there all the time,” says Lapid. “And in this sense I feel that there’s a sort of darkness in the film, a kind of evil, pain, hurt and loss that came into it because of the mental state we were in during the editing process. I’m connected to this film because it was the reality of the time it was made: of the euphoria during the filming and the tragedy that accompanied its editing. We often want cinema to be sterile, hermetic – not to express the world. But in this case the world knocked on the door with such heavy hammers that it was impossible to close it.”
Era Lapid died on June 2018, before the editing of “Synonyms” concluded. Lapid dedicated the film to her.
Against a wall called Israel
“Synonyms” tells the story of Tom Mercier, an Israeli in his early 20s, the son of the Israeli-French hairdresser Michel Mercier. Because he is revolted by his country, he decamps for Paris to erase Israel from his life and be rid of Hebrew, which is an intrinsic part of it.
“The Kindergarten Teacher,” the story of a 5-year-old who composes poetry, has an autobiographical basis, and the same is the case for “Synonyms.” Lapid says the only time he had suicidal thoughts was before being drafted into the IDF, when he was deemed not fit enough and his dreams of enlisting in an elite unit were shattered. He was an outstanding soldier during his years in the intelligence corps and was almost drawn into a military career – but after he finished his service, he left it all behind him and began writing for Ha’ir, a local Tel Aviv newspaper (which had the same owners as Haaretz).
“I lived in Tel Aviv. And that’s it. It ended and was forgotten,” Lapid says about his military service. “It was normal because everyone is doing it, and you don’t have to be a genius to understand that part of the Israeli disease is the attempt to normalize what is abnormal.
“This is the moment the monster began to grow, and when it happens on a national level, it becomes a national monster. A year and a half after [I finished the army] I had an enormous need to leave this place and not return. I didn’t know why, I only knew that I had to do it before the door closed. It was an SOS. And I realized that if I want to save myself from Israel, getting on a plane was not enough. So I cut myself off from the place, from the language, from everything, as it’s described in the film.”
Lapid lived in Paris for two years. It was there he decided he wanted to make films. Like the star of his film, he repeated French words to himself while walking down the street. He refused to speak Hebrew, lived in a tiny apartment with a hole in the roof and ate sparingly.
“I would walk down the streets, curse the Israelis in French and rebuke them for their stupidity,” says Lapid. “I would tell myself: ‘One day Israel will be wiped out, but that’s not so terrible because it’s such a mediocre country that the world will not lose much.’ But in the end, a person who wanders around Paris and is so busy insulting the Israelis all the time – it really says something. I realized that this burning hatred I developed against Israel was not salvation. At the same time, neither I nor the character in the movie take back a single bad word about Israel. This country justifiably earned all these words. All of them. It‘s just that the connections you have to the place and the identity exist on all sorts of levels, and after you finish cursing the place you lived in, what will you do now?”
Lapid can’t quite explain why he became so enraged: “A million feelings were flying about in my head and came together into this terrible anger and disgust. There wasn’t a specific incident that triggered it, or a single reason, just a ton of energy and fury and a ton of words,” he says. “You could say it was a feeling of disgust at Israeliness itself. At the collective Israeli soul, the DNA of being Israeli. At the obligation to be Israeli at a time when it’s impossible to be an Israeli. When it’s forbidden. Certainly there was a post-traumatic dimension to it that’s related to the army – not because of any specific event, but due to its very existence as the embodiment and shaper of Israeliness, as its deep distillation.”
In the end, the film’s protagonist does not take an El Al flight back to Israel, and the film doesn’t give the message that there’s no place like home, says Lapid. “Otherwise, I really would have been a nominee for the ‘Best Zionist Movie’ award,” he says. “To me, a country’s identity is something you hurl yourself at again and again with all your might, knowing that ultimately it’s your head that’s going to break and not the country, not the wall. Because it’s really yourself that your hitting, and that makes the wall as strong as it could be, but there’s nothing you can do but continue hurling yourself at it. In all of my movies, I’m banging my head against a wall called Israel. But it’s also because I’m banging my head against myself.”