Arrested Development

A tough, macho Israeli law-enforcement agent is a dominant character in Nadav Lapid's award-winning 'Policeman,' but the theme of social and class revolution also permeates the movie; the filmmaker couldn't have picked a better time or place for his full-length feature debut.

Nadav Lapid
Nadav Lapid Nir Kafri

Nadav Lapid's debut film, "Policeman," does not allow viewers to sink into an escapist experience in imaginary realms: It throws them against the wall of reality. The film offers a penetrating look at today's Israel, and is right in line with the social protest that has taken over the streets in recent months. Although Lapid, 36, wrote the script five years ago, it seems that no more suitable time could have been found for his film to be screened locally. The dialogue that it conducts with the protest that has been shaking the country imbues it with unique and surprising power.

In one scene in "Policeman," which just opened in Israeli cinemas, a young woman is seen with a group of friends, discussing the fact that Israel needs a social revolution - that they must do something which will shake up the country, spur the masses to lose their complacency, and stop being silent in the face of injustice. The group decides to take action, and the young woman (played by Yaara Pelzig ) reads aloud the draft of a manifesto she has composed on her laptop: "The time has come for the poor to become rich and for the rich to die. The Jewish state has become a state of masters and slaves: those with a private plane that can take them wherever they want to go, and those who don't have bus fare."

Nadav Lapid
Nir Kafri

She adds, "A contemptible country is screaming at us to remain complacent. Complacency is a lie. Silence is crap."

"That sentence sounds like an advertisement," one of the young people sitting opposite her says, interrupting her. The others ask her to continue reading.

"The Palestinians at least know that they are under occupation," she continues, but then a young man interrupts her angrily.

"Why are you bringing the Palestinians into this?" he says. "You have to explain to people simply: Israel is today in first place in the West in terms of the gap between rich and poor - the world champion."

Shortly afterward the camera reveals the apartment where the discussion is taking place: an elegant and luxurious home in one of the residential high-rises that dot the Tel Aviv skyline. "A real palace, your parents' living room," the young man who is apparently the leader of the group tells the young revolutionary, smiling slightly.

"I hate their house," she replies, "they're pigs. But when they're abroad it's convenient."

An element of violence

The official debut of "Policeman" took place in July at the annual Jerusalem International Film Festival - just as Daphni Leef, Stav Shaffir and their fellow protesters were setting up the first tent on Rothschild Boulevard and rousing the masses to take to the streets. Lapid's film picked up three prizes there: best screenplay, best cinematography (by Shai Goldman) and best debut film. (Lapid and producer Itai Tamir decided not to accept the award, in protest at the way in which the festival handled the conflicts of interest discovered among the competition's judges.)

The film went on to win the judges' prize at the veteran Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland, and was screened at a large number of festivals abroad, including those in London and New York (the Village Voice and the IndieWIRE website said "Policeman" was among the five "must-see" films at New York ). Recently it was also sold for commercial distribution in France and Spain.

'The Policeman'

But the revolutionaries in Lapid's film are far more extreme that Leef, Shaffir and their friends: They favor violent protest, and in the course of the film kidnap several wealthy businessmen to get television coverage, and in the hope that this will arouse public awareness of, and participation in, their protest.

Nevertheless, these young radicals are not the only heroes of the story: As the name of the film implies, another main character is a policeman named Yaron, a member of the elite Israel Police special anti-terror unit. He is married, his wife is about to give birth to their first child at any moment, and they dream of the day when they can move to a private house in a rural area. He is devoted to his wife, to his family, to his friends and to his homeland. And no less than that, he is devoted to his own body: He trains, stays fit and takes pleasure in his muscular build.

Just as Lapid at times directs an ironic and critical glance at the young revolutionaries, he does the same with Yaron. At certain moments the tough cop seems like a walking cliche of masculinity and machoism. An encounter with his friends involves a series of loving but frighteningly strong slaps on the back, and he proudly puts his pistol on the table in an attempt to impress a young waitress.

While the policeman is the dominant character here, the desire for revolution was originally the main theme Lapid wanted to use in his film.

"In 2005, when I presented a short film of mine at the Berlin Film Festival, I had a free day and went to an exhibition about the artistic aesthetics of political terror, about the subversive Baader-Meinhof gang," he explains, in a recent interview in his Tel Aviv home.

"At the entrance there were copies of their manifesto. I began to read and was amazed to discover how well it suited the situation in Israel. All the talk about the haves and the have-nots, about the fact that the time has come to expose injustice, about the situation of social injustice. I thought to myself that in Israel the situation is far more extreme than the one that confronted that group in the 1970s. In Germany, I thought, the situation gave rise to Baader-Meinhof. And here? Nothing. Nobody even talks about it, neither in the media nor in the press."

Lapid's first urge, he admits, was to translate this insight into political action. "I left the museum shaken. I felt I had to tell the Israelis, 'You're being exploited, you're living in a society of masters and slaves.' I told myself that we had to terrorize the country. I came up with all the intellectual justification for the idea that the government of wealth is violent, and therefore we have to react to it with violence," he says.

"But these thoughts didn't reach an operational level. Like many good artists and intellectuals, I would torture myself at night about why I wasn't doing anything. So I said to myself: Okay, if I'm not doing anything, at least I'll make a film about people who finally want to tell the truth and decide to throw a bomb into the heart of public awareness - to kidnap billionaires."

Lapid hoped that when Israelis watched the film, they would wonder how such a terrorist group has not yet arisen in the gloomy reality in which they live.

"I hoped that people who saw the film would undergo the same process that I underwent when I read the manifestos, so that in this way I would start a discussion of the question of why nobody is doing anything," he says. "And why does that actually happen? Because people are living 'external' wars, because people are living the manipulation used on them - because they are told 'Go fight the outside enemy' and 'We're all brothers.' And to whom do they say those things? To soldiers, to policemen, to fighters. Then I said to myself, after these guys kidnap the billionaires, some cop will come and put an end to the story."

Science fiction

Raising money for the film was a difficult challenge for Lapid. Abroad it was seen as focusing on domestic Israeli problems that would not necessarily interest the international audience; at home, Lapid's revolutionaries were seen as divorced from reality.

"They treated that part of the film as though it was a story from the 'Arabian Nights.' They said: 'Are you aware that it's science fiction, that it doesn't exist.' That's a reaction I got all the time. Social activists who came from Tel Aviv were then considered an impossibility. I didn't try to say that they exist, of course, only that the problems exist. I had an advantage over all kinds of researchers and politicians who didn't foresee certain things, but as a director I was able and allowed to use my imagination. The film is actually saying, 'Imagine if someone were to do that.'"

In the end three local bodies funded the film: the Yehoshua Rabinowitz Foundation for the Arts, the HOT cable television company, and the Jerusalem Film and Television Initiative.

In the summer, when the social protest erupted in Israel, Lapid was surprised. "I was shocked," he admits. "I don't know if it's possible to explain the feelings of a director who wrote a screenplay in which there's a girl who shouts to the policemen in the film, 'Police, you aren't our enemies! Police, you're also oppressed!' - and then he comes to a demonstration and sees a girl standing with a megaphone and shouting, 'Mr. Policeman, you're also worth more.'

"I felt as though people were taking the film out of my hands and screening it in real time. It was very strange. Even afterward, when I became somewhat involved in the social struggle and found myself saying to people that in my opinion it had to go further - I didn't know if I was saying that because that's what I think, or because I simply want my film to really happen already," he laughs.

'Perfect conformist'

Nadav Lapid was born and raised in Tel Aviv, in a home that was immersed in culture, literature and cinema. His father, Haim Lapid, is an author and a scriptwriter; his mother, Era Lapid, is a highly regarded film editor. Both enlisted to help their son with his first full-length feature. His father helped him with the script, and his mother edited the film ("At the end of every shift we went together to the home of the director's parents to eat supper," smiles Lapid ). His younger brother, Itamar, also did not stray far from the fold and is now studying cinema at Tel Aviv University.

"I'm always envious of people whose fathers work in a supermarket, and who discover literature and poetry and cinema on their own," says Lapid. "That won't happen to me. I've been familiar with those things from the age of three or four; I grew up into them. I can't imagine a world without them. From an early age I saw the 'right' films and my father would read books with me. In that sense I'm the perfect conformist. You have to accept what life offers you. And if you're already doing that, then why not immerse yourself in this family experience all the way."

Lapid says that his decision to place a tough cop at the center of his film, which enables him to focus on Israeli masculinity and machoism, stems from a conflict that he has had since he was a boy.

"I remember that at the age of 17 I had very solid political views, very leftist. I knew how important peace was, and I would think of all that when I ran along the beach with sacks full of stones, dreaming about a heroic military adventure. I had a very strange combination of relatively well-developed and nonchauvinist political awareness, and a strong passion for heroic adventures. It's a type of flirtation with masculinity that I still haven't managed to solve," he comments.

The major crisis in his life took place when the army lowered his medical profile and he understood that he wouldn't be able to fulfill his dream and serve in the elite Shayetet or Sayeret Matkal units. He finally was forced to do his service in an intelligence unit deployed near the northern border.

Lapid: "I was drafted in 1994. That was a quiet period and I didn't know what to do with all that quiet. Like any average military psychopath, I thought that quiet was worse than war. I spent my first period in the army in a depression and with terrible guilt feelings, because soldiers were being killed in Lebanon all the time, and I thought, Why am I not there? I had some kind of passion for war, with an insane desire for shooting, some kind of death wish. I kept hoping that something would happen. And all that was at a time when I read a book of conversations with [Palestinian terrorist leader] Abu Nidal with great interest.

"What I wanted most was to shoot. In hindsight, I understand that I was totally caught up in the most basic traps of masculinity. I was the ultimate naive victim - the classic example of an unaware person, who doesn't even understand that he could die or that there was any danger. It didn't interest me. I used to look at the Syrian border and say 'Nu, when will something happen already?' I was a totally split personality. My complex relationship with masculinity in Israel was very present at that time. I imagined pistols and rifles everywhere; I had a collection of MG bullets that I would arrange at home. I had all kinds of things that weren't really very healthy."

Observing Golani

After his military service, Lapid began studying philosophy at Tel Aviv University and wrote for the local weekly HaIr; Ari Folman, who later went on to be an award-winning filmmaker with "Waltz With Bashir," was his editor there. Two years later Lapid left Israel and went to live in Paris. Although he wrote several (Hebrew ) novellas there that were published in a 2001 collection called "Keep on Dancing," Lapid discovered that what he really wanted was to focus on cinema. He remained in Paris for two years and returned to study at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem.

The films he created during his studies were successful and well received. The short film "Mahumud Works at the Industry" was shown at the Cannes International Film Festival. "Road" was shown at the Berlin and Locarno festivals, and his graduate project, "Emile's Girlfriend," 50 minutes long and starring Yiftach Klein, was shown in 2006 at Cannes and was commercially distributed in France.

Lapid considers Klein a cinematic hero, an Israeli hero, and says that when he began working on his first full-length feature, it was clear that the actor would embark on the journey to understand Israeli masculinity together with him.

"The question concerning masculinity touches on my own unresolved complex about the issue; I have felt for a long time that masculinity here is passed on via the army and via soldiers. Toward the end of my military service, tension with Syria suddenly flared up, and they brought a Golani brigade up to us. They came from the territories and told terrible stories about what they did there," Lapid recalls.

"We would travel with them by bus to Tel Aviv and of course they would all sleep. They had this thing where everyone who had to get off would wake up, embrace each of his friends, say to him 'See you, fighter' - and the other would reply 'See you, fighter.' There was masculinity in those embraces, but a lot of gentleness too. I remember that I wondered what it meant: that these soldiers could tell you the most horrific stories but also demonstrate such gentleness. That they have tremendous devotion to their friends, and on the other hand a total lack of mercy toward the 'Other.'

"When I began working on the film, I understood that only if you experience these two sides can you get to the bottom of the concept of masculinity here. And I feel that this also makes it possible to get to the bottom of this country and this nation, to understand the DNA of this place.

"There's an unsigned contract between Israeli men and their country: For three years you hire yourself out for military service, you're willing to sacrifice yourself for the country, and in return the country gives you moral strength: If you kill someone it isn't you, it's the country killing him. I understood that, as fascinating as it is in the army, it's far more fascinating when life really begins, at the age of 30something and ... you have a wife or children or a supermarket or a mortgage. Then the connections begin to be more complex and impossible. To attend your mother's birthday party, and then go out and kill someone, and then return home to give your wife a massage - that becomes very difficult, strange and bizarre.

"On the other hand, that is the distilled essence of survival in this place, the place where the cafes are full of people who have killed or are willing to be killed."