Mysterious 'Kindergarten Teacher' Tops Israel's 2014 Cinema Crop

When Nadav Lapid was six, he stopped writing poems because it didn’t suit his masculine identity. Thirty years later, he directed ‘The Kindergarten Teacher,’ about a preschool teacher obsessed with a boy who writes poems.

Yariv Fein and Guy Kushi

This has been an amazing year for Israeli cinema, but in my opinion “The Kindergarten Teacher” is the best of the crop. Nadav Lapid’s film has won considerable recognition and acclaim abroad, including winning the Silver Cathedral Award at the Seville Film Festival in Spain. Lapid also won the best director award and Sarit Larry was voted best actress at the International Film Festival of India in Goa, and the prestigious American journal Film Comment, published by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, included “The Kindergarten Teacher” on its list of the 20 best non-American films distributed in the United States in 2014.

Recently it was also announced that Lapid’s short film, “Why?” will be featured at the 65th annual Berlin Film Festival, which opens next week. “Why?” was produced through the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School as part of its “Love Letters to Cinema” series and premiered at the Haifa Film Festival. Now “The Kindergarten Teacher” is opening here in Israel.

In this, Lapid’s second full-length feature film, he tells the story of a preschool teacher named Nira who discovers that among her charges is a 5-year-old boy named Yoav who from time to time goes into a type of trance. He starts to pace to and fro, and then stops, declares “I have a poem,” and starts to recite in a near monotone the poem he had just written, which generally deals with a topic ostensibly far from the life of such a little boy, whether it be love, violence or death.

Nira, married with two grown children, who herself aspires to be a poet and even attends a poetry-writing class, develops an obsession with the young poet. This obsession touches on her aspirations and frustrations, but most of all it touches her desire to celebrate the existence of the young poet in the reality that surrounds her, and through him to introduce the poetic to contemporary life, which to her seems aggressive and crude. The more the obsession intensifies, the more she herself disconnects from reality, and her actions become increasingly extreme.

One word pushed aside all others in my consciousness after I’d watched “The Kindergarten Teacher” – the word “mysterious.” I saw the film at the Cannes Film Festival last year, where it was screened outside the competition as part of Critics’ Week, and although I was aware of its complexity, and although it moved me, most of all it surprised me.

Itayel Tzion

It surprised me the way a work of art touches and surprises you from a conceptual and emotional place whose secrets seem to you to be totally unique, perhaps even somewhat obscure. That’s why the first question I asked Lapid when we met was about how the film had come about. The answer began with the fact that all the poems that Yoav writes in the movie had been written by Lapid himself when he was a child.

Lapid, who will turn 40 this year, explains that as little boy, “I had a short and intensive poetry career. Somewhere at around four-and-a-half, they tell me – I don’t really remember this myself – I started to walk the way Yoav does in the movie and declared that I had a poem. During that period I had a babysitter who, motivated by some instinct, took out a pen and wrote the poems down. It became a sort of ritual that repeated itself over two years, approximately twice a week. It could happen at any time of the day, while walking in the street or during a Tu Bishvat party; I would start to pace back and forth and then declare, ‘I have a poem.’

“The last poem that Yoav writes in the movie is also the last one I wrote, as far as I know. It was the only poem commissioned from me, and it was accompanied by a minor scandal. It was in first or second grade, I don’t remember. My teacher’s son was a soldier who’d been kidnapped in Lebanon – he was freed later in the Jibril exchange – and the parents of the kids in the class, who knew that I wrote poems, asked me to write a poem that would lift her spirits. Instead, I wrote a poem that describes parting as a short death. The parents were furious, and I remember one mother screaming at my mother.”

Lapid says that while he has no memory of himself writing the poems, he has a conscious memory of deciding to stop. “It stemmed from the fact that on some level I believed that writing poems wasn’t compatible with masculinity; that in writing poetry there was a measure of sensitivity and exposure that I wanted to avoid,” he says. “And I never wrote another poem again. My parents put the poems in a drawer and I never opened it, because that whole chapter of my life was accompanied by a sense of defeat – defeat because I had blocked from myself the possibility of writing poetry.”

Amit Berlowitz

He opened the drawer only 30 years later, and not only did he not remember writing the poems he found inside, he says he no longer remembered the child he had been when he wrote them.

“That’s why ‘The Kindergarten Teacher’ is a movie that includes autobiographical elements, but it’s not an autobiographical film,” he says. “It’s a film that tells the story of a different child, and it’s only a story. As far as I’m concerned, as a grown man today, I’m closer to the kindergarten teacher than to Yoav.

“From this story, the film of course burst into other areas, and it touches on the feeling I’ve had for a long time – that there is perhaps an entire world that’s become extinct, a world that we can refer to by the code name ‘poetry,’ that is a world of beauty, insight and mystery; a world that’s been shoved to the margins, and perhaps, if it’s been pushed to the margins, it has no right to exist.”

Political dimensions

Your last film, “The Policeman,” had a clear political character and in its own way even predicted the social-justice protest of summer 2011. “The Kindergarten Teacher” is different, even if one believes that every film is political.

“‘The Kindergarten Teacher’ has an overt political dimension and a hidden political dimension that connect in the end. In the visible dimension there are several appearances of Israeliness that touch on the central theme of the film: Does anyone care anymore about beauty, poetry and thought, and if so, can this caring even be expressed today in a direct way that avoids perversion?

“This is reflected, inter alia, in the Hanukkah ceremony that takes place in the kindergarten in which the most desirable part is that of Judah the Maccabee. ‘In every generation there will arise a hero, the redeemer of the nation,’ says the song the children sing. This ceremony connects to the celebration that takes place in Nira’s home when her son is invited to an officers’ course, and his commander congratulates his parents who made him into ‘a soldier, a human being and a man.’

“The ethnic issue also comes up in the film through Nira’s own identity; on the beach she reads Yoav the poem by Eitan Nahmias-Glass about [Haim Nahman] Bialik, one of the most inflammatory and radical poems ever written here, which expresses Glass’ ambivalence about the ‘national poet.’”

The main characters in “The Kindergarten Teacher” are a woman and a boy, but it seems that masculinity occupies you in this film, just as it occupied you in your short film “Emil’s Girlfriend,” and in “The Policeman.”

“Absolutely. Yoav, perhaps like me, will stop writing poems, because poetry writing won’t be congruent with the masculine identity. Yoav will be a soldier and maybe a businessman, which his father, a successful restaurateur, would surely want. That’s the importance of the scene in which Nira meets Yoav’s father to tell him about his son’s art in the hope that the father will be proud of him, but he relates to it with hostility. He doesn’t want his son to be a poet, almost certainly a poet who will have to worry about a livelihood all his life.

“Still, I didn’t want to turn the father into a bad guy. He isn’t a person that doesn’t appreciate beauty; during the meeting, which takes place in a separate room in his restaurant, Yoav’s father is playing Chet Baker’s amazing song ‘Let’s Get Lost,’ which accompanies his long monologue about those acts crucial to the continuity of the human race. He loves his son and is concerned about him. He has been taking care of him since the mother abandoned them, and what parent would want their son to be a poet?”