NEW YORK – Oy, the kids today.
Tom Shoval’s remarkable first movie, “Youth,” is a tragedy, a comedy, a horror film and a warning. Thanks to a downturn in the economy and an obsession with American cinema, twin brothers — one newly enlisted in the IDF, the other a theater usher — decide that a quick act of kidnapping is all they need to solve their family’s problems.
Naturally, they learn that crime doesn’t pay, and they learn it in some brutal and ironic ways. For starters, if you want a rich man to pick up the phone and hear your demands, don’t kidnap his daughter on a Friday just before sundown if he is a Sabbath-observer. As the traumatized young girl is bound and gagged in their building’s basement, a farce of a family dinner continues upstairs. Tension grows as the film becomes increasingly uncomfortable.
“Youth,” which was shot in Tel Aviv and stars identical twins Danny and Eitan Cunio, has played to acclaim at the Jerusalem Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival, BFI-London, Tapei and elsewhere. It makes its debut in the United States this week at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Museum of Modern Art’s prestigious New Directors/New Films series. I had the good fortune to sit with Tel Aviv-based writer/director Tom Shoval at a coffee shop in New York’s Greenwich Village the day before the first screening of the Hebrew-language film. An abridged transcript of our conversation follows.
This is a controversial movie. There’s the potential for an audience member to stand up at the end, point their finger at you and ask, “Why did you make me watch that?”
Some people get angry. The main thing Israelis have difficulty with is seeing an Israeli soldier pointing his rifle at another Israeli. We are used to seeing the conflict with the Palestinians; this has an order – a good guy and a bad guy. But to have a protagonist pointing back at us…
Have there been cases of young soldiers using their issued weapons to commit a crime?
Nothing major, but there was something. Someone with some mental problems went into a bank and tried to rob it. It happened around eight months ago. He had some nervous troubles and tried to rob a bank with an IDF rifle. But I was more interested trying to use this to put a light on not just the Palestinian conflict, but how the conflict influences us in daily life in the time of an economic crisis. And how the two tensions get together to create violence.
Much of the film felt universal. It could take place in New York or France or anywhere. Then there are a few moments where – no – it only could be Israel. There’s the plot turn about how the victim’s family observe Shabbat. And the fact that only in Israel do 18-year-old kids walk around with rifles on their backs.
When I show the film around the world the emotional reaction is similar. Everyone can relate to a family in an economic crisis, with a father trying to stabilize the family unit and with brothers who are worried. But for Israelis there is another layer. There are conflicts that arise from living in this place of mixed traditions and rules. How Shabbat can be a conflict. We endure universal conflicts and specific conflicts.
There’s a misconception in the United States, a bit, about Israel and its economy. Certainly it is a success, but there is disparity there and some poverty.
Showing the middle class in Israel was very important. Most of the films you see are about the conflict only. But there are other heroes. I come from a middle-class family, I have lived this tension. You know, there were riots not long ago.
Yes, the cottage cheese. . .
Yes, the cottage cheese, and also young people took Rothschild Boulevard in tents. This came from the same place this movie came from – the inability to live and get by.
You just said “other heroes.” Let’s be fair… these kids are terrible! They do a terrible, despicable thing. But the way you tease the movie out, it goes back to Hitchcock and “Dial ‘M’ For Murder,” which is an oft-cited example. It’s the situation where you are rooting for the bad guy to do something evil to a perfectly innocent person, and you don’t even realize you are doing it. Even if things went perfectly for this kidnapping – if they grabbed her, tied her easily and twenty minutes later the father showed up with the cash, she is still a violated woman whose life is likely forever altered. How do you maintain the audience’s sympathy?
It’s everything. The casting, the writing, the directing, the editing. I was constantly dealing with this notion. The film asks the question “What does it mean to be a cinematic hero?” The film asks “When you try to do a good thing, how many bad things can you do on the way to that good thing?” The borders between good and bad are gray. Sometimes you don’t have the ability to do a good thing. These teenagers are doing a horrible, stupid thing – but this is what they know. They are caught in a situation where they have to act and this is how they know how to act.
You say it’s what they know, and, of course, where does the kid work? He works at a movie theater showing Hollywood films.
How did you get the rights to show pieces of [the recent and not particularly good Nicolas Cage film] “Drive Angry” — and why did you pick that movie of all things?
It’s interesting. I am devoted to movies. When I was young I saw everything, including B movies. When we started I wanted it to be the movies I watched as a kid, but it was hard to get the rights. Then I contacted Danny Dimbort and Avi Lerner, these are Israelis who live in the US and make films. They are people like me who love American cinema and came here to make exactly the movies they loved. This thread of trying to live the cinema that you remember is a little bit in the movie itself – being immersed in the movies and living through them.
To a guy like me who covers contemporary cinema, it’s funny to see such unexpected choices. And, of course, he’s wearing a “Drive Angry” T-shirt. And other ones. What were some of the others?
A lot of Nu Image movies from Avi Lerner. “John Rambo.”
Of course. Which takes on a symbolic meaning – he thinks that he’s Rambo, even though he’s a dumb kid.
But there is another layer, though. Their economic pressure is something you don’t see. The whole film is about denial. There is something going on underground, right? In the basement, right? And the T-shirt is part of this. They wear this because they love cinema but also because…
Because they’re poor!
Exactly. They get the shirts for free at work! So they are driven to become like their heroes.
But of course, they don’t think it through, which is why the movie is a little bit funny, but a whole disaster.
There is an ironic, absurd situation. Upstairs is a dinner with the family, downstairs this woman tied up.
Talk a little bit about the relationship between the two brothers.
The connection is so strong that it is both good and bad. Their dependency gets a lot of their violence out and helps them feel safer. But this is a movie about duality, about mirror images and about connection and reaction. He looks at his brother to see his own reaction. It’s one character divided into two. The strange moments when they are hugging and fighting, it is like magnets trying to once again become one. They weren’t originally identical twins in the script. I took elements from my own life – my father’s unemployment and my strong connection with my younger brother. We are not twins, but we look so much alike people get confused. This was the electricity I was trying to catch. We tried a number of actors, then some biological brothers, then we found these identical twins and it was perfect.
You always can tell who is who, though, but it is striking how much they look alike.
We worked very hard on that. Though there is a moment in the middle where it is intentionally disorienting. But this is why one gets a haircut halfway through. But it still works visually to say they are the same person, just cut in half.
Whenever a movie is from Israel it benefits from its origins because everything seems to have deeper meaning. You say “one person split in half.” One can argue that Israel is a divided nation between religious and secular – or geographically split with the West Bank and Gaza. Is this something you intentionally want to get into, or is this something that if a viewer wants to bring to the film, that’s their business.
I thought it might bring a symbolic echo. The Palestinian conflict is so deep in all of our lives that it leaves a mark. Even if I were not to say anything about it, it would echo off the screen. So, for me, it is about Israel and Israel’s problems, so it is, of course, about it.
Another interpretation, from a Jewish point of view: If these kids only kept the Sabbath they wouldn’t have these problems!
[laughs] Yes, it’s true.
A grandmother in the audience would say “if they were good Jews they’d kidnap her on a Wednesday!”
It’s funny, two decades ago in Israel you would know who is religious and who is not. Today with the “modern Orthodox” you see these people in the street and don’t really know. The brothers kidnap this girl and they think she is the daughter of a rich family – she is an object for them. Then they realize in the basement that her life is in turmoil also. They find out that she’s not what she is supposed to be.
Do you have a next project?
Yes, I am a co-creator of a TV project that is shooting right now, actually. It is about male gigolos in the north of Israel. It is a “dramedy,” called “Johnny and the Galilee Nights.” And then a new film. I’m early on it, but it is about a rich girl in Israel – a girl from the super elite, the daughter of the richest family, and she decides to use her money to solve all of Israel’s problems. And she thinks she can do it because she has enough money.
Then it all goes horribly wrong?
Well, she learns the process isn’t that simple. With political stagnation and greed and something similar that is in this movie “Youth.” When you try and do something good it isn’t simple, there are gray areas.
So, you aren’t a pessimist, but you are a realist.
I think life is a struggle. “Youth” has the fantasy world of what you want – the life of the cinema – then there is the gravity of life. In the basement you have kidnapping and American genre movies. Upstairs is the Israeli family drama. And they are bound to fight. And we, as humans, we are bound to try the impossible, and we succeed. But only a little bit.