Is filmmaker Nadav Lapid Israel’s best champion — or its biggest dissident?
As semi-autobiographical absurdist film ‘Synonyms’ screens in US from October 25, director explains what is real and not in story about a demobbed Israeli soldier fleeing to Paris
NEW YORK — There has been no shortage of remarkable filmmaking talent coming from Israel in the last decade, but 45-year-old Nadav Lapid is sure to be high on any critic’s list. His first feature “Policeman” was a hard-hitting intersecting narrative between a militant leftist group and a counter-terror task force. His follow-up, “The Kindergarten Teacher,” swung as far in the opposite direction as possible; it was about a five-year-old poet.
His latest, “Synonyms,” won the top prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. Screening in the United States from October 25, it is an exaggerated autobiographical story about a young Israeli who, upon finishing his military service, flees to Paris in an effort to shed his identity. While there he refuses to speak Hebrew, clutching his French thesaurus for dear life as he tries to reinvent himself.
The movie is elliptical and disorienting, with expressive camera movement and sequences that seem on the verge of breaking from reality. While it can be read as the universal struggle of a young person catching his breath after a traumatizing experience, it is rife with details that will resonate with Israelis and Diaspora Jews.
Among the many paradoxes it grapples with is the stereotype of the “cowardly Jew” versus the overly pugnacious Jew. The Israeli meatheads who work for a French security firm don’t come off too well, but the expat so wounded by internalized anti-Semitism that he loudly sings the “Hatikva” on the metro gunning for a reaction is more a figure of sympathy than scorn.
In addition to weighty themes, it is just a gorgeous picture, with an outstanding turn by a newbie actor named Tom Mercier as Nadav’s stand-in Yoav. Lapid uses visual motifs to symbolize rebirth, and the literal assumption of cultural apparel, as well as deadpan humor, in the face of violence or un-erotic sex. “Synonyms” isn’t just one of the best Israeli or “Jewish-themed” movies of the year, it is one of the year’s highlights, full stop.
I had the privilege of speaking with Lapid at the film’s North American distribution company when he brought “Synonyms” to the New York Film Festival in early October. I was a little trepidatious at first, as Lapid’s work can be so serious. As is often the case when one interviews an actor or director, one waits outside a little conference room until the person ahead is finished.
As my colleague was exiting I asked how their interview went. “He just explained to me why it is righteous for me to circumcise my son,” my friend, whose wife is about to give birth to their first child, told me. My discussion with Lapid didn’t get that intimate, but an edited version of the transcript is below.
Congratulations on the new movie. I think it’s the best one yet.
Sometimes I think “Policeman” was the best one. But, thank you.
Something I love about “Synonyms” are its use of ellipses. The Hollywood version would flashback to show scenes that explain your lead character’s behavior. Is this something you had in early drafts of the script and then removed?
No — not because I wanted it to be “anti-Hollywood,” but because I don’t believe in that. Meaning, I truly believe that existence is awkward, strange, chaotic and filled with failed attempts to find your way. Classical narratives dissipate in life. Coherence detaches from the reality of life.
Think about a film like “Taxi Driver.” In the movie you are clued-in early that he was in Vietnam. But he’s acting the way he is acting because of life. It’s more truthful, powerful and extreme. There is no one event.
If you were to ask the main character, “So, what’s so bad about Israel? What’s your problem with Israel?” he would spit out 20,000 adjectives, but he would not be able to give you an answer. If he could answer, it would mean that he has already overcome it. Heidegger talks about how unexplained anxiety is greater than any specific fear.
A film yelling about Netanyahu would be much narrower.
It’s interesting to me because there are these grander, and more universal themes in the movie, but it is also about a very specific thing: the Jewish Diaspora. Jews make up, what, less than one percent of the world’s population? You have the interplay between Israeli and non-Israeli Jews, so you’ve now split that less than one percent even further. So you don’t have to know anything about these issues to enjoy this film, but, as they say “it doesn’t hurt!”
It doesn’t hurt. It may even give you an advantage. But maybe it will narrow your perspective if you make certain connections, if you are an expert? Or maybe you are sensitive to certain nuances? Hard to know.
Some of this was autobiographical.
Yes, and that helped me avoid narrative traps. Because I knew how things really worked. I was able to resist becoming a storyteller, I could take from reality.
Your main character admires Hector, from ancient Greece, who is always running. Hector is even charged, by another character in your film, as being a coward. Some call the Jews cowards, but the argument goes that retreat is actually a heroic act.
It is a heroic act. If the alternative is to be a “brave hero” like soldiers are supposed to be, it can be more wise, surely. When everyone is running to a battlefield, it can take a real hero to run away. Mass sacrifice disguised as heroism is not a thing.
But, to Hector it didn’t help! Hector wasn’t running from Achilles, he was running from death. Perhaps the conclusion is that no hero is more powerful than death. And this is something that is in opposition to the main myths of being a soldier. When you are in the army you are told that if you study and practice you can overcome death. So suggesting otherwise is already subversive.
Putting current politics aside, do you believe the compulsory army service in Israel has been a negative or positive in your life? I’ve read that it was only after you served that you reevaluated your life and decided to pursue writing, etc.
I… I… [Lapid takes a pause so pregnant I thought it was about to go into labor.] I… in a simple way, I enjoyed this period, and afterwards it supplied me … supplied me with slight, slight post-traumatic stresses. But it also gave me a lot of material to shoot. So I guess this balances in favor of it.
Do you consider yourself a dissident?
When the film was released in Israel, Miri Regev, the Culture Minister, sent someone very close to her to the premiere. He came to me and said, in a very frontal way that Israelis can do things, “Hi, I came to examine if your film is pro- or anti-.” So I said, sincerely, “as soon as you find out, call and tell me.”
On the surface you can say that Israel is an uninhabitable place. It is unlivable. Like a planet they discover in another galaxy where there are no conditions for life.
But that’s your character, that’s fiction, that’s not you, because you did move back to Israel, so don’t believe that entirely.
Totally, totally. I feel that I am so Israeli. I am pessimistic at times, but I also find it hard to believe that this country would ever become a totally fascist or dictatorial regime. I think there’s something in there to prevent it; something the way the people know each other.
For example, what I permitted myself to tell this guy from the Culture Ministry — “Call me when you know” — I don’t think a Russian director would have said that to a representative from Vladimir Putin. Or in Lebanon or China or Turkey. People know each other too well in Israel.
It’s like how there are no stars in Israel; people know each other. We don’t have the “bigger than life” thing that you need to have a true movie star or a tyrant. And I am such a part of this place. It’s in the way I shoot my movies; there is part of the Israeli soul in there.
What do you mean by that, exactly?
I am trying to shoot the essence of the scene, and sometimes it lies in a contradiction. For instance, I am opposed to the convention of emotional actors and an indifferent camera.
Well, there’s a fight scene in an office, where your characters are flopping around in the frame, but your camera remains planted; and, as a result, it’s very funny.
Precisely. I don’t think what is happening behind the camera should be so “official” or “polite.” I always feel that subjectivity ends behind the camera, it becomes procedural.
And you –
I hate that!
You can watch this movie and think “Wow, the director really hates his parents!” but your mother, who passed away as you were finishing it, was your editor, and your father co-wrote it. You’ve dedicated the film to her — is that your way of telling audiences, “I actually get along with my parents quite well!”
At the beginning this was a way of me telling my parents what I went through during this period in my life, because we were not well connected at the time. But then they treated it as a movie, as they should.
I wrote scenes with my father, it was almost scenes of confession, but he would say “No, that was something that happened to Nadav, but this is the story of Yoav,” so it would be changed. My parents were first to help make the distinction between the truth of my life versus the truth of the movie.
Do you have your next movie idea?
Yes, I’m starting in two months, we’ll be shooting in the Israeli desert. Story-wise, there isn’t much to tell: it’s about a filmmaker who goes to a desert village to screen one of his previous movies. But I just read this morning in a French newspaper; they were writing about the project and they described it quite nicely as “a filmmaker finds himself throughout his day involved in two hopeless battles, one against the death of artistic liberty in his country, and the other against the death of his mother.”
You think Miri Regev will come to that premiere?
Maybe I’ll dedicate the movie to her to get her there.
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