Cinema Scope Issue 79 with Features including .. Truth and Method: The Films of Thomas Heise by Michael Sicinski, Thinking in Images: Scott Walker and Cinema by Christoph Huber, 58th Venice Biennale, Cannes and DVD Reviews.
By Jay Kuehner.
Films are often described as being “poetic,” but beyond the suggestion of a certain undefined lyricism, it is not entirely clear just what this means. Unrequited love, for example, might be given supple expression through an ambient absence, or the cruel passage of time might be suggested by the fixity of the material world. But how to convey in cinematic terms the alternately beguiling and frustrating unintelligibility of poetry—its lunges in logic, its strange syntax, its certain persuasive indeterminacy? Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher—following on the heels of his caustic debut Policeman (2011)—proceeds with purposive ambiguity toward a response. It is less about poetry than an enlistment of its means and, especially, its effects. The story of a teacher who becomes enchanted, and ultimately vexed, by the language of her preternatural pupil, the film is likewise less about this prodigy than the spell he unwittingly exerts upon those sensitized to hear music where there is only noise.
An apparently ordinary opening shot foregrounds a bare foot at rest, with a television in the background blaring out talk-show comedy: a non-specific space of listening is established in which what is being broadcast might be ignored, tuned into, or merely floated in the static air of modern domestic life—not unlike poetry. A husband props himself up, as if to prepare for the jokes about Hitler in hot pants emanating from the TV, while the wife, Nira (Sarit Larry), moves through the apartment, seemingly pulled by a more considered act of concentration. She interrupts to recite a poem by one of her pupils, whom she had scarcely noticed before. “Can you hear the strength of the words?” she implores, incanting a short verse about a beautiful girl (perhaps the Biblical Hagar, second wife to Abraham and pious handmaiden) and the gold rain that falls upon her house, like the sun of God. “Can you hear the intensity of love?” she pleads, “Do the words confuse you?” Crosscutting to the boy Yoav with his nanny—who is less impressed by his talent but blithely steals his lines for her acting auditions—Lapid returns to the film’s existential crime scene, in which the otherwise sympathetic husband declares it sad that a five-year-old boy is writing such things. The suggestion that the boy may need help is radically, one might say poetically, misinterpreted by Nira as a calling; her role as wife, mother, and teacher is subsequently subsumed by her “discovery.”
What follows isn’t so much a narrative trajectory about the perils and pleasures of poetry as manifest in the lives of a teacher and pupil—Lapid, unlike his heroine, does not subject the boy to any heroics—but a strange shuffling of this core theme of how words come to impress us, for better or for worse. As with poetry, the story is in the service of the grammar. The film’s inconspicuous backdrops (schoolyard, home, classroom, disco, beach) become little occasions of intrigue for the drama of just how to deal with the perceived surfeit of beauty generated by this unsuspecting boy, of how to preserve and protect his ephemeral asset as a form of cultural capital in an age when even military conscription has lost its symbolic appeal in Israel. Lapid proceeds by an artistic decree set forth by Hebrew poet Nathan Alterman (invoked by Nira’s own poetry teacher) that “even an old subject has its moment of genesis,” thus tracing particular effects back to their sources. That little Yoav’s big words cannot be biographically reduced to consequence nor credited to osmosis but, instead, chalked up to inexplicable genius, only frustrates Nira’s attempts at hermeneutics.
The notion of exegesis might be too conveniently pinned on an Israeli film predicated on the enunciation, transmission, reception, and historical fate of certain prophetic words, but neither can such an association be ignored within the context of the film. Idioms of ethnic, national, and religious significance abound, as if these too were available or adopted public sources of belief, much like how poetry might function if not for its lack of favour in the current zeitgeist. “Who can tell of the heroic deeds of Israel?” sing the kids in class, while Yoav and his friend vehemently belt out a Maccabi Tel Aviv football chant (replete with whores and Nazis); a school-play rehearsal casts students as heroic Maccabees against the Hellenic Antiochus, persecutor of Jews (whom Nira volunteers to represent); distinctions of Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jewish ancestry are played out in a recognition game on the beach while Nira attempts, perhaps misguidedly, to situate Yoav within the lineage of modern Hebrew literature espoused by Chaim Nachman Bialik (whose songs for children have become staples of Israeli nursery life). Lapid subtly channels and layers in this discourse of the collective consciousness of Israeli (intellectual) public culture within his relatively austere chamber play about a woman’s woeful attempt to uncover what lies hidden in a child’s mind.
The boy poet Yoav (played with baby-faced inscrutability by Avi Shnaidman) is an admittedly autobiographical construct by the director, whose personal experiences writing poetry at a young age became the belated impetus for the film, even the source material for his surrogate’s cryptic verse. It would be an immodest gesture to conceive of oneself as the hero of one’s own film, yet Lapid rather equitably extends his sympathies to Nira, whose anxiety eclipses any potential romanticism inherent in the salvation of marginal art. The dialectic between the vulgar and sublime is played out to a nearly satirical level, wherein poetry is seen as either blessing or curse, with its exemplary disciple Yoav posited as too full of beauty or, conversely, a mere nuisance. The competing responses to the boy’s inconvertible talent serve as a choral commentary on art in general in the modern (i.e., indifferent) world, alternately provoking hostility or deemed a last vestige of purity. Yoav’s “gift” is nurtured by an uncle; is amusing and strange to his nanny; is beatified by his teacher (who also plunders his words) and shunned by his father, until he begins to guard it like property. In the end, it’s no wonder the boy wants to return to his kindergarten nap, which has since been corrupted by adults who fancy sleep (per André Breton) as the domain of poets at work, not to be disturbed.
Nira’s spiritual and maternal adoption of Yoav—with whom she clearly shares more intimacy than with her husband—is protective at heart, but assumes a cruel dimension when it is revealed to be a narcissistic project. In her attempt to inhabit the voice of Yoav, to occupy him, she falls prey to the intervening tactics of adults that stunt a child’s natural growth. Attempts to reveal the wunderkind to the public result in humiliation and charges of exploitation. The tragedy, ultimately, is Nira’s rather than Yoav’s, and Lapid endeavours to mine a certain sense of solace not for the loss of his inner poet, but for the loss of a particular sensibility (and sensitivity) that fosters acts of creativity. Just as Yoav was comforted by the recitation of poetry after the alleged death of his mother (in reality, she has divorced and moved to Boston with her lover), there seems to be something insightful about his words that mitigate Nira’s suffering, a condition that is left provocatively unexplicated but is emotionally registered in the film’s intonations. Nira would seem to have situated herself as the object of the boy’s affection after measuring herself against the beloved of his poem: “And me, am I beautiful enough?” she despairs. Vicariously, she wants to know if he means the words, if he feels the pain expressed in them, if the effects of violence are shareable in language. It’s a strange question for a woman to demand of a child, but a rather haunting one for a film to ask of its audience.
As for the poetic virtues of the film, they are discreetly tucked away rather than flaunted, invisible to the eye but textural like an unprecedented idea. The camera (courtesy of DP Shai Goldman) artfully pirouettes around schoolchildren at play, and occasionally indulges the upside-down world of the child’s point of view. Shots often dwell at the threshold of interiors and the outside world, and bodies are cropped at the torso, disconnected from their voices, as if materializing the abiding question of “Where does the poet look at the world from?” The riddle of the film resides in an implied rejoinder: in the poem. The epiphany is in the telling, the release after so much pacing (“from left to right, like he’s stoned”). The Kindergarten Teacher rekindles the art of an oral tradition, in which words rise to the lips of speakers as if their lives depended upon their very utterance, and the subsequent lives of a community depended upon the collective memory of those words, and their cultural transmission. Among the film’s more pressing crises is the sight of Nira attempting to capture on paper Yoav’s fleeting iterations for fear of losing the unique essence of his mind’s drift, that it might report back on something revealing of our human condition.
Irony or provocation: these are the responses to Nira’s poetry recital (lifted entirely without acknowledgement from Yoav’s oeuvre). She’s utterly fraudulent but entirely sincere, the worth of her words nonetheless unable to be heard in a pure context. Lapid’s anomalous gambit of a film, as unfashionable as a book of poetry, rewards for treading a line somewhere in between, neither overly ironic nor gratuitously provocative (the preferred modes of current arthouse cinema). The film confronts its difficult-to-render subject with a candid sense of discomfiture. It’s serious but not humourless. Poetic? Pay attention to Yoav’s sleight with language when he’s pressed for answers. On when his mother died: “In the evening.” Upon calling the police for help: “Excuse me, my kindergarten teacher, she kidnapped me. Save me.” On whether she is armed: “No, she’s in the shower.” On his whereabouts, what does he see: “Two trees, and a bird.” The pupil is pried from his teacher and rightfully returned to the middling world. Indeed, the parting undoubtedly towers over the grey banality like a dead distant cousin, or something like that. Parting is unusual. It has a certain charm, and it has a touch of pride.
Cinema Scope: Yehuda Amichai wrote a poem called “God Has Pity on Kindergarten Children.”
Nadav Lapid: It could have been the title of the film, no?
Scope: I understand the autobiographical context of the film’s origin, but this idea of a young poet and his teacher isn’t so concrete, it’s more ephemeral. Not necessarily the sort of robust theme that films are built around. Can you say more about conceiving the film, and the challenges of executing it?
Lapid: The film was conceived around a vague souvenir, these yellowing pieces of paper, pages of poems that I had recited to my nanny between the ages of four until I was almost seven. One of them was “Hagar,” which is the opening poem in the film, and one of the last poems was “Separation,” which was the only poem I wrote at someone’s suggestion. This vague souvenir of poetry was an interesting point of departure—just words on paper. But my reflections and fears about the role of the artist and the spectator, especially during the time I travelled to festivals with my film Policeman, found a powerful motivation in the existence of these recovered poems. One is always connected to their material in a personal way, but it’s not the story of others that I’m telling. Usually you tell the story of others in order also to speak about yourself, though not exclusively. But, for example, with Policeman I was telling a story about others. With this film, however, I feel much more close to the characters, though surprisingly I feel closer to the teacher than the child.It’s not a personal film in a self-evident way, although I wrote these poems. I feel closer to the person who reacts to the words, who tries to save them, to fight for them, who has to carry the burden of these words, as opposed to the one who throws them from his mouth.
Scope: When you rediscovered the poems, did they resonate for you?
Lapid: I had abandoned these poems for 25 years, and this was a way of redeeming myself from becoming a poet. Looking back, from the age of six or so, I didn’t write poetry again. I felt a certain distance to my poems. But this poem about Hagar, it resonates for me because it stayed in my memory, and with Hagar I would maintain a connection as an adult. She’s a real woman, with three children! I’m sure she’s not aware that she is the hero of my artistic and existential longing, and that her name is the topic of many discussions, and deeper symbolic analysis, about the film. It was three or four years after reconnecting with her—ah, Facebook—that I began writing the script, and began to explore the association of Hagar from the poem and Hagar the woman. So in some corner of my mind this idea of the film existed. There were over one hundred poems that I wrote, so there was a selective memory at work with the film. I had an inner struggle not to make a selection that was too self-serving; I wanted to avoid something too practical or too efficient. I did not want to be the grown-up editor who selected the film’s content based on my poems. I wanted to try and keep something that could not be entirely deciphered.
Scope: To retain something of the raw immediacy of a child’s more visceral expression?
Scope: It’s interesting that you chose to imagine, through the perspective of the teacher, the idea of an audience. The child poet is never aware—rarely aware, I should say—of having an audience. In fact, poetry typically succeeds by ignoring the notion of audience expectation. But the filmmaker can never really enjoy this position: he’s always wondering about his audience.
Lapid: I imagine myself in the theatre and I hope there are a few others…It’s also kind of a counterattack on the audience. Even when you oppose the audience, even if you see the audience as something marginal, or a kind of enemy, you’re still having a relationship with the audience. There’s something in this ritual, of seeing a film in a theatre. There are seats in the theatre and someone will be occupying them, or someone will be absent, but in the end you can’t exclude the audience. Even if we see the film, as I see it sometime, as a kind of sparring with the audience—a kind of battle, a declaration of war—they persist regardless. They are always there.
Scope: I’m wondering too about a certain innocence, a naïveté, to Yoav’s poetry that is being protected.
Lapid: I’m convinced that I couldn’t have written poetry for the sake of making the film. If the original poems did not exist, the film could not have happened. I would not be able to reinvent these poems, to recreate them, their spirit. The genesis of the film couldn’t have been like a Hollywood fantasy: a director has a brilliant one-line idea, about a poet kid and the grown-up teacher who saves him from the impurity of the world, the ignorance, the brutality, something like this. I can’t imagine pursuing this idea, surrounding him with a script like this, and shooting a film! Although in a way a big question is: To what extent is it important in the film that the poems be good poems? Rather, there is something basic in their substance, their smell, their material, that wouldn’t be able to exist with too much artifice. If I had written them, artificially, today…No. The film had to spring from real words, not from a concept. First the words, the substance of the poems…I would like to expose the yellowish papers that were written long ago. Start with this, then the idea, the narrative following, and the film, and so forth.
Scope: Which locates the genesis of the film in a way as a documentary, the life of words.
Lapid: In a way. It could be a good definition. In one way, it’s a documentary about the writing of poetry and reacting to it. It’s about where words come from and where they go.
Scope: We often use the word “poetic” when describing cinema, or certain lyrical passages in films. And we have some ideas about what this looks like. But the way that poetry functions, there’s so much ambiguity, and we rarely allow or tolerate this uncertainty in cinema because it destabilizes our sensibility too much, presumably. Your film is propelled by different modes, registers, in a similar way that a poem plays upon the reader’s imagination. I kept thinking of timbre and intonation, more than “striking” visuals and other analogous gestures.
Lapid: There is a popular demand for film to be less complex than life. Each person has a basic intuition about his life, knowing how many nuances, how many degrees and contradictions exist in this life, while in cinema there is a desire to simplify it, make it more easily known but maybe less complex. I wanted to avoid this “poetic” film you speak of, because for me the challenge was not to translate poetry into cinematic images, but to in a way rethink, reconstitute, find, or fabricate the essence of the poetic in a different medium. Because there is a false translation between the two mediums: for example, a poem is often, and should be, brutal, low, or vulgar, while “poetic” films are subtle, tender, soft. And this tenderness is an unjust thing to do to poetry, which ideally in its more powerful moments doesn’t lend itself exclusively either to tenderness or beauty. This endless debate between the high and the low, the sublime and the vulgar, the unique and the everyday, exists inside the poem, and in the relation between the poem and its poet. This is something that I tried to bring to the screen.
Scope: It seems the film is less about the fate of certain characters, what becomes of Nira or Yoav, than the effects of language upon both of them, the reciprocal exchange of words, speaking and listening.
Lapid: Sometimes I think the film is like looking at another’s face, letting him experience certain words, and seeing what happens. Sometimes nothing happens. It’s as if they are vaccinated against poetry—perhaps the majority. It happens to many of us with music: you hear something transcendent, but near you is someone who is completely unmoved.
Scope: So much of the film’s content holds these disparities in equilibrium. Rituals, songs, poems, reality television, they all seem to belong to available listening, a common music…
Lapid: Yes, they are all composed of words. Because the ongoing fact about poetry is that it’s composed of the same words we use to describe simple things, or words we hear in a reality TV program, only they are organized differently. But in the end all the words turn around us, from left to right and right to left, like pacing. The words of a football chant may be the same as those of a poem, or the speech of an officer in the army, but what is important is how we situate or expose ourselves to them.
Scope: Is there something similar in the oral tradition of Hebrew literature? I’m thinking of how the legendary poet Chaim Nachman Bialik’s words have a life in both Yiddish and Hebrew, and how he worked with folk tales and children’s songs.
Lapid: I’ve heard reactions to the film that hear the mumblings of these children like those of the Biblical prophets. There are the prophets who declare themselves with a big speech on the mountain, but there are old prophets who mumble, and only passersby who choose to notice may know the words. Of course you can ignore it, consider it to be lunatic…
Scope: It’s tempting to indulge in allegorical readings of the film, especially given that it’s an Israeli film, or more specifically a Jewish film.
Lapid: I’ve read some smart commentary of the film by critics who analyze the film as the story of a Jewish prophet who comes from a Jewish verbal culture to the non-verbal Israeli culture and tries to save it from its ignorance, its lack of poetic spirit. Maybe, I don’t know. Because of the ingredients of the film—a poet-kid-prophet and a mother/teacher—it might be easy to translate it allegorically, but the film is open. Allegory has its uses, so why not? But I feel closer to the relations of the sound and the image, the words of the speaker and the faces listening, than a political or allegorical context. Of course, there could be something political about this.
Scope: The filmic space you carve out is not limited to only the story. Of course there is a narrative, with probabilities. But you subtly invoke and allude to a history of Jewish identity, you raise questions about the rhetoric of Tel Aviv football chants, you include some non-verbal dance sequences. It seems to be an experiment, but one that stays faithful to its characters. There’s something playful about this, while also something menacing in the absence of sentimentality.
Lapid: I think that in the film there are lots of spectacles: the boy gives a performance, or a spectacle, with his recitation of poetry; his nanny, too, gives spectacular readings of his work; the schoolchildren bouncing up and down in chant, it’s a spectacle, a gesture. It’s not a show for the spectator, though. Like with a religious spectacle, there is a separation from the everyday, or rather the everyday is given a spectacular dimension through ritual. Everything becomes transformed through this act.
Scope: On the surface The Kindergarten Teacher is quite different from its predecessor, Policeman. But what is revealing about this distinction, other than one is about police and terrorists, the other a poet and a teacher? More interestingly, they are both alike in their capacity to view extremity. There is a political dimension to both. The power of the word, and of the mind, can be dangerous, just as indifference and a failure to hear can be dangerous. There’s a line in The Kindergarten Teacher in which someone says, “Lorca was killed for a reason.” There’s a whole political/personal history to unpack with that line. Something he was doing needed to be repressed by certain people, but we are never quite certain what that thing is. That it can be both intolerable and beautiful to different parties is a compelling case.
Lapid: I agree. There’s something magnificent, and horrible too, that a poet could be viewed as a menace, to be assassinated by a dictator. Can we imagine today a Western president assassinating a poet? No, he’s already suppressed by a society deaf to the power of his words.
Scope: Violence committed against art, in the name of suppressing it, usually legitimizes it. With Nira, she seems to be suffering for art, there is a void—psychological, existential, emotional—that Yoav’s poems both bring up and soothe. “Am I beautiful enough?” she wonders, almost jealously, as if the poem was measuring her capacity for feeling.
Lapid: I feel that grown-ups can feel this void, but it is on account of it that she can identify the fact that poems are tangible, that they have some erotic substance, a materiality.
Scope: And they have the power of consequence.
Lapid: Sometimes filmmakers avoid poetry because it’s too much, too archaic, or that words are not noble enough next to the power of the image. As if the tendency to avoid words in favour of images was a radical thing.
Scope: A temerity of language. In the film, transmission of language is important. Even in the acts of plagiarism, there’s something benign rather than fraudulent. The nanny uses the words to help herself, not in an exploitive way, but in an expressive way. And Nira, she’s trying to inhabit the words, which on a personal level is stealing, but culturally this is usually a kind of homage, like a cover song or national anthem.
Lapid: The words are there, like a currency, as if you could use them in the supermarket. Pay for your milk with the words of others! When the nanny uses Yoav’s poetry for her auditions, the question raised is: What about when she sings them? Is it an homage, a noble artistic act?
Scope: Nira spends a lot of effort trying to capture the words, to transcribe them. There’s a drama to the scene of her, at the beach, scribbling in the notebook. Do you sympathize with her in this, or is it futile, the cause of her suffering, this attempt to seize the ephemeral?
Lapid: At this specific moment in time, I can only admire a woman who isn’t concerned about getting arrested and going to jail, but is adamant about pursuing something that is true for her, pursuing this boy. There’s something heroic about this feline Sancho Panza, a scribe to an oracle. She isn’t looking around, at the scene of her experience, the beach, the mountains around her. Fuck all this beauty; there is only beauty in this voice. But she tends to have a purist’s approach. She seems to be having trouble between words in a poem and words as they are in the universe; they are weighted differently. This limits her in a way. She’s a fundamentalist romantic, so maybe she must adopt these extreme positions. Maybe she cannot permit herself this dialectical idea of doubt.
Scope: She’s rarely seen enjoying herself. Maybe when she’s dancing, which is non-verbal. But Yoav is truly inscrutable. Adults want to know what lies hidden in the boy’s mind, or conversely they can’t imagine that anything real exists in his mind. But he just wants to finish his nap! There’s something ironic about the various uses to which this boy is being put, as if he had no autonomy. I suppose that’s how we treat children for the most part.
Lapid: In the end, this policewoman is carrying him like an object, to be put poolside. To answer this question of “what does the poet want,” maybe the answer is: to sleep. But then again, he’s not as innocent as he looks. To what extent does he know that what he’s doing is somehow special? It brings up the question: Can you write a poem if you don’t know what one is? Without intent, throwing the words from one’s mouth, until the words run out, is it poetry? Are you a poet?
Scope: The more official it becomes that he might be a poet—or that someone is a filmmaker—the less immediate their expression can become. Yoav seems to want to spoil this idea of himself that he sees growing in others.
Lapid: It’s true, like Botticelli burning his paintings, or Kafka destroying his manuscripts. But maybe it’s an authentic rather than a vain artistic tendency, this desire to damage your own creation.
Scope: Yoav is almost accidentally artistic. When he phones the police, he’s asked about his location, but he can only respond, “I see two trees and a bird.”
Lapid: He takes the question very literally. He truly reacts to words, before they have loaded meaning. It’s like cinema: once you call it a film, you may have ignored the images. For him, before the sentences are words, and before meaning are the sentences. If you think of the meaning of the question “Where are you?” you may miss the basic signification of the words that describe it.
Scope: Which could say something about the film’s detractors, who claim that there is something lacking. As if the film, like poetry, was too rich in ambiguity. Could the film be any other way? More closure, more punishment? In the end Yoav is just back in the world, nothing special.
Lapid: It is assumed that this is a happy world. A normal world. But one can observe this normality as being strange.
Scope: Is there an autobiographical element at work here, in how these themes play out?
Lapid: There’s this eternal conflict between your desire to be heard and the feeling that not being heard is somehow the ideal position of the artist. That art is somehow legitimized by adversity. As if I’m acting from the position of one who talks but is not heard, is not listened to. This rage against the world…this childish desire to attack, to not only resist but to take revenge on time, the world, you eventually understand that it’s a lost war. The limit of resistance is the fact that you resist your surroundings—the spirit of the time—so in the end you resist your materials, the very materials from which poetry or a certain cinema are composed. The attack, the war, it is seductive.
Scope: This attack against what exactly?
Lapid: The world, society, the present, the times, the other…The film begins with an image of a leg obscuring the face of a popular figure. Hear hear! It’s my film so I get to do this, put the leg in the face of a television program host. But then again I think that the fascinating position of a film, at least for me, is not being right and just, at least not most of the time, nor being the powerful one, who puts his leg on the face of mass culture, but being also intimidated and crushed by his time, by the surroundings.
Scope: So you’re curious about what remains of the artist in the wake of his attack, in the absence of willful adversity?
Lapid: Yes, exactly.