Following his Jury Prize at Locarno 2011 for Policeman, Israeli director Nadav Lapid returns with The Kindergarten Teacher, a quiet story about talent, exploitation, and responsibility. Kindergarten teacher Nira (Sarit Larry) can’t quite rise over her own mediocre abilities as a poet, but when she takes five-year-old Yoav’s (Avi Shnaidman) inspired poetry as her own, her fellow poets react with jealousy and awe. Nira feels as if society at large will not support Yoav’s prodigy, so she takes it upon herself to squeeze more poems out of him—no matter the cost.
Lapid and director of photography Shai Goldman shoot the film with equal amounts of distance and intimacy, landing on a distinct look that empathizes with teacher and student, but never spells out what they may be thinking. Nira’s obsessive behavior remains a spiritual pull to the boy’s Dionysian words. Yoav’s interiority may be probed through close-ups, but he can never say what he’s feeling. For The Kindergarten Teacher’s New York City release, we talked with Lapid over the phone in order to further examine these characters.
NOTEBOOK: There’s a large degree of practical difficulty in The Kindergarten Teacher, especially when dealing with many children in longer takes or in scenes where Yoav may have to recite a lengthy poem. Who do you think may have learned more patience on the set: you or the kids?
NADAV LAPID: I guess both of us. I remember there was a moment on the first day of shooting after we’d done the same shot for maybe the 17th time, and the shot wouldn’t make it to the film. You hear the kid who was celebrating his fifth birthday on the set just before the beginning of the take asking the main actress if after the film is over and in the theater if we’d have to make it again and again and again. It was not easy for both of us, although I must say it wasn’t difficult because of him. In a way, the most complicated scenes are where there are a lot of kids—25 kids, all five years old—doing a complicated shot or a camera movement, et cetera. The key in order to stay normal and make the movie in the aesthetic meant for me was the moment I discussed with the DoP that to treat these five-year-old kids like adults—that they will obey exactly the right timing, they will get into the middle of the frame, etc.—is not only chanceless, but also a kind of vain attempt. If you title a film The Kindergarten Teacher, and it takes place in a kindergarten where one of the main topics is childhood and the relationship between children and adults, the child cannot remain a heuristic element, it should be physical, adapting to the mise en scène, the gesture in the framing. On one hand, the shot will keep on being very elaborate; on the other hand, the kids and some of the adults had a kind of liberty in their gestures and movements. They have their own order, their own vision. They don’t obey the camera. It creates a contradiction, a kind of tension with the frame, the borders of the frame, and those in the middle of the frame, don’t always respect the order the camera tries to enforce. You always lean on this tension of trying to have having a profound concept and profiting from freedom.
NOTEBOOK: I was struck by how almost proto-human Yoav behaved. In the film, there are many scenes in which these children are pantomiming adult behavior—specifically, the football chant. But whenever Yoav speaks like an adult poet, Nira seems to confuse this with a real form of adulthood. Has this film made you reflect on the state of childhood?
LAPID: I think the gap between the kindergarten teacher and the kid is impossible to cross. First, as you say, there’s a gap between adults and children. The fact that the same words are said, but the meanings are completely different. There’s also a question of a gap of height, of the height of the camera that’s fundamental to the film. Another gap is between the poet and the public or its agent. The one who desired to write but doesn’’t find the words. Part of her misunderstanding is the consequence of her desire to know where the words came from. In a way, for her, having a child poet is a kind of huge opportunity because she imagines she could follow him and look at him while he is creating. It’s kind of an attempt to physically grasp inspiration. In general, you see two lonely creatures who build a kind of strange connection, who communicate, and for a few seconds are really open to each other.
NOTEBOOK: Does Nira have a sort of fatal attraction to genius or prodigy or something that she might not be able to attain?
LAPID: She’s someone who’s so full with ideas and with emotions and has so much to say about the universe, but when she transfers this to a poem, suddenly her words sound banal and cliché. Maybe if she could write a different kind of poem things would have been different for her. I’ve read one comparison of this film to Amadeus, with Amadeus and Salieri. I think it’s maybe not precise, but there’s something in that.
NOTEBOOK: The film isn’t explicitly political, but she doesn’t quite connect with her son who is entering the Israeli military. Whenever she’s replacing that part of her life with the little poet, it makes it seem like she’s replacing the military as well.
LAPID: Yeah, in a way she already lost her son. Her son was taken by the army. To a certain extent, they couldn’t really communicate anymore. He had passed a certain line where you can see certain Israeli men. There’s a certain conformism with masculine hugs and tribal group dances. I really like the idea of dancing soldiers. The officer thanks his parents for turning him into a good soldier, a decent man, a decent human being.
NOTEBOOK: There are a lot of close-ups in the film. There are a few that replace establishing shots, a few that hone in on small facial gestures, or a couple devastating ones like the one of Nira after she receives the text from Yoav’s father. How did you and your cinematographer decide which shots would need to be a close-up?
LAPID: These shot choices really are the essence of filmmaking. When I was in film school, where I met my DoP, we were taught to write in a very dry language like “medium shot: blah blah blah,” and I was always writing to myself things like “The woman is sitting on the bench. The universe is two sets. Alienation is everywhere.” In a way, a shot is a feeling, an emotion, an idea, a political concept, an ideological concept, an aesthetic concept. There’s something fascinating about the idea that in a film that is not psychological, but much more phenomenological, the way to keep things ambivalent or enigmatic or mysterious is through extreme close-ups. You can observe the face of the character, you can know each detail in the face, and still wonder what’s happened inside. The kid stays mysterious until the very end, despite seeing his face on a big screen again and again.
NOTEBOOK: I recall the scene where the young boy plays with his friend Asi that switches to a close-up on Yoav’s face as he suddenly looks out into the distance, as if trying to communicate an interiority that we can’t quite grasp.
LAPID: Throughout the whole film, the kid relates to this poetic moment like a kind of danger, like a disease that you should avoid. It’s a kind of danger that isolates you. He’s really making an effort to be regular, to be ordinary. There are these moments where that is bursting out of him. It is not only the torture of reciting poetry.
NOTEBOOK: I’ve read that you’re fond of Sergei Eisenstein’s writing on montage and dialectics. Do you think about these things while filming, or do you try not to intellectualize it?
LAPID: Not only in this film, but in general, there’s the dialectic of the high and low. High culture, like sublime poetry, and the vulgar moments. There might be a magical moment and then a daily one. There’s the beach, where you see Nira exiting the sea and then the next shot will be the sidewalk and the intense sound of the city. The film is all the time jumping from high to low, but it also raises doubts about that dichotomy. It complicates things, if high culture and low culture are the same. It faces us, but also faces the kindergarten teacher who tries to live in a kind of sterile world where there is this high poetry. It shows that the world is much more clever, strange, bizarre than our capacities to distinguish. Like the songs that the kids sing or modern poetry, the cinema should also be a complicated medium, an artistic one, a noble one. For me, I always think about this montage, this eternal contradiction. In a way, each time the new sequence slaps the previous one.
NOTEBOOK: Even visually, there will be a montage within a long take. Maybe a close-up on Nira during a rainy scene with a pan to the rainy ground, without having to cut between those images.
LAPID: Sometimes we’ll look through the eyes of the kindergarten teacher, and sometimes we’ll look at the kindergarten teacher observing. I wanted to avoid the simplistic cuts between seeing from her point of view to seeing her looking. What’s happening is that the film, we’ll switch in the middle of the shot from the objective to the subjective. Because the film is concrete and very practical, and at the same time an intense portrait of her mind. It’s a mixture, it’s not so easy to distinguish one from the other. That’s why quite often in the middle of the shot there is this contradiction.
NOTEBOOK: You graduated from the University of Tel Aviv after studying philosophy, and I recently found out that Sarit Larry, who plays Nira, also studied philosophy at Boston College. I’m curious as to whether you two may have had any heady conversations about Nira’s ethical choices.
LAPID: Not really. She’s a much bigger philosopher than I am. I will say this: usually good actors are actors that pursue acting. In this case, Sarit Larry is a special, strange, and unique woman who had this tendency [for acting] throughout her life. Let’s say she grew up in this really difficult orthodox family, then when she was sixteen years old, she became secular and in a way she replaced God with theatre. Then she was a very ambitious—at the beginning of her career she decided to leave all of this and go to Athens to study philosophy for sixteen years. You know, she has this powerful capacity to suddenly throw everything behind her back and to follow something until her horizon, her own destruction, her own redemption, to jump from a mountain to follow an idea. Even in the film, her following the kid is to follow the impossible. Her identification and understanding helped us to avoid these moral discussions of “How could she leave her husband and her kids?” For her, it was so comprehensible. She made a real effort to play the character. For me, it was unbelievable. From the beginning, she had this strong intuition.
NOTEBOOK: Yoav certainly seems like much more of an adult at the very end. What do you think is going on in his mind during that ending sequence?
LAPID: The film doesn’t give you all sorts of options. Let’s say that the last scene in the hotel room, the kid who has been quite passive and couldn’t guess what he thinks about all of this, he takes the most crucial decision of his life. That shot, when he is moving from here to there with Nira’s voice audible, it’s his universe: the only man on earth hearing the voice of God, decides whether to listen to him or not. I think the decision that he takes, to avoid poetry, to avoid everything transcendental, to come back to normality. When he crosses the swimming pool to that powerful pop song while the people are shouting and dancing and jumping, it’s human joy, human pleasure. In a way he defies her, trying to take this poetic demon out of him. Would he be capable or not, I don’t know. He may be thinking of a new poem.
NOTEBOOK: With his giving up any transcendental attitude and Nira’s godlike role in that scene, is there any theological consequence in that rejection?
LAPID: The question is always: “Is this all, or is there something more?” The kindergarten teacher declares war against triviality, nonsense, vulgarity, and lack of sensitivity. In a way, she is declaring a war against the spirit of our times. She wants to argue for something bigger, so in a sense, it is a bit religious, a bit transcendental.