“Synonyms,” which opens Nov. 22 in Atlanta, has quickly come to be recognized as one of the most artistically successful films ever made by an Israeli. Director Nadav Lapid won the prestigious Golden Bear award in March, which is the top prize at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival, a first for an Israeli director.
The production also has been nominated in three important categories for Israel’s Ophir Awards, the equivalent of our Academy Awards, including best director. It’s the story of a young Israeli, Yoav, played by the Israeli actor, Tom Mercier, who arrives in France so totally disillusioned with Israeli society that he refuses to speak Hebrew.
We talked with the director of the film, who was in Tel Aviv, where he is preparing to begin a new Israeli film next month.
AJT: From what I understand there are some strong parallels in the film with your own life?
Lapid: My own story was pretty similar. I served 3 ½ years of military service. I was a very enthusiastic soldier. I wanted to be hero. It’s not uncommon in Israel. I was a very good soldier, a courageous one in a silly way. But I didn’t understand what it meant to die or kill someone, and then suddenly I had this urge to leave. I felt as if I’m the only one who can see and I’m surrounded by blind people, like I was on the Titanic, on a sinking boat. I felt I must run away to save my soul and never come back. And so a few days later, I found myself in Paris. That is, in a way, pretty similar to what’s in the movie, of course, with a certain artistic distance.
AJT: So who is this guy, the main character, Yoav?
Lapid: This guy is able to speak about Israel using all the negative adjectives, but he cannot give one concrete argument. He’s running away from an Israeli collective soul, a kind of national DNA, a kind of deep essence of Israel that he feels. Of course, that, in a way, is also in his own private soul. So, at the end, he’s running away from himself, from himself as an Israeli.
AJT: You are 44 today. How do you think you’ve changed since you were in your 20s, or have you changed at all toward Israel?
Lapid: The movie is about being young, and being young in a sense means there’s no distinction between reflection and a decision to act. You tell yourself I don’t want anymore to live in this space, and you don’t. Now I’m unfortunately less young, you know. So I can have a lot of ideas in my head and I don’t have to push them to the extreme in my daily life. I don’t have a passion to bump into closed doors, which is the image which ends the film.
Also when I was young I was obsessed with the idea of my relationship to my country. Today I feel that the most crucial thing is who you are and who you are is pretty hard to change. So you live with it. So I’m trying to live in a certain peace with the person I am. It’s not total peace otherwise I wouldn’t be able to make this movie that I made.
AJT: How do you cope with the political criticism that your film has received in Israel, or do you care?
Lapid: I care when it’s intelligent. We have a very or ignorant minister of culture in Israel. So she criticizes the film without ever watching it. It’s not left wing. It’s not right wing either. The movie doesn’t fall into a simple dichotomy of pro-Israeli, anti-Israel, left, right, I mean of course there is this rage and fury. And this movie is pointing a gun to Israel’s collective soul, which is something much more extreme than talking about this or that aspect of Israeli society. But I think that one might say that the main character is clearly the most charismatic, the sexiest, the most Zionist character in the movie. This Israeli guy, despite hating so much, is also extremely Israeli.
AJT: What do you think that has meant for Israeli directors? You see this as a boost in any way to their ability to work internationally?
Lapid: I do. When I won the Golden Bear, I was told that the three most important Israeli TV channels stopped their programing in order to announce the news, which for me is unbelievable because that is usually what happens when a war begins. On the airplane back to Tel Aviv, half of the passengers were clapping and told me how proud they were to walk on the streets of Berlin. Suddenly with one movie I became an Israeli hero.
There is this thirst of this country for normal achievements, not only for being the best in commando operations. If there is a message in winning this award, it is that, sometimes, artistic courage is rewarded.
“Synonyms” is playing this week at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema near Piedmont Park.