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Interview. Nadav Lapid talks about his film, the story of a kindergarten teacher’s obsession with a 5-year-old boy she believes is the Messiah.

A child’s poetry to change the world

The protagonist of Nadav Lapid’s film The Kindergarten Teacher is a 40-year-old, middle-class educator from Tel Aviv named Nira. She has a house in the suburbs, a husband, a son in the military and a daughter in high school. She also has a particular obsession. During Hanukkah, she taught her schoolchildren a song: “In every age a hero or sage came to our aid.” But who is this Judas Maccabeus, this Messiah, going to be?

To Nira, the “chosen one” is a 5-year-old in her class, Yoav, the neglected son of a rich restaurateur and of a mother who abandoned him (he says she is dead). She discovers his peculiarity when, pacing back and forth in front of his nanny, he declares “I have a poem!” and declaims some improbably lyrical love verses.

Nira — a poetry enthusiast from a poor Sephardi family who grew up surrounded only by prayers books — is thrilled by Yoav’s beautiful, mature words. She becomes consumed by the secret represented by Yoav, cast into a world that, she says, “hates poetry.” To stimulate his creativity, she shows him an ant in the garden of the school, then crushes it before his eyes to make him experience cruelty. She hangs on his words, as if they were a prophet’s able to change the world’s fate. But Yoav keeps quiet, staring in front of himself: We aren’t shown what goes through the little boy’s mind. He is a victim of both his teacher’s violent passion and of the outside world’s vulgarity, from which Nira tries to shelter him — a world in which even his nanny considers him little more than a freak show.

The Kindergarten Teacher was recently shown at the Pitigliani Kolno’a Festival in Rome and presented in 2014 at Cannes’ Semaine de la Critique. We spoke with Lapid about his film.

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Violence against Yoav runs throughout The Kindergarten Teacher.

I am always asked to what extent this is an Israeli film. I usually answer that it is in so far as it is shot in Israel, in Hebrew, by a filmmaker who was born there. But I am starting to think that I am surrounded by a very strong feeling — even though I don’t know if it’s specifically Israel-related — that is reflected by the film. It’s the violence of people who lack any “brakes,” for whom there is an equivalence between what they imagine, think and do: They are always declaring their full identity, always stating their beliefs. Take the nanny, for example. It’s as if she says, “I am beautiful, therefore I deserve everything.” Or the father, to whom money is everything and art is nothing. Or Nira herself, who is only interested in the next poem by this kid. Complexity, in the movie, derives from the addition of all these basic beliefs, that each character is willing to carry on to extreme consequences.

The film opens with an elbow, that of Nira’s husband, hitting the camera, and the characters often look at us.

The beginning itself is violent, we understand right away the we are not going to watch something harmonic. The first sequence, to me, is one of the most symbolic of our times: a man sitting on a couch watching a stupid TV show. And the camera can’t hide it: It shakes, and it tells us that this is horrible. To me it’s not a matter of “breaking the fourth wall,” but to shape an emotional and ideological earthquake, the desperation that pervades the whole film. And somehow this mirrors the kindergarten teacher’s crusade.

How do you think this violence is related to Israeli society?

Vulgarity and stupid TV shows are not an Israeli invention. Even now we are in a country — Italy — where, I think, culture is under attack. However, I believe in the existence of a direct link between a certain kind of militarism and vulgarity. The point of view in my film is that Israel is a place where poetry is no longer appreciated, and people don’t feel ashamed about the fact that they hate it.

In other occasions you have called Nira “a terrorist of poetry” who wants to change a world that has gone wrong.

Maybe this isn’t the best time to use the term jihadi, but it fits Nira. She is a woman from the middle class who wants to change history, and her weapon is a child who occasionally says weird words. She really thinks that if for one second the world could stop and listen to him, everyone would realize that what we consider to be normal isn’t logical. And Nira is willing to carry on this belief to the extreme, undertaking a Don Quixote-esque battle to fight with the poems written by a 5 year old. It’s the conviction expressed by the song that she makes the children sing: Who is the Messiah who is going to bring about redemption? To many people he is going to be a war hero, to the kindergarten teacher it’s someone who is going to save us through words and not weapons.