Tuesday, 21 May 2019 - 16 of Iyyar, 5779

Israel’s strong culture of free speech inadvertently highlighted in sexually graphic and scathing film about Israel that won Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear

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By Oliver Bradley

BERLIN—Juliette Binoche, cinema icon and jury president of the 69th Berlin International Film Festival, handed the Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear for Best Film to Israeli director Nadav Lapid for his film Synonymes.

Funded in part by Israeli Minister of Culture and Sports, Miri Regev, the film – based on Nadav Lapid’s own experiences – follows Yoav, a young Israeli determined to get rid of his nationality as quickly as possible. He is experiencing post-military-service trauma. For him, being Israeli is like a tumor that has to be exorcised. Becoming French would mean Yoav’s salvation.

In order to erase his origins, Yoav first tries to replace his language. From now on, he will not utter a single word of Hebrew. The dictionary becomes his constant companion. Yoav believes that he will be able to conceal his true identity and exchange it for another but only after understanding every nuance of the French language through its synonyms.

Yoav, however, cannot escape his body which is portrayed in sexually graphic detail throughout the film. Furthermore, the citizenship test he is practicing to take as well as his relationship to a young Parisian couple living their own French-born demons and existential abyss also act as wake-up calls for him.

During his acceptance speech, Lapid clearly showed that he was aware of the controversy that his film could create. His protagonist’s unforgiving on-screen tirade against the Jewish state and scenes of provocative Israelis could give fodder to detractors who question the State of Israel’s legitimacy.

These detractors use Jews and Israelis like Lapid to legitimize their own cause.

“I know that my film might be defined in Israel as a scandal,” Lapid said when receiving his award. “I know that there are also certain people in France who might be scandalized by this movie as well. But … I hope that people will still understand that fury, and rage, and hostility and hate and despise are only between brothers and sisters [who have]strong attachments and powerful emotions.”

Just prior to last week’s festival premiere of Synonymes, EJP asked Lapid how he reconciles the fact the film was co-funded by Israel’s Ministry for Culture and Sports which is headed by Minister Miri Regev – known for her unsuccessful attempts to deny funding to artists who might risk tarnishing Israel’s image.

“My film contains great criticism and also great attachment to Israel. I don’t think that it is making a simple political declaration,” he said. “All countries in the world are complicated in their own way. And Israel is a country in a hard phase in its history. There is a lot of brutality. I tried to show this brutality in my film. But at the same time the film contains strong emotions. The violence and emotion of the main character wouldn’t be so strong if there were not the mirror-image of a powerful attachment [towards Israel]. It is not my role to say what the minister of culture would think about my film, assuming she would even see it. I hope people in Israel will see this film in all its layers and complexities. I hope that they will observe this film as a complex declaration.”

Despite Lapid’s cinematic focus on Israel’s political challenges, he has also – inadvertently – highlighted Israel as a democratic country with a vibrant culture of free speech and expression. Fact remains: despite Miri Regev’s own reservations about artists such as Lapid, her ministry did co-finance the film. And needless to say, Lapid has returned to identifying himself as Israeli.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday congratulated Nadav Lapid and the makers of ‚Synonyms‘.

He said: “12 years ago, Joseph Cedar came home to Israel with a Golden Bear, one of the industry’s most prestigious awards, in his bag. This week, Nadav Lapid will come home with a Golden Bear, which he won for his film ‘Synonyms’,” said the president. “One doesn’t have to agree with every point or every position expressed in the film to recognize the importance of daring, smart and beautiful Israeli cinema gaining international recognition. It has always been and always will be a great source of pride. Mazal Tov, Nadav!”

Lapid’s film was also awarded the Critics’ Prize by the jury of the International Federation of Film Critics, FIPRESCI for the festival’s Competition section. Kelly Copper’s and Pavol Liska’s Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead) – an Austrian production – were also awarded the FIPRESCI prize for the festival’s Forum section.

In Die Kinder der Toten, based on Elfriede Jelinek’s ghost novel of the same name, the deceased are resurrected – even those with swastikas and yellow stars of David that would have been best left forgotten. The directorial duo from the Nature Theater of Oklahoma used amateur actors, Super 8 film and Styrian (southern Austrian) settings to create a silent Heimat horror-film complete with brass-band music.

The International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESC) is an association of national organizations of professional film critics and film journalists from around the world that promotes the development of arthouse cinema.

The Silver Bear for Best Documentary Film went to Argentinian filmmaker Manuel Abramovich for his Argentinian-German co-production Blue Boy – a film about the life of male sex-workers.

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