Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Kindergarten Teacher: First poetry, then anything else

Avi Shnaidman (left) and Sarit Larry star in Nadav Lapid's excellent new film The Kindergarten Teacher.

Parents probably do not ask themselves enough what they hope their children get out of going to school each day. It seems a pretty significant question to ask. For the most part, we agree it is important for children to attend school from a fairly young age, but we rarely identify the specific good scholarship is intended to promote.

This question is intrinsically linked to the function of school teachers in our society. These people devote their lives to the education of children, and they ask little in return for their investment, yet the question of what they are investing in still stands. Israeli writer-director Nadav Lapid’s sophomore feature The Kindergarten Teacher is a stunning exploration of the role teachers play in our culture and the lengths to which one woman will go to fulfill her perceived duty.

Lapid was in New York last week for a screening of his film, followed by a question-and-answer session at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Lapid was chatty, witty, and engaging throughout a half-hour discussion in which he touched on the need for art in society, the essential function of educators, and the importance of contradictions.

“I think there’s something in this position of kindergarten teacher,” said Lapid. “On one hand, kindergarten teachers, as we know, are real persons, private persons who have their private life, etc. On the other hand, they are the ones who are in charge of the transmission of social values, of state values, of moral values. They are the ones who meet the future citizens in their earliest stage in order to prepare them, to make them appropriate to become a part of society. They are also an incarnation of right and wrong, bad and good in the eyes of society, and I think that this specific kindergarten teacher – she’s in a kind of permanent rebellion.”

Nira, brilliantly played by Sarit Larry, is a middle-aged kindergarten teacher whose life lacks excitement and inspiration. Her husband is a loving man but a dolt. Her job often seems like nothing more than glorified babysitting until one day when her world changes and a new light shines down on her. She overhears one of her students, a 5-year-old boy, Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), dictate a poem to his nanny. The verse is beautiful, and Nira obsesses over the prodigiously insightful mind of this child.

The first thing she does is repurpose two of Yoav’s poems to impress the teacher and students of her night school creative writing class, claiming she has written them. We seem to be headed for a narrative in which the teacher steals the child’s poems in order to procure some form of glory for herself, but Lapid’s script is smarter than that. The Kindergarten Teacher veers into entirely different territory, portraying Nira as a person so moved by the glory of Yoav’s poetry that she absolutely must share his gift with the world, regardless of what rules or cultural norms she has to violate to do so.

“She’s doubting this right and wrong, the social, the moral values, and I think in a way she’s inventing an alternative moral system, which to make things short, it claims something like: first, words of poetry, and then anything else,” said Lapid. “I try to imagine our world ruled by such a kindergarten teacher … First poetry, then anything else – imagine that. Since her life was totally shaken, changed, turned upside down after she hears a 5-year-old kid mumble two or three lines of poetry, she believes in a way that each time this kid opens his mouth, the world should stop turning around. People should stop anything and listen. Maybe it’s not such a bad belief.”

The film positions Nira as a radical warrior, fighting for art and beauty in a world more concerned with the shallow and prosaic. It may seem like an extreme stance on her part, but as we watch Yoav’s nanny use his gift for her gain and his father decry the art of poetry, it becomes easier for us to understand Nira’s desire to strike back at the culture. Yoav’s father, a wealthy restauranteur, explicitly tells Nira not to encourage the child’s gift, but she refuses to contribute to a society that will not stop to recognize greatness when confronted with it.

“She’s aiming not only to save this kid, not only to save herself, not only to save this kid’s words but in a way to change the course of history,” said Lapid. “She aims to change the universe in the way she declares war against what most of us see as triviality, as banality. She claims a war against the man who’s sitting right now in front of his TV watching a quite-stupid TV show, even if this man is her husband.”

Adding another layer to the proceedings, however, is Yoav himself. He is not some perspicacious movie child like other preternaturally gifted kids in lesser films. He is a child – shy, uncoordinated, and simple but paradoxically capable of producing intensely beautiful words of poetry. It is this paradox that intrigues Nira, said Lapid. It is a mystery at the center of the film that she must follow through to its end, whether it leads to her destruction or redemption.

“At a certain moment, we understood there is something in this age, 5 years old, that combines huge, verbal capacity – very powerful imagination on one hand – and something very basic in the physical gestures,” said Lapid. “That’s why, for example, you can see the kid doing his ritual, his poetic ritual, walking from left to right, right to left, reciting sometimes very complicated words, and almost falling while he’s walking because there’s something basic about him. There was a moment when I think we understood that this is the essence because the kid is a contradiction.”

If Lapid’s script makes this point, then his direction and the jaw-dropping camerawork of cinematographer Shai Goldman drive the point home. Whole scenes will play out from Nira or Yoav’s point of view before the audience even realizes it is looking through the eyes of one of the characters. There are no boundaries between the camera and the action, forcing viewers to become a part of the story but depriving them of any agency, much like the children in Nira’s class.

“If I decide to make a film called The Kindergarten Teacher, which takes place in a kindergarten and there are kids and that talks in a way also about childhood and adults, childhood … should be present on the screen,” said Lapid. “For me, present on the screen means that it’s like a child. The characters on the screen will have their own independent way of thinking, while the camera will have different way of thinking, my way of thinking.

“In part of the film, there will be sometimes a collision between the camera and the characters, between the borders of the frame and the character in the middle of the frame. For example, they don’t keep distance from the camera. They don’t respect the autonomy, the independence of the camera. They don’t respect the objectivity of the camera. They force the camera to be subjective, to take a position, so in a way, it’s a combination between order and concept and arbitrary things and freedom.”

The clash between order and freedom drives much of The Kindergarten Teacher and gives it power. Poetry is no parent’s idea of a stable career path, least of all Yoav’s father, but must that be a consideration? In Yoav’s words, Nira sees beauty, freedom, and expression, and she determines to encourage and nurture these traits. The society she lives in would rather she not. If she cannot transcend, she will be crushed, leaving us still with the question: If not the devotion and dedication of someone like Nira, what do we really want from our teachers?

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