Saturday, October 05, 2013

BIG BAD WOLVES (2013)—Fantasia Q&A With Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado

It's an oft-stated supposition that one of the redeeming values of genre films—particularly horror, sci-fi, and thrillers—is the capacity to reflect the anxieties of the predominant culture. This cultural component is essential to framing an appreciation of Big Bad Wolves (2013) [Facebook], the sophomore effort by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado (Rabies, 2010), which seeks to introduce the violent revenge thriller to home turf audiences more accustomed to dysfunctional family dramas and war-torn narratives. Keshales and Papushado have negotiated this challenge by premiering Wolves first at Tribeca (where it emerged as the single best-reviewed title in that festival's lineup) and then at Fantasia (where it won the juried Cheval Noir Award for Best Film, as well as Best Screenplay) before opening theatrically in Israel. Their strategy appeared to have worked as critical buzz rallied anticipation of the film's theatrical release and earned Wolves eleven nominations for the Israeli Ophir Awards, resulting in five wins (best cinematography, best makeup, best production design, best original music and best original soundtrack). Even though Wolves lost out to Bethlehem (2013) as the Israeli submission to the foreign language category of the Academy Awards®, their negotiated distribution strategy remains a compelling achievement, let alone that the film is enthralling entertainment that satisfies international appetites even as it challenges national ones. Yet another argument for the international reach of genre films. Big Bad Wolves will be released by Magnet Releasing.

Described in its official marketing as "a brutal comedy for a mad mad mad mad world", this gripping, genre-bending tale of vengeance and fury kicks off in Lars von Trier slo-mo with a game of hide and seek, beautifully lensed by Giora Bejach and powerfully scored by Frank Ilfman. In an elegant, throwaway visual reference to the Grimms fairy tale, a little blonde-haired girl in a red jacket is abducted and brutally murdered. A suspect spotted near the scene of the crime (newcomer Rotem Keinan as mild-mannered schoolteacher Dror) is apprehended by local official Miki (charismatic favorite Lior Ashkenazi) who enlists two thugs to beat Dror up during questioning. Unbeknownst to Miki, his tactics are caught on cell phone by an eyewitness who broadcasts the footage on YouTube, ensuring his captive's release and costing him his job. This narrative detail shimmers with relevance as it underscores how citizen surveillance hobbles the ability of law enforcement to do their jobs, even while it cogently critiques the violence with which those jobs are effected.

Miki goes renegade, stalking Dror, while at the same time the two are stalked in turn by the dead girl's father Gidi (veteran actor Tzahi Grad). This triangulation ensures mounting vigilante tension in the vein of Dirty Harry. What ensues are some nail biting chase scenes, unexpected twists and turns, and a moral ambiguity about the nature of vigilante justice. All of this might seem like overly familiar territory but what elevates this effort is how Keshales and Papushado balance their drama with mordant humor; another blend generally unfamiliar to Israeli audiences. The balance between action, drama and comedy is brilliantly pitched, which distinguishes it from such films as The Silence (2010) and Michael, let's say, where the unwholesome subjects of infanticide and child abuse are never played for laughs. Which leads to a minor, but for me interesting, point. In Dark Nature, Lyall Watson's study of the nature of evil, Watson proposes a hierarchy of evil that determines all subsequent definitions. The ultimate evil recognized world-wide, Watson suggests, is any crime that works against the preservation of the species, of which the murder of children is consensually ranked high on the list. There's no ambiguity there. Ambiguity arises in the evils committed in response to such a horrific act when men take the law into their own hands to avenge the death of children.

Although Keshales and Papushado are insistent that they have purposely avoided politicizing their film, its violence aptly reflects the perpetuation of vengeful atrocities in the Mideast. Keshales and Papushado introduce an Arab character on horseback who contests all stereotypes and who insinuates that the true threat to Israeli society comes from within, not without. This is, of course, a prickly subject and it will be fascinating to see how Israeli audiences react to the implication.

To celebrate the theatrical success of Big Bad Wolves and its quintet of Ophirs, I offer a transcription of the film's Fantasia Q&A session.

* * *

Introducing the one-off Fantasia screening of Big Bad Wolves at Montreal's Imperial Theater, Aharon Keshales identified himself as "the short guy" and jokingly recalled that he and Navot Papushado had attended Fantasia three years previously with their first film Rabies and that, afterwards, they couldn't stop talking about Fantasia for an entire month. Fantasia programmer Mitch Davis was one of Rabies' biggest fans and Keshales worried that their follow-up would disappoint Davis. When they sent the screener of Wolves to Davis, they were terrified what he would think—Had they betrayed his confidence? Would he be sorry for having believed in them?—but Davis sent them one of the most touching acceptance letters they'd ever received. "Mitch writes with his heart," Keshales asserted, "I got a love letter from Mitch. How many of you can say that?" The letter made him so emotional that he phoned Papushado up immediately and read it over the phone to him, who started crying on the other side of the line. Keshales seized the opportunity to underscore that as gruesome as the narrative might be in Wolves, he and Papushado actually have kind hearts.

Navot Papushado stepped up to the microphone next and recalled that three years ago when they brought Rabies to Fantasia, they knew nothing about genre film festivals and their audiences. They did the exact opposite with Rabies than their strategy for Wolves, opening it first in Israel and then letting it roll out on the festival circuit, including Fantasia, where they couldn't believe how incredible the audiences were. They went back to Israel and related their experience in the vein of a bedtime story; they said, "Listen. There's a place called Montreal and there's a place inside Montreal called Fantasia and the audience freaked us out." Of course, people didn't believe them, so this time Papushado begged our indulgence. Their PR agent insisted that he and Keshales film their audience as proof. He asked us to raise our hands and shout out the name of the film so that the footage could be broadcast on the 8:00 news back in Israel. Everyone stood up and starting cheering thunderously, howling wolf calls and chanting, "Big Bad Wolves, Big Bad Wolves, Big Bad Wolves" over and over, no rehearsal necessary; a thrilling and exciting moment of anticipatory reception. "Aharon and I can die happy now," he beamed.

Their smiles were no less radiant when they returned after the screening to conduct an on-stage conversation with Mitch Davis, who congratulated them on making their extraordinary film. Davis asked them to talk about the genesis of the film.

"We wanted to make a drama about a suspected pedophile seen through his point of view," Keshales responded. "Then we wanted to do a film about a vigilante cop. Then we wanted to do something like a Korean revenge film where a grieving father takes control. Then we said, 'Let's do those three movies in one film. That's even better.' " That was how they pitched the film and the producer was enthused enough to say yes.

In terms of metaphors and allegories, Davis proposed, Wolves starts out as a discourse on the insanity of violence leading to vengeance and more violence; in other words, the cycle of violence begetting violence. He asked, slyly, if there was anything in their history that encouraged them to pursue such a story? Although Davis asserted he didn't mean cultural history—that he meant personal history—Papushado insisted the film could not be divorced from the history of Israeli, which he facetiously referred to as "a peaceful place." He and Keshales, he explained, were born into a specifically complex situation. They didn't intend to make a political film; they first and foremost wanted to make a film that would entertain. But no one can escape the politics from where they're born. Political subjects arise every day. Having never had to take justice into their own hands, he couldn't say the film was personal; but, conceded that the film feels like it comes from a country that will do anything it needs to do to survive. Davis qualified that he asked because both films—Rabies and Wolves—deal so much with suspicion and guilt.

In terms of casting, Davis wondered if they had these well-known Israeli actors in mind when they wrote the parts? He considered them so well-chosen. Papushado confirmed that he and Keshales write their scripts for actors; but, it was more a fantasy that the big actors of Israel would come and play with them on such a low-budget film. Still, it happened! The characters of the cop, the father and the grandfather were written specifically for the actors who played them; but, for the suspected pedophile, they cast a newcomer so that audiences wouldn't have any preconceptions or expectations. Wolves was only Rotem Keinan's second role. He's better known for his commercials for a children's snack. Even the cameos in Wolves are played by several big stars in Israel, including Dvir Benedek as the head of police. Benedek is Israel's biggest comedian and is currently playing the Ricky Gervais role in the Israeli version of The Office.

Davis then accepted questions from the audience, the first coming from a young man who wondered how difficult it was to incorporate comedic elements into a narrative with such serious subject matter? Keshales responded that they played with fire even though they shouldn't have played with fire. Combining comedic elements with serious subject matter wasn't difficult for them because they're nearly as bipolar as their country, laughing one minute and crying the next. It's said that Jewish people invented dark humor, he said, but, surprisingly, you don't see many comedies in Israeli cinema. So they decided to show the Israeli psyche and what life is like in Israel. "You have killing all around you," he explained, maybe not all the time, but certainly for periods of time that are uncomfortable. He was living in Tel Aviv when there were buses blowing up every day and he was riding buses that ended up blowing up a few days later. "When you live this kind of life every day," he said, "you live with a sense of danger and survival." You have to have a sense of humor, because—if you don't—life would be unbearable: you would cry all day or want to commit suicide, neither of which are viable options for either of them. As a people, the Israelis have learned to tell jokes. Though it's frowned upon to tell jokes about the Holocaust, if you get a few Jews in the same room talking about the subject, everyone will have a ball. Such horrific historical events and the hardships they have suffered as a people have taught them how to laugh.

Only if you live in Israel can you understand how hard it is to live in Israel. It's not so black and white as people outside of Israel might think. You could say Israel is doing all the wrong things, that nothing is right, but living there you know it's more complicated than media reports let on. Whenever he watches international news it's always about Israel doing this or Israel doing that. He cares about his country. He cares about his neighbors. He's served in the Israeli army. Even though he comes from a left point of view, he doesn't believe either side of the conflict is right or wrong. Both sides often act like children. They each insist they're right. If they were acting maturely, they would recognize there are problems on both sides, which would precipitate understanding.

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