The story so far: Critically acclaimed Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid has found himself at the centre of a controversy after he described director Vivek Agnihotri’s film ‘ The Kashmir Files’ as “vulgar” and “propaganda” at the closing ceremony of the 53rd International Film Festival of India (IFFI) late on Monday, November 28. Mr. Lapid, the jury chief at this year’s edition of IFFI, said he was “disturbed and shocked” to see the film being screened at the film festival.
“It felt to us like a propaganda and vulgar movie that was inappropriate for an artistic and competitive section of such a prestigious film festival,” he remarked while presenting the jury report at the ceremony. However, another jury member, Indian filmmaker Sudipto Sen tweeted a statement stating that everything said by Mr. Lapid about the Vivek Agnihotri feature was his “personal opinion”; the tweet was retweeted by Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur, also present at the ceremony when Mr. Lapid made the remarks.
‘ The Kashmir Files’, released in theatres on March 11, was part of the Indian Panorama Section at IFFI and was screened on November 22. The film depicts the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus following the killing of community members by Pakistan-backed terrorists.
Mr. Lapid’s comments triggered a backlash on social media and responses from the actors and director of “The Kashmir Files”. The most critical response, however, came from Israel’s Ambassador to India, Naor Gilon, who said in a series of tweets that Lapid had “abused” his invitation to IFFI and condemned the filmmaker’s comments “unequivocally”.
Stating that it was “insensitive” to talk about a country’s historic events before deeply studying them, Mr. Gilon remarked to Mr. Lapid: “As you vocally did in the past, feel free to use the liberty to sound your criticism of what you dislike in Israel but no need to reflect your frustration on other countries.”
Who is Nadav Lapid?
Mr. Lapid, 47, was born in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1975 to a film family— his father, Haim, is a film writer and his late mother Era was a film editor. He is of Ashkenazi Jewish descent
Mr. Lapid studied philosophy in Tel Aviv University and literature in Paris. Upon completing his compulsory stint with the Israeli army, he moved to Paris and then back to Israel and graduated from the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem in 2006. Before writing his own films, he worked as a cinematographer for various Israeli documentaries. His first film, The Policeman, debuted in 2011 and bagged the Locarno International Film Festival’s Special Jury prize. He has also been bestowed with the French Order Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, given for significant contributions to the arts and literature.
Prior to his stint as IFFI’s jury head, Mr. Lapid has been a part of juries at various international film festivals, including the International Critics’ Week jury at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
Mr. Lapid spent a large part of his life in Paris but now resides in his home country.
Works and views
Mr. Lapid’s works are often a mixture of the personal and the political, with his own admittedly conflicted sense of Jewish identity often creeping into narratives that flash a critical lens on the functioning of the Israel administration and military.
For instance, his internationally acclaimed feature Ahed’s Knee (2021), which won the Jury Prize at Cannes that year, trails a protagonist called Y, who is an Israeli film director caught between narrative freedom and accepting government financing for his film at the cost his artistic liberty, being required to whitewash political and military realities. His work has often been described as autobiographical fiction; The New Yorker wrote in its review of Ahed’s Knee: “The film’s outbursts feel like the eruption of Lapid’s own mind; there is little semblance of distance between him and the fictional protagonist.”
In events uncannily similar to those in Ahed’s Knee, Mr. Lapid was one of 250 Israeli filmmakers who signed an open letter against the Shomron (Samaria/West Bank) Film Fund launched this year. The fund was founded by Israel’s former culture minister Miri Regev, who has been criticised for her right-wing views. The fund held its first film festival in West Bank, which is occupied by Israel.
His second full-length feature, The Kindergarten Teacher (2014) , revolves around kindergarten teacher Nira, and her five-year-old pupil Yoav who has an extraordinary knack for poetry beyond his age. Yoav writes strong, lamenting poetry about Israel in Hebrew, to which Nira, looking for the deeper meaning of life, becomes an audience of one, trying to shield the child from the contaminating ways of the world. The Kindergarten Teacher was remade in English in 2018, with Maggie Gyllenhaal in the titular role.
Synonyms (2019) is anotheracclaimed work, which won the Berlin Film Festival’s coveted Golden Bear Award the year it was released. Notably, Mr. Lapid and his father wrote this film together, while his mother, who succumbed to cancer during the film’s making, edited it up until her death.
Mr. Lapid dedicated the film to his mother and told Reuters in a 2019 interview: “We edited this movie between editing room and hospitals.... It was a kind of competition between death and completing the movie. And death won.”
The film, infused with a faintly comedic tone, is autobiographical in many respects, studying the protagonist’s bittersweet relationship with his Israeli identity, which he seeks to shed to reinvent himself as a Frenchman. As Mr. Lapid describes it, the young protagonist, Yoav, is hurt by years of anti-semitism, and, “in his head, he leaves the worst country ever to arrive in the best country ever”. However, as he lives through the excruciating experience of assimilating in France, Yoav realises that he is facing “a more complex reality”. Much like his protagonist, Mr. Lapid, left Israel for Paris at a young age, and draws substantially from his experiences for this film.
Mr. Lapid has been vocal about his opinions on Israel. In a 2019 interview with The Times of Israel, he said that Israel, on the surface, is an uninhabitable place— “like a planet they discover in another galaxy where there are no conditions for life.” But, while admitting he was pessimistic at times, Mr. Lapid said he believed it wouldn’t become a totally fascist regime, because there was something to prevent it, “something the way the people know each other.”
He called himself “so Israeli” nonetheless. “It’s in the way I shoot my movies; there is part of the Israeli soul in there,” the filmmaker said.
Asked if he was a dissident, Mr. Lapid narrated an incident where an aide of former Culture Minister Ms. Regev visited the premiere of ‘Synonyms’ and said that he had come to “examine if your film is pro- or anti-.”
“So I said, sincerely, ‘as soon as you find out, call and tell me.’” he said.