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BERLIN 2019 Competition

Nadav Lapid • Director of Synonyms

"My overarching goal was to capture some sort of truth in relation to certain moments"

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- BERLIN 2019: We met up with the Israeli director Nadav Lapid to talk about Synonyms, in competition at the 69th Berlin Film Festival

Nadav Lapid  • Director of Synonyms
(© Guy Ferrandis/SBS Films)

Israeli director Nadav Lapid tells us about his fourth feature film, which in the running for the Golden Bear at the 69th Berlinale. The brilliantly original Synonyms [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Nadav Lapid
film profile
]
is an expansive film, both verbal and physical, and tells the story of a character who is not so different from the director himself at 17 years of age. A young man arrives in Paris, weighed down by his past, in order to become French and be buried at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

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Cineuropa: You could say that Yoav is more of a concept than a character, a figure thrown into a Beckettian universe, or perhaps through the looking glass...
Nadav Lapid:
I agree in the sense that he embarks on an existential activity based on an idea that he will see through to the end. He experiences transformation on a mental, physical and intellectual level, and on a daily basis, while walking the streets of Paris muttering synonyms to himself. That said, I think what fascinates me as a director is creating a film that is also very physical and raw, concrete and sometimes brutal, as a way of reviving ideas, creating chaos, and avoiding simply ending up with one concept that meets another concept. 

In comparison to the young, intellectual French couple, who take him under their wing, Yoav is very physical. His body expresses a certain rage that is almost like a form of post-traumatic stress.
He is probably suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress, but the trauma is his own identity, not something concrete. Of course, it's all related to the army, to military service, but it's life itself that has caused his post-traumatic stress, his life there as an Israeli, and so he tries to break away from his past, renounce Hebrew words and discover new French words... At the same time, his Israeli identity is embedded in his body, which is very Israeli in itself. That’s perhaps why he tries to destroy it from the very beginning: first by freezing it, which is almost like a symbolic death, then by starving it, and finally, by prostituting it. But his body refuses to disappear and once he has degraded it, strangely, Hebrew words start to come out of his mouth again. So, yes, I think his character represents a sort of nomadic suffering, and it' all stems from the fact that he hates who he is. 

Were you intending to use the structure you just described right from the start?
It corresponds to my personal experience 17 years ago. Almost every scene in the film actually happened. I don’t really like directors who do complex things and the say, "it's actually very simple.” Although I was ultimately obliged to do the same thing on this particular occasion because I told the story of what happened to me personally. There is something very primitive about this film on a narrative level: there are not many plot points, it is the story of a young man who arrives, who lives his life and leaves. The film’s complexity lies in the fact that almost every moment and event is embedded with all sorts of contradictory meaning. 

Do all of Yoav’s "stories" belong to you or did you find them elsewhere?
My overarching goal was to capture some sort of truth in relation to certain moments, rather than creating a means of autobiographical-fiction. I am convinced that every human experience can serve as a window into existence. My personal experience was not that unusual, but I was able to go into detail because it belonged to me. So in that sense, yes, everything that happens in the film happened to me, but in a way, I think that we’re all forced to confront certain questions about identity (To what extent are we slaves of our past and birthplace, as opposed to free people? Do we really want freedom? Can we really transform into someone else?).

What led you to choose such a diverse visual approach, which is sometimes colourful and mobile, and sometimes white and architectural, with varying angles and distance?
The idea was to try to reach the truth of the moment. In this sense, it's a kind of raw and bare formalism that uses all available means: sound, set design, costumes and the camera - because I don’t really see why the camera should remain emotionally objective. I also put the cinematographer’s body in the film, because for me, feelings travel through his body, and through his hand holding the camera, and we see them on screen, and they are important. That’s why there is indeed a kind of visual diversity to the film, but one that always tries to stay true to what is happening in the scene, or to give an opposing view of what is going on in.

(Translated from French)

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