Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales flipped a coin. The toss decided who would take their critically acclaimed sophomore feature, Big Bad Wolves, to the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea, and who would take it to the Chicago International Film Festival. Not since the pairing of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert has a collaborative duo left so much of their partnership’s business matters to this kind of utter chance. Just as the odds of one coin toss between those two late icons of film criticism favored Siskel, whose name would appear first in the title of their beloved film review program, Siskel & Ebert, as a result, so did the odds of Papushado and Keshales’ toss favor the former, granting him the opportunity to be greeted after Big Bad Wolves’ Busan screening by none other than Quentin Tarantino, who now famously declared, “Not only is this the best film in Busan — this is the best film of the year.”
“I almost had a heart attack,” recalls Papushado, whose interview with Diabolique, he tells us, also comes by way of a coin toss between he and Keshales, a means of splitting duties on Wolves’ extensive promotional world tour. “What do you do after that? Aharon always says, ‘It’s like you meet Elvis, and Elvis says to you, ‘Hey, man — you can sing!’ It really shook the whole industry here in Israel. Having Quentin Tarantino (he, the Coen Brothers and maybe Steven Spielberg, are the most beloved filmmakers in Israel) give the spotlight to an indie genre film from Israel did an amazing thing not only for us, but also for the Israeli industry. All of a sudden, it’s okay: ‘Alright! The world is ready for it, the world wants it, the world wants to hear more stories that are not only about the conflict.’ Obviously it has the conflict in it, but we can do more cinematic films.”
“The conflict,” of course, is an abbreviated term for the seemingly endless territorial bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East — a balagan, the euphemistic word denoting “mess” or “chaos” in modern Hebrew. Portraying the conflict with stuffy traditionalism, Papushado explains, is “what [Israeli] universities encourage you to do. We were witnessing a kind of process: that everyone, when they come into the university, wants to be the next Spielberg, the next Tarantino, etc., and by the time they come out, they want to be the next Dardenne brothers, or the next Fellini. We were talking a lot about it, and we said, ‘How come such young filmmakers in Israel are doing such old films?’ Such ‘respectable’— I’m doing the quotation thing, with the hands — films? I think they were confusing important films with self-important films.”
What exactly resonated with Tarantino so strongly in the work of this co-writing/directing duo? What made him distinguish it as an “important” anomaly amidst the “self-important” offerings of its makers’ contemporaries? It’s easy to see how QT would tend to favor Big Bad Wolves’ superficial resemblance to Reservoir Dogs, with its propensity for full-on carnage and universal themes of vengeance, or its characters’ self-designed, immoral compasses, whose smarminess is thinly veiled in the “professionalism” their status as members of law enforcement purport to grant them. Big Bad Wolves centers around the intersection of the lives of four Israeli men — Dror (Rotem Keinan), a religious studies teacher suspected of being a serial child killer; Micki (Lior Ashkenazi), a police detective uncomfortably comfortable outside the boundaries of the law; Gidi (Tzahi Grad), the father of one of the victims of the child killings; and Yoram, (Doval’e Glickman) Gidi’s nonchalantly barbarous father — and the violence between them that their clashing perspectives and presumptions inevitably bring about. In the face of grueling sadism at the hands of Gidi in the basement of his newly acquired house (“We thought, when we approached the film, ‘What would a Coen Brothers torture porn movie look like?’,” Papushado quips), Dror unwaveringly insists upon his innocence, though his conviction falls upon mostly deaf ears.
“In Big Bad Wolves, we are describing a very macho-istic, even silly, male-dominant society,” says Papushado, considering the implications of the film’s premise. “All these men are ex-military guys; they’re either in law enforcement, or they have military experience because they were in the army. Even the lovely grandfather who comes around — he goes way back, to the times when [the army] used blowtorches on people. If you put it into perspective for a moment, they are like little kids: ‘Let’s play thieves and cops!’ ‘Yeah, of course! If you need help, I could interrogate him!’ It’s a basement where you can do whatever you want. This is Israel: it’s a very patriarchal society.”
Mounting his defense of Big Bad Wolves’ torture sequences by measuring his homeland’s gender-based social attitudes, Papushado continues: “It was a very aware decision from the beginning not to bring almost any females to the screen. The only female who appears — a very strong, attractive female, who uses her beauty and her professionalism to sell — is [Gidi’s] real estate agent. But other than her, there are no female parts in Big Bad Wolves on-screen. Off-screen, there is the mother of Gidi, wife of Yuran, and you have the wife of Lior’s character, Micki. Mothers, who we love and adore, symbolize the more sensitive and caring side. And for us, they’re also the voice of reason. Men will always be children, almost infantile in the way they think. Taking justice into their own hands, they own this universe. The basement is their own universe. We always thought that when we would bring one of the women into the film, she would probably say, ‘Oh, come on, kids. Stop behaving like that. Just clean everything up, let’s go. We can solve it with reason.’”
Big Bad Wolves’ tongue-in-cheek, near-omission of any on-screen female presence does not render it a “feminist film,” Papushado notes, though he does stress it constitutes a feminist element. As quickly as he admits to subscribing, even if mildly, to the stereotype of Jewish women as overly caring and nagging (“My mother called me like 10 times before this interview, so I wouldn’t forget to deposit my check!,” he laughs), he is just as adamant about drawing from personal experiences to call attention to the inadequacies of male hegemony. “A lot of [Yuran] the grandfather is based on Aharon’s father, and a lot of Gidi is based on my father,” he reveals. “We love our fathers; they influenced how we developed our own set of moral standards and took a different approach than other Israelis may have done. But we also took them to the extreme, in order to portray this society where women are pushed aside to the job of mothers, not leaders. I think women would do a much better job ruling this country, if you ask me. But don’t quote me on that [laughs]. I will get bashed for it [laughs]!”
Sorry, Navot, but we’re holding you accountable for that one.
Failing to attribute such a commendably bold statement to the artist from whose mouth it came would be to misrepresent that artist as a reducer of cinema to pure entertainment, devoid of real world contexts. Papushado’s comments about the plight of women exemplify his keen awareness of the complexities and contradictions of Israeli life, and serve as much as ideological gestures as they do as fodder for cinematic drama. “We’re not saying, like other political films, that Israel is a bad place to live in and we are doing wrong to the world,” he asserts. “No. We are portraying problems. We are portraying some of the issues we think should be discussed: vigilantism, taking the law into your own hands. If your motivation is to save someone you love, you have to question it every step of the way.”
For Papushado and Keshales, national identity has always been a theme best served raw and cold. Rabies, the pair’s 2011 debut feature, makes history as the first ever Israeli horror film; its darkly comic tone, isolated locations and visceral moments of brutality set the precedent for Big Bad Wolves’ similar, albeit improved-upon milieu. “We thought it would be great to show how everything here is gradually turning into violence, and how we are all infected by this disease — like the metaphor[ical title], Rabies,” says Papushado. “That you only need to push the right button to get everyone angry. That life in Israel is on the edge of exploding. It’s like a barrel of gunpowder waiting to explode.”
Rabies is nominally about a brother and sister; a psychotic killer; a forest ranger and his dog; two less-than-competent police officers; and four tennis players, and the violence that transpires when their lives intersect by chance (or is it fate?), a la the cross-contamination of multiple narrative threads in Pulp Fiction. Again, the Tarantino connection is not lost, here, as Papushado’s script indulges gleefully in dialogue-centric diversions (one conversation details the perceived sex appeal of women shaving their legs and the perverse thrill one character gets from watching women urinate). And there’s even a wink-and-a-nod, QT-influenced “trunk view” shot thrown in for good measure (an homage later repeated in an identical shot in Big Bad Wolves). But it’s the subversion of Israel’s national conception of its premiere cinema and star personas that makes Rabies more innovative than imitative. “We were able to get all these A-list actors,” Papushado recalls of casting the next-to-no-budget film, which was shot in 19 days. “All the actors of Twilight, Tom Cruise and George Clooney — that’s like the Israeli cast of Rabies. We never thought of ourselves as ‘horror directors.’ We just wanted to make the first Israeli horror film because those are the films we grew up on. We wanted to put 10 of Israel’s best actors in a bloodbath, let people come to the cinema with popcorn and Coke and see all their childhood heroes, all the biggest stars in Israel, just kill each other in this roller coaster of laughs and violence and great music.”
Of those A-listers, Israeli leading man Lior Ashkenazi, who plays Danny in Rabies and Micki in Big Bad Wolves, is an especially peculiar casting choice, insofar as his roles in both films are that of the morally ambiguous police officer. Whereas in Rabies, the meek Danny’s inability to curb his corrupt partner, Yuval (Danny Geva), enables Yuval’s obscene abuse of power, in Big Bad Wolves, it is Micki himself who first incorporates vigilantism into his police force’s unorthodox approach to interrogating Dror, their prime suspect. Much like his performance as Eyal, a Mossad agent assigned to win the trust of the grandson of a Nazi war criminal in director Eytan Fox’s Walk on Water (for which he won the Ophir Award, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars, for Best Actor), Rabies and Big Bad Wolves both find Ashkenazi playing an Israeli macho who is forced to confront the possibility that his assumptions about those he perceives to be his enemies — or even his friends — may not be entirely accurate.
Papushado laughs when asked if Ashkenazi’s characters in both of his films are reflective of a skepticism about Israeli law enforcement, but his tone quickly turns serious: “We are a country with no leader, no one to follow, no one to trust,” he laments. “In the last few weeks, we had gangs of mobsters assassinating each other in the streets. It’s a huge part of the problem, and the police can’t do anything. There are assassination attempts in broad daylight. Just today, someone threw an open grenade in a market. It’s like open terror, and the police can’t do anything. The other day, a prisoner was able to bring a gun into a jail, killed one guard, injured two guards. Other big chiefs of police are being interrogated for taking bribes from rabbis. It’s a joke. The police in Israel is a joke. We lost our one great leader in 1994, when an assassin killed [former Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin, and since then, it doesn’t feel like we are recovering from it. Of course we don’t want to give the police a bad reputation; the police does that very well for itself [laughs]. But Big Bad Wolves and Rabies [are] metaphors for how we’ve lost connection with the people that we put our trust in.”
The tense climate facilitated by the sheer proportions of Israel — a country the size of the state of New Jersey, in which forced close proximity between citizens is an everyday reality — complicates the sense of distrust Papushado purports his films to be “about.” In Rabies, the line between friends and strangers becomes surrealistically blurred when the paths of the film’s eclectic set of characters inevitably collide; in Big Bad Wolves, Micki’s Mr. Blonde-esque interrogation tactics are, unbeknownst to him, recorded on a cell phone by an innocent bystander, and subsequently exposed to the nation in a viral YouTube video. Here, an act of citizen journalism becomes crucial in establishing Israel’s attitude and response toward unchecked authority, and Micki is swiftly fired from the police force. “With Facebook and everything that’s been happening in the last few years, there are cameras everywhere you go,” Papushado says. “There are bad aspects of that, obviously, but there are good aspects of it. You have to become a better person and commit to more moral standards. You can’t do what you used to do. There are no more hidden places, no more closed doors. You never know who takes your pictures. That could lead to law enforcement or people in power having to behave better. That was a great moral question that we wanted to raise: ‘Okay, we’ll let that kid photograph it, put it on YouTube, and it will be interesting to see what the police will do with that’ [laughs]. Again, it’s another way of showing how we lost our moral standards. It’s not about what’s right or wrong; it’s what you can prove, what you can show. ‘Just don’t get caught. Get it done. Get results, and don’t turn it into a scandal. I don’t want it to appear on the eight ‘o clock news.’ It was another way to show how you can always find more corrupting ways to behave — and sometimes, with the best excuse, the best motivation. Obviously, the [police] want to catch a killer. So sometimes, even the best intentions can get you corruption. It’s that grey area that interested Aharon and me. It’s not bad people doing bad things, but good people trying to do good things, the means to their ends sometimes being bad.”
Can vengeance, whether exacted by a cop or a civilian, be justified solely on the grounds of protecting children, the lifeblood of Israel’s future generations? Such a question conjures Papushado’s memories of the unique experience of coming of age in a country whose very formation is predicated on the Jewish people’s deep-seated sense of self-preservation: “We have been taught since we were kids that everyone out there is out to kill us,” he says. “The Holocaust is something that is nurtured in you in kindergarten. And growing up in this atmosphere of terror, part of it is true. On my 16th birthday my friends woke me up to throw me a surprise party. We turned on the television and there was an explosion in the center of Tel Aviv. 15 kids got killed. So it’s not out of context, or propaganda. You feel it on a daily basis.”
“Our parents went to war,” Papushado continues, painting a clearer picture of Wolves’ characters’ personal influences to which he previously made mention. The casual, father-son intimacy between Gidi and Yuran, unfazed even as they share in the act of beating the suspected murderer of Gidi’s daughter beyond recognition, is the backbone of Big Bad Wolves’ twisted sense of nihilistic humor. “Aharon’s father is a great veteran, a war hero. He is 90% handicapped; he was a paratrooper, he fought one of the nastiest wars. And even my father. Every time they went to the reserve service, one month of every year, I remember staying home with my mother, waiting for my father to come home with his guns and his uniform to come back and pick me up in the air. You develop a kind of emotional attachment to those symbols. The relationships between fathers and sons in Israel are extremely strong because of that. Your father is a superhero, the uniform is something you should worship, and you have to survive no matter what. And in order to survive, you have to do horrible stuff. You have to bite before you get bitten. There’s a sentence in the Bible: You have to be earlier than the man who wants to kill you. Do it to him before he does it to you. We grew up with that. We developed this survival instinct; it’s so strong in our nature. You know: ‘You have to survive; you have to continue bringing children; you have to ensure your future, and your children’s future. That’s why we’re proud to have this very strong army…’ Growing up with that, it was very difficult to get disconnected from [it] and look at it from a different angle. With survival instincts and all these family bonds we created, we never stopped to ask ourselves, ‘How far? How far should we go to protect our kids? Our heritage? Our legacy?’ We’re not saying that there are things that shouldn’t have been done. It’s just a question. No one stops and asks the question.”
Posing such questions, Papushado argues, sheds light on the conflicting, sometimes self-destructive tendencies of the country he loves. “Every day in the streets of Israel, not all the people are nice to each other. But if someone falls off a bike and breaks a leg, all of a sudden, like 100 people will rush to help him,” he says. “We’re always good in times of crisis [laughs]. We are kind to each other, but only in times of pain, agony, terror, war. Then, we become this nation where you love your brothers, where you wanna help your brothers. But all of the other time, it’s a very alienated country toward its own. That’s what we tried to touch on in Rabies — that we are a country at war with itself. You don’t even need to involve the Arabs. That’s why there is no Arab representation in Rabies. We are out to kill ourselves. We’re doing a great job of that.”
In the realm of Israeli-produced Arab representation, Papushado and Keshales’ films are ushering in a movement brand new to their regional demographic, in which a discourse about “the conflict” can be cloaked in the pleasures of slasher (Rabies) and fairy tale (Big Bad Wolves) elements. This approach, Papushado explains, has fared with mixed commercial results. “With Rabies, no one knew quite how to digest it,” he says, explaining the Israeli public’s reception of he and Keshales’ first film. “I mean, what is it [laughs]? It’s a comedy; the slasher falls asleep after 15 minutes. It’s funny. But it’s also the most violent thing we’ve ever seen here. It had a nice success at the box-office, and with all this international success it gained, the government funds started getting more interested in doing genre films. People were more interested.” “But it didn’t win the hearts of the establishment. People were questioning our morality,” he adds, attributing Rabies’ refusal to depict a causal relationship between violence and an Arab presence as one possible reason.
“In every film until now, you had two kind of Arab representations: either he’s a terrorist, or he’s a victim of the occupation,” Papushado continues. “Those two stereotypes will stick if you don’t change them. We said, ‘How come there are no normal Arab guys in Israeli films? What’s up with that?’” Big Bad Wolves afforded the filmmakers a chance to resolve this issue. “I remember Aharon calling me up and saying, ‘Navot, I’m gonna put an Arab guy on a horse, like a knight, like a cowboy. He’s gonna be the nicest guy in the film — a film filled with terrifying stuff, horrific stuff happening in the basement. But [the nicest guy] will be an Arab guy. Everyone is going to ask who the Arab guy is. And then, nothing! They’ll just smoke a cigarette, like normal people! Almost like a peace-pipe, between cowboys and Indians.’ Because Big Bad Wolves is portrayed like a fairy-tale, not like a realistic film, it makes it easier to digest it and accept the fact that it’s a very violent film, and [that] it tells a lot about Israeli characteristics. We won over the establishment.”
“Won over” is perhaps an understatement. With a seamless interweaving of style and substance markedly more refined than Rabies, Big Bad Wolves was acknowledged by the Israeli Academy of Film and Television with five Ophir Awards of the 11 for which the film was nominated. “I guess it’s because [Big Bad Wolves is] not an ‘anti-Israeli’ film,” Papushado says. “A lot of films do that in order to get into Cannes and get the attention and acknowledgement of other big festivals, because it’s very popular to not like the place you’re coming from — especially if you’re an Israeli saying, ‘Israel is bad!’ Aharon and I both love Israel. We love the people. We just think that it deserves much more. It deserves peace with the Palestinians. It deserves better neighbors. It deserves better government. It deserves better law enforcement. The people here deserve better. It’s a love/hate thing. We’re not doing it just to say, ‘Everything is corrupted here. Let’s just close it, say we failed and move on’ [laughs]. We’re trying to be very optimistic. The films are also being approached as cinematic experience[s], very entertaining films. Big Bad Wolves was a big success in the box-office. For an 18 film, it performed like a mainstream film, which is almost unbelievable. It’s like a horror film performed like an Oscar movie.”
Asked if, given his prominence in the now-burgeoning Israeli genre filmmaking movement he and Keshales co-fathered, he feels a particular obligation to represent his country’s film industry in a way others might not, Papushado’s response is resolute. “We always felt like ambassadors since we did our first film,” he says. “Firstly for Israel, showing that there is another side to people who live here, and what’s underneath. Then there’s another side that’s interested in the cinematic aspects, and many aspects of cinema without losing its political context. Then there’s another side that’s much younger, and aspires to peace and wants to talk. We always felt like we were representing ourselves, our movies, genre filmmaking in Israel. You can’t really avoid being an ambassador to your country when you’ve made the first Israeli horror film. It’s there, and it’s not something that we’re afraid of. We’re not afraid to talk about our country — the bad things and the good things.”
The ambassadorial hat is not one Papushado hints at he and Keshales hanging up anytime soon, even if, with their next project of choice, that hat will come with a higher crown and a wider brim. “Our next Israeli project is a spaghetti western,” he reveals, teasing, “I’ll tell you the title, and you’ll know how political it’s going to be! It’s taking place during the ‘40s. 1946, when the Brits ruled Israel; it was a British mandate for a British colony. They were sent here to maintain the status quo between the Arabs and the Jews, but they held all these resistance groups, Jewish resistance groups who were trying to fight the Arabs away. It was like the wild, wild, west. It was like chaos. Back then, it wasn’t called Israel yet. It was Palestine. That was the name of the land. The title is Once Upon a Time in Palestine.”
Taking cues from Sergio Leone, whom Papushado cites as he and Keshales’ favorite director, the duo will continue a journey that started in the woods of Rabies and trekked to the seedy streets of Big Bad Wolves to the barren desert locales of their forthcoming feature. “The desert, and Jerusalem, and the early days of Tel Aviv, and the mountains, and the streets… It’s gonna be all over. It’s really going to show ‘the land of milk and honey,’ as it was described in The Bible,” Papushado muses. “Israel is beautiful, and just so covered with blood that you can see through it.”