Of all the films that I saw at the Wisconsin Film Festival, Policeman (or Ha-Shoter in Hebrew) was the most difficult for me to wrap my mind around. The Israeli film written and directed by Nadav Lapid tells the story of the clashing worlds of a terrorist group and an anti-terrorism police force, although it is more of a character study of those two groups than it is a cohesive narrative.
The first half of the film introduces us to Yaron, a member of an elite counter-terrorism police force, a group of young men fueled by machismo. The group is under investigation for a recent counter-terrorist action gone wrong that resulted in innocent death. They agree to place the blame on one team member who is awaiting the results of a cancer screening, under the assumption that he will not be prosecuted while ill. We also meet Yaron’s pregnant wife, and see glimpses of the strengths and challenges in their marriage. Through his relationship with his wife, his mother, and his comrades, we see Yaron’s daily struggle to maintain his macho and masculine image.
In the second half of the film, we cut abruptly to a group of young anarchist Jewish wannabe terrorists. These fresh-scrubbed and spoiled youngsters decry the growing wealth gap in Israeli society and the hypocrisy of those in power. The narrative centers around Shira, a young girl from a wealthy family who, although she often comes off as petulant, is a talented writer who articulates the group’s mission. She is in love with the idealistic leader of the group, though she declares him out of reach due to his position in the movement. Another young member is the son of a former violent activist, a man who insists on accompanying the group when he learns of his son’s plans.
The two narratives converge in the end of the film, when the activists hijack the wedding of a millionaire’s daughter and kidnap her family. As Yaron and his team are called to respond, Shira calls to the police: “Policemen, you are not our enemies. Policemen, you are oppressed also,” a refrain which echoes throughout the last portion of the film. When the two groups violently come together in the climactic last scene, the filmmakers adamantly refuse to grant the viewer a comfortable resolution, however they leave open the possibility that Shira’s message has begun to impact Yaron.
At first, I was prepared to call this film a slow-burner, however there’s something more unique going on here. The story lines introduced throughout the beginning of the film do not ultimately grow and resolve, nor do they eventually tie together. Rather, they simply lead no where, and the audience is left to wonder why we were shown them at all, a question that I don’t have a clear answer to. On one level, it functions as a statement to show that these characters indeed have lives, loves, challenges and struggles, even if they do not directly relate to the plot. On another level, the director may simply be looking to fill out the character study, showing us what is going on under the surface of these outwardly vocal and militant characters, on both sides of the law. Like I said, I’m still puzzling over this one — if you have thoughts on it, please leave a comment.
Aside from this, the acting in the film was universally superb. The characters we meet are incredibly multifaceted and nuanced, and these actors met that challenge admirably. The characters are not on the whole very likable or sympathetic, but they are incredibly compelling, due in large part to the acting. The writing and directing were equally effective and even-handed. Undoubtedly, this film had a lot to say about Israeli society, and in particular Israeli law enforcement, youth culture, activism, and terrorism, all topics that I am decidedly ill-equipped to comment on. Although aspects of this brooding film elude me, it was certainly thrilling to watch, and left me with a lot to think about.