There are few more damning eviscerations of Israel’s macho culture of war than Yaniv Berman’s “Land of the Little People,” and yet no soldiers are seen fighting. Berman aims deeper, choosing as his target the socialization of children in a battle-focused nation where animalistic alpha male posturing and the ruthless punishment of perceived weakness create a society marked by cold-blooded cruelty. With generous inspiration from “Lord of the Flies,” the film is a relentless and chilling depiction of a group of kids whose sense of play centers on brutality. Sure to be despised by the Israeli establishment, not least because producer Tony Copti (“Ajami”) is Palestinian, “Little People” is likely to create heated debates in festivals.
A quote at the start from Theodor Herzl encapsulates Berman’s argument: “Men live and die for a flag; it is indeed the only thing for which they are willing to die in masses, provided one educates them to it.” The education here is more subtle and insidious than classroom instruction; it’s the kind soaked up from an environment always on the alert for war, habitualized to weaponry and placing little value on lives not “ours.” That’s the context at the start, in a well-tended community of manicured lawns near overgrown fields and an abandoned military camp. The menfolk are called to duty as the intifada (a word never uttered) expands, and their wives are left home to watch news reports while the children, on summer break, are expected to play by themselves.
For a group of four friends, that involves using the abandoned camp as headquarters for their forays in the scrub with a homemade crossbow and arrows. Berman chose his young cast exceptionally well: most are pictures of fair-haired north European perfection without a trace of the Sephardic heritage so often regarded by Israeli society as inferior stock. Chemi (Lior Rochman) is the leader of this little band, with darker long-haired runt Louie (Ido Kestler) the brashest member, joined by quieter Tali (Mishel Pruzansky), the only girl, and younger Yonatan (Amit Hechter). Among their escapades, they set traps in the undergrowth to catch small animals they offer to an imagined protective monster living deep in a disused shaft at the base.
They’re furious one day to discover the camp occupied by two men, Omer (Ofer Hayoun) and Yaron (Maor Schweitzer), deserters from the army waiting for a friend to pick them up and bring them to a safe haven. Louie steals their 9mm Glock, which the kids think nothing of playing with, including casually shooting at a couple on the beach. A furious Yaron finds them and takes the gun back, beginning a war between the youngsters and the deserters that will be characterized by unemotional viciousness and a callous disregard for suffering.
A build-up of small details creates a powerful, kick-in-the-gut indictment of a society so inoculated to war that normal human values no longer count for much: Berman depicts relations between people in the manner of animals jockeying for alpha prominence, and the ill-defined running battle between Louie and his brother Jacky (Nimrod Hochenberg) is precisely like rival bands of wild mammals on the hunt for prey. When Jacky and his gang torment Chemi at a mall eatery, neighboring girls take photos of Chemi’s humiliation, giggling at his weakness.
As for parents, they’re barely seen except when the fathers are called to duty; otherwise, the mothers – two conspicuously pregnant – sit at home watching the news, not noticing or not caring that their kids are heading out of the house carrying lethal crossbows. Is it an exaggeration? Of course, but the steady stream of macho posturing heard on the news is very real, and that nonstop rhetoric about the need for strength, combined with the dehumanization of the other, the enemy, is imbibed from the womb. Berman ends with an excruciating scene of violence immediately followed by one of unnerving indifference, offering no escape from the cycle of violence.
A little more information about the deserters would have been welcome, though in the end their story isn’t so difficult to follow. Theirs are the less subtle roles, designed to offset the preternatural calm of the kids, played to frightening perfection by the young actors. Rami Katzav’s handheld camera is in a constant state of unease, alive with tension in the way it just perceptibly moves about. Only the music overwrought, unnecessarily underlining emotional states already apparent on screen.