Land of the Little People (2016)

“For a flag they are willing to live and die… provided one educate them to it.”

The text which opens Land of the Little People (Medinat Hagamadim) is cited from Theodor Herzl, one of the founders of modern Zionism. As a programmatic statement of intent, the quote’s provenance is as important as its content. This is a film concerned with both military indoctrination and the state of Israel. As such it combines elements from writer/director’s Yaniv Berman’s previous two films. For like his short Even Kids Started Small (2006), this is an allegory of violence learnt by children in a violent society; and like his documentary The Alpha Diaries (2007), it shows the strains, upon both conscripts and their loved ones, of national service in Israel, engaging with an occupied populace over territory and resources.

As an escalating war calls up for army duty all the adult men from an Israeli village, and their wives stay behind to fret or mourn, the children – their heads full of the bellicose aggression and machismo that is constantly being mediated through radio and television – are left largely to their own devices. On the cusp of adolescence, and constantly bullied by a gang of older teens from the township, Chemi (Lior Rochman), Teli (Michel Pruzansky), Yonatan (Amit Hechter) and Louie (Ido Krestler) seek refuge in woodland across the village’s barbed-wire perimeter – and in an old abandoned military base with a deep, deep well. This camp, which the four have annexed as their own, has become the playground for their fanciful rituals of aped adulthood. Here they hunt down wild animals together using improvised weapons and steel traps, and sacrifice any prey to the voracious deity ‘Milishuka’ whom they imagine lives in the bottom of the well. Yet when two army deserters, Yaron (Maor Schwitzer) and Omer (Ofer Hayoun), hide out at the base, the stakes quickly grow high in a conflict over disputed ground.

Here the ‘land of the little people’ is the stretch of non-man’s-land wilderness, bounded by a fence and the sea, which the children have occupied – but it is also a microcosm of Israel herself, a tiny nation in perpetual, bullish dispute with neighbours to feed her own sense of religious and geographic identity. Berman has crafted a dark coming-of-age story akin to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, in which pubescent characters undergo rites of passage which lead to them finally being blooded and reintegrated into the family life of the village – emergent psychopaths in an environment which encourages, even teaches, such conduct and attitudes. Like Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s Rabies (2010), Land of the Little People is a state-of-the-nation allegory delivered in the guise of genre, with hawkish antagonism, intense vulnerability and a deep-seated sense of righteousness proving a deadly mix.

Berman and his crew shot Land of the Little People, without permits, at a real deserted army base – and, caught twice, had to keep abandoning, and then returning to, their location. On the very first day of shooting, a real war (the Israel-Gaza conflict known as Operation Protective Edge) broke out, and rockets flew overhead, some brought down by the Iron Dome defense system, while the cameras were rolling. On the last day of the shoot, Berman himself was drafted back into military service. It is a case of a fictive premise being rapidly overtaken by facts on the ground, as the film, like its young characters, proved unable to escape a nation’s legacy of violence.

© Anton Bitel