‘Land of the Little People’ (‘Medinat Hagamadim’): Shanghai Review
Four army brats from an Israeli military town battle a pair of deserters for control of their hangout in Yaniv Berman’s drama.
Israeli director Yaniv Berman (The Alpha Diaries) and Palestinian producer Tony Copti (Girrafada, The Attack) tenaciously crowd-funded Land of the Little People, a chilling, matter-of-fact political metaphor that describes how children learn to justify and savor killing without any moral qualms. The story recalls Lord of the Flies as much as Hunger Games, but the setting in an Israeli army town makes a strong social statement. This first feature, oddly making its world premiere in Shanghai’s Asian New Talent competition, introduces a filmmaker of note. Festival dates should segue into art house release for Germany’s Pluto Film Distribution, which picked it up at EFM this year.
Berman, best known for his acclaimed documentary The Alpha Diaries about his experiences fighting in the Israeli reserve forces, brings a knowledgeable sobriety about the people who live in a military town in the desert. A new war is beginning, announced on television by politicians who call for an end to restrictions on fighting the enemy, and the soldiers are called up to serve their country.
The women all seem to be pregnant and are worried about their husbands. The men are never really seen on screen and the kids are left to their own devices. While some older boys are shown as violent bullies, the four protags, all in their early teens, are still in the learning stage. Their secret hangout is an abandoned army base hidden among overgrown fields, where they spend their time devising new weapons to kill animals.
In a chilling opener, they hunt deer with homemade crossbows and arrows, but only manage to wound their helpless prey. When they find a weasel suffering piteously in a trap, the girl Tali (Mishel Pruzansky) smashes its head in with a rock. There is absolutely no emotion on her attractive face. Killing for the fun of it? No: they kill to feed an unseen monster at the bottom of a deep well inside the old base. This monster is a “she,” and she is always hungry for blood.
Using just the right, understated dose of symbolism, the film takes on an especially frightening quality like in a fairy tale whose monster is invisible and invincible. Just what the monster represents will be up to the viewer to decide. Certainly, the kids believe in her and know she's real. Growing up in a militant society, violence envelopes their lives and war is always just a step away.
When Chemi (Ben Sela) and Yonathan’s (Amit Hechter) father is mobilized, Chemi is proud and happy for him. Tali’s dad is referred to as a “martyr”. The fourth member of the little band is the long-haired Louie (Ido Kestler), often bruised and beaten at the hands of his violent brother Jackie, an older gang leader who he constantly provokes. These extremely well-directed child actors, beginning with the older Sela, are all stand-outs, though it must be said that their dead, almost emotionless eyes don’t elicit much sympathy.
When the little band discovers their camp has been taken over as a hideout by two army deserters who are big, tall, muscular and fully armed, they simply play a waiting game until they can outwit the soldiers’ brawn with cunning. Their ruthless self-confidence is such that it's the soldiers one fears for, not the children. Yet neither of the pair is in any way heroic; just the opposite. Knuckle-headed, whining Omer (Ofer Hayun of Zion and His Brother) devours all their rations while they wait in vain for his friend to pick them up; the entitled, nervous Yaron (TV actor Maor Schwitzer), who was kicked out of officer’s school, bitterly heckles and berates him. When Louie boldly steals their one gun, the war is on and there are no "restrictions".
Scene by scene, the action escalates to a tense, inevitable stand-off with the deserters. As the stakes are raised, the wounds inflicted are ever more crippling. Things do slow down a bit in the film’s second half, but by the time the end credits roll, there’s no doubt what the land of the little people refers to. The ending is a gruesome, if tastefully shot, horror film that leaves the audience shaken.
Production company: Fresco Films
Cast: Maor Schwitzer, Ofer Hayun, Ben Sela, Amit Hechter, Ido Kestler, Mishel Pruzansky, Lior Rochman
Director, screenwriter: Yaniv Berman
Producer: Tony Copti
Executive producers: Josh Yablon, Sergio Bezukoff
Director of photography: Rami Katzav
Production designer:Yoel Herzberg
Editors: Oz Guttman, Ziv Karshen
Music: Gad Emile Zeitune
Casting director: Einav Markel
World sales: Pluto Film Distribution
Venue: Shanghai Film Festival (Asian New Talent competition)