Acting on Instinct

Israeli director Tom Shoval talks about the relationship between film and viewer and the filmmaker’s means of controlling it.

Director Tom Shoval

Israeli director and Campus alumnus Tom Shoval’s debut feature YOUTH, which features in this year’s Berlinale Panorama, tells the story of twin brothers whose family is in financial distress. When one brother enrolls in the army and gets a rifle, they get the idea to use it to solve their money issues. Yet after kidnapping a rich girl for ransom, they realize that crime is hardly the easy way out. In the Q&A session that followed the screening of the film at the Campus, the director was asked about the social implications of the film and repeatedly eluded the questions, saying, “Well, you know, it’s all connected…” It is indeed all connected, and beautifully so – the social undertones of the brothers’ illegal enterprise are well defined – but the film works as an exceptional genre picture.

In a later interview, when asked to expand on the relationship between film and viewer, Shoval said that he doesn't think a lot about the social commentary vs. entertainment dichotomy. “It all ends up in emotion. I don’t try to criticize or make people too happy about things; I want them to be engaged.” And this is where genre becomes useful: “As a storyteller, you have to learn how to manipulate the audience. In the genre, you have a code. In a realist film, there’s a lot of environment that you have to create.” Shoval's interest in genre is especially palpable in the abducted girl’s electrifying relationship with her kidnappers: “For me, there was a triangle – there were two kidnappers, and they were brothers. She tries to break this bond and for a minute or two in the film you really believe that she can do that.”

Shoval gets personal when he talks about his characters. When developing the film, he tried to imagine what he would have done in their situation. Without passing judgement, the film frequently shifts tone and sometimes gets into murky moral territory. Shoval clearly shows a gift for making genre films, “In Israel, the most common genre is the war film. But the younger audience is more welcoming and aware of different types of movies.” As for his future plans, he’s trying to stay loyal to himself, but that partly depends on chance: “I’m like the brothers in my film. I act on instinct.”