There are times when Tom Shoval’s debut film, “Youth,” is deeply uncomfortable to watch. Set in an unnamed central Israeli suburb the film shows two teenage brothers who kidnap a wealthy girl in order to solve their family’s growing financial crisis. Tense, foreboding and menacing from the opening frame, the film, which won best feature at last year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, will receive its UK premiere later this month as part of SERET, the London Israeli Film and Television Festival.
“Youth” reflects Shoval’s close relationship with his brother, who is four years his junior and with whom he shares an almost telepathic relationship. ‘We have a very strong connection. He knows what I’m thinking even before I speak or the other way ‘round. We also look very similar and sometimes people confuse us,” he told the Forward. He describes being curious about the nature of their bond and decided “to try and translate this connection into cinema.”
The experience of economic hardship that befalls the family in the film also has autobiographical overtones. When Shoval’s father lost his job — a victim of the struggling middle class in Israel — he lapsed into depression and Shoval describes the ensuing tension in the family home. “My parents were trying to protect us, they didn’t really tell us what was happening. We were told that everything was going to be okay but my brother and I felt that something deeper and more frightening was going on.” It was a shock to see his father, his role model, suddenly becoming a shadow of himself, he says.
Understandably, his parents were very emotional when they saw the film. “For the first time my parents saw how hard it had been for my brother and me but they also saw how worried we had been for them.”
The writer/director wanted to cast brothers who exhibited the same “electricity” that he has with his own sibling. It proved to be a long process, but eventually they found twins, Eitan and David Cunio, from a kibbutz in southern Israel. They had not been in front of a camera before the audition but Shoval immediately recognized their particular “state of being together.” They had the image that Shoval was looking for as well as a naivety but also “something that could be described as anger or frustration or some kind of pulse that was going to erupt.”
The production team took a gamble and managed to achieve an 8-month leave of absence from the army for the brothers. They lived in Tel Aviv, close to Shoval, and worked on their roles on a daily basis. To test their commitment to the project, Shoval requested that they steal something from a supermarket — telling them that it was a precondition for being in the film. They were reluctant but completed the task and stole some yoghurt, unaware that the supermarket had known all along what was happening.
There is universality to the film’s plot but there are certain elements that are particular to Israel, especially the fact that the older of the two brothers is a combat soldier. But his status and the constant presence of his rifle are pushed to almost absurd levels. Shoval explained that he wanted to show the abnormalities of Israeli life and that the respect a soldier is afforded within Israeli society “means that no one suspects that he is ‘a bad guy.’” There is an additional ironic reality at play as the girl is held hostage in a bomb shelter — usually a place of safety — while a few floors up, the boys and their family enjoy a Friday night dinner.
The boundaries between good and evil, right and wrong, and victim and assailant become blurred, exacerbating an underlying tension that may or may not explode at any moment. The boys’ capacity for violence is disturbing and Shoval acknowledges that his generation of Israeli filmmakers appears to be portraying a sense of desperation in their work. “I guess we are feeling the same thing. We are the generation of the social protests [in 2012] so it would be absurd if we didn’t relate to it.”
Shoval says that his characters are part of a lost generation. “They carry the burden of the generation before them but they don’t know what to do with it. This is why the film is ironically called ‘Youth.’ This generation needs to handle the problems that the other generations created and they can’t really do it. And I’m not sure that they should.”