Top-notch Israeli films at S.F. International Film Festival

“The Kindergarten Teacher” may leave viewers wondering whether the People of the Book, under the influence of consumerism, militarism and the pace of the modern world, have little use for poetry.

But that would be a simplistic reading of Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid’s mesmerizing follow-up to his acclaimed 2011 debut, “Policeman.” This disconcerting saga of an adult’s missteps when presented with a preternaturally talented child who has a penchant for poetry pits the vulnerability of children against competing impulses to nurture, shape, protect and exploit them.

“The Kindergarten Teacher” is one of two topnotch Israeli films and several additional movies of Jewish interest screening between Thursday, April 23 and May 7 in the San Francisco International Film Festival. The 120-minute film is in Hebrew with English subtitles.


In “The Kindergarten Teacher,” Nira (Sarit Larry) takes 5-year-old Yoav (Avi Shnaidman) under her wing.

Shot in pastels and silhouettes and employing a minimum of carefully placed music, “The Kindergarten Teacher” depicts a deceptively placid surface. The titular character, Nira (the excellent Sarit Larry), is a would-be poet as well as a wife and teacher, but she is utterly reserved and self-contained.


When she discovers that one of her 5-year-old charges, Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), casually utters exceptional poems, Nira takes on the mission of shepherding his presumably sensitive soul amid a society that’s indifferent (or worse) to his gifts and art form.

However, this child is not as introspective, innocent or interested in art with a capital A as his would-be mentor imagines. Consequently, we start to question Nira’s ability to understand and supervise children.

That’s the moment when we feel the chill of foreboding, and realize (with the title guiding us) that the film isn’t about the immediate future of a pint-sized prodigy but rather a woman who has discovered a misguided sense of purpose. Bored witless after years on the job — and a similar tenure with her unchallenging husband — Nira is calmly in the throes of a midlife crisis.

Like a good poem, “The Kindergarten Teacher” invites interpretation and discussion. The film’s allusions to the elevation of pop culture over high culture, for example, could conceivably be read as reflecting Nira’s perception and frustration rather than as the filmmaker’s comment on Israeli society.

Perhaps, although Nira’s husband’s remark that only stupid and poor people pursue military careers these days takes on another shade of meaning if you recall that Yonatan Netanyahu, the prime minister’s brother and the only Israeli casualty of the Entebbe hostage rescue in 1976, was a poet as well as a beloved officer.

Ultimately, although “The Kindergarten Teacher” could take place anywhere — that’s partly what makes it such an accessible film — it is unmistakably a meditation on the state of Israel’s soul. If that is insufficient motivation, Lapid is scheduled to attend the festival.

“A Borrowed Identity,” another first-rate film in the festival, is a coming-of-age story about the first Arab student at a posh Jerusalem boarding school. Veteran Israeli director Eran Riklis adapted the film from Sayed Kashua’s autobiographical “Dancing Arabs” with admirable results. The film centers on the student’s efforts to fit in and stand out. Kashua, of course, is the well-known satirist who created the hit Israeli TV series “Arab Labor” and was honored with the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s Freedom of Expression Award in 2010.

Also of Jewish interest is the Australian documentary “Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films.” It revisits the flamboyant rise and fall of the late Israeli director Menachem Golan and his cousin and innovative financier Yoram Globus, who ruled the 1980s as producers of second-rate action flicks starring the likes of Chuck Norris.

The lineup of documentaries also includes “Iris,” the late Albert Maysles’ loving portrait of New York fashion icon Iris Apfel, and Leah Wolchok’s survey of New Yorker cartoonists, “Very Semi-Serious.” West Coast Jews are represented by “City of Gold,” Laura Gabbert’s tour of L.A. with Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold.

Definitely worth a mention, although their subjects may not be Jewish, are directors Shira Piven (Jeremy’s sister), with the Kristen Wiig black comedy “Welcome to Me,” and Israeli-born director Oren Moverman (“The Messenger”) with his resonant drama starring Richard Gere as a homeless man in New York City, “Time Out of Mind.”

“The Kindergarten Teacher”
screens at 3 p.m. May 1, 6:15 p.m. May 2 and 8:45 p.m. May 5 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post St. (at Fillmore), S.F. For a complete San Francisco International Film Festival schedule,  go to

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.