August 17, 2019

School Violence Goes Extreme

A teacher’s severed head drawn on a classroom blackboard, a student methodically emptying the shelves of the school library onto the floor, school phone lines that suddenly go dead — these and other unsettling signs appear early on in Yaniv Berman’s 2005 film “Even Kids Started Small,” which depicts the nightmarish takeover of a suburban junior high by the pupils.

On May 26, the 30-minute film will be screened at the Cannes film festival’s Cinefondation competition, together with 14 other international student films.

“Even Kids Started Small” was Berman’s graduation project for his master’s in fine arts, which he recently received from Tel Aviv University’s department of film and television. The film transpires over the course of one school day, during which the pupils turn a well-kept middle-class school into an inferno in which every teacher is suddenly in danger. As a clock on the film screen ticks away the hours, the teachers are subjected to gratuitous and shocking violence that not all of them manage to survive. The film’s title pays homage to German director Werner Herzog’s 1970 film, “Even Dwarfs Started Small,” in which a group of dwarfs takes over the institution in which they live.

Berman said he made the film as a commentary on the current state of the Israeli education system — in which violence among students and between students and teachers has reached unprecedented extremes according to a 2006 Education Ministry study. The study, which the Jerusalem Post reported on in February, said that almost half of all students describe their schools as violent; about one-third say they have felt unsafe at school and more than 15 percent of students have threatened teachers.

Katriel Schory of the Israel Film Fund said the movie reflects escalating crime in Israeli society, triggered by the decline of the welfare system, increased poverty and a clash of immigrant cultures, among other factors.

“The situation is creating a lot of unrest in the country and filmmakers are tackling these issues,” he said.

In contrast to the accepted conventions of the horror film genre, Berman’s fictional film — which was shot on location at a Ra’anana school — is eerily silent and illuminated by a bright, sinister light. During one scene, one of the pupils locks the principal in her office and threatens her with a knife.

“On the day the movie was about to be screened for the first time, I heard about a real pupil who locked his principal in the school basement,” Berman said. “This is a film which is by extension about an entire culture falling apart. Yet after speaking to numerous teachers who told me about their real-life teaching experiences I felt like my film actually wasn’t shocking enough.”

Berman said his film was intended as a wake-up call to the education system.

“The system’s lack of determination endows kids and their parents with a tremendous amount of power,” he said. “Yet this is a very radical film which really leaves no place for hope. It talks about the need for such an extreme overhaul of the system that chances are will never take place.”

While making “Even Kids Started Small” Berman also worked on a documentary about Israeli soldiers serving in the West Bank.

To some degree, he said, the school film is also about “a kind of occupation in which the occupiers wield violent force and treat an entire population in an irresponsible manner.”

In contrast to some viewers who laughed at certain absurd moments during the film, Berman said, none of the teachers he showed it to found it funny: “They were very frightened by it, especially those who have experienced a lot of violence from their students.”

Berman also said he believed it was important for the country’s education system to become aware of his film.

“I made it in order to give them the strength to take steps that must be taken to curb the violence, ” he said.

Naomi Pfefferman contributed to this article.