(photo credit: Yaniv Berman/Royalrat Productions)
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 filmmaker Yaniv Berman's film "Even Kids Started Small," which goes on to depict the nightmarish takeover of a suburban junior high by the pupils.
Next month, the 30-minute film will be screened at the Cannes film festival's Cin fondation competition, together with 14 other international student films.
"Even Kids Started Small" was filmed as Berman's graduation project for his M.F.A., 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 the 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, which not all of them manage to survive.
The film was created as a commentary on the current state of the Israeli education system - in which, according to Berman, violence among students and between students and teachers has reached unprecedented extremes.
"The film takes things one step further, and shows what tomorrow's education system might look like," Berman told The Jerusalem Post.
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 in the film, one of the pupils imprisons the principle 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," he 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." On one level, according to Berman, 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 working on "Even Kids Started Small," Berman also worked on a documentary about Israeli soldiers serving in the West Bank.
"To a certain extent," 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," he said, "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.
The name of Berman's film is a variation of a film made in the 1970s by German director Werner Herzog's "Even Dwarfs Started Small," in which a group of dwarfs takes over the institution they live in.
"Herzog's movie talks about innocence that is lost within a destructive system," he said. "I wanted to do something similar in terms of showing how quickly moral values can deteriorate."