Israeli director Matan Yair’s very personal film ‘Scaffolding'

The Israeli director talks to the ‘Post’ about his debut award-winning film and how its based on his own life experiences.

MATAN YAIR (second from left) directs a scene from his debut film ‘Scaffolding.’ (photo credit: SHADI HABIB ALLAH)
MATAN YAIR (second from left) directs a scene from his debut film ‘Scaffolding.’
(photo credit: SHADI HABIB ALLAH)
"It is really scary, having your film out,” said Matan Yair, the director of the new Israeli film, Scaffolding, which won the Haggiag Prize for Best Israeli Feature Film at the Jerusalem Film Festival last summer and which opened recently in theaters throughout Israel.
“Everybody’s a critic. Sometimes it’s difficult, handling this kind of pressure,” said Yair, who based the movie on his experiences as a high school literature teacher, working with a challenging class. But scary as this moment may be, it’s what he has been working toward for years. He studied directing and screenwriting at the Sam Spiegel School for Film and Television and Tel Aviv University and has previously made short films and a documentary.
“I started teaching to earn money for my family,” said Yair, who is married and the father of two young children. “But making films is what I always wanted to do.”
Scaffolding, which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last spring, tells the story of a troubled but very charismatic teenager who is torn between his funny but often brutal father, who wants him to go into the family scaffolding business, and a literature teacher who inspires and confuses him in equal measure. The hero, who is named Asher Lax, is played by one of Yair’s former students, who happens to be named – Asher Lax.
This has led to the perception that the story is very much Lax’s biography and that he is playing himself rather than acting, which Yair firmly denied.
“There were many scenes he had to act that he had never lived through,” said Yair. In one key scene, for example, “He had to shout at the teacher’s wife, he had to talk about his emotions. I was very confident he could deliver. The first task of the director is bring out the wave of emotions the character is going through... I used the way he speaks, the way he moves, which is so mesmerizing. The audience is drawn to him. Yes, the story is based on his life and built around him. But he was acting.”
Lax’s performance impressed the judges at the Jerusalem Film Festival so much that they awarded him the prize for Best Actor over several more experienced actors.
Asked why Yair chose to use the actor’s real name for the character, he gives two reasons. One has to do with his artistic judgement, the other with the reality of making a movie on a shoestring budget in Israel.
Asher remained Asher, “because I liked the ‘reish’ and ‘shin’ in the name, the rough and the delicate sounds,” he said, referring to the Hebrew letters.
Lax remained Lax because the scenes at the scaffolding business were filmed at the actor’s father’s business, “And it says ‘Lax’ everywhere. We couldn’t afford to put up all new signs.”
Anchored by Lax’s performance, and featuring equally excellent work by Ami Smolartchik, who won an Ophir Best Supporting Actor Award for his portrayal of Rami, the teacher, and Yaacov Cohen, who plays Milo, Asher’s father, Scaffolding is not a conventionally inspiring teacher-student movie. Learning about literature doesn’t provide a neat answer to Asher’s problems. “The movie raises questions without any answers. It explores Asher’s courage to confront his father... and also how the teacher gives him something to think about, but betrays him in a way.”
Yair admits that there is a lot of him in the complex character of the teacher. “Emotionally, the teacher is based on me, in different periods of my life.”
The movie also raises issues that Yair has dealt with in his work as a teacher, of whether studying the liberal arts will actually help students in their lives. Asher’s father is very blunt about how he thinks literature studies are a waste of time for his son.
“As a teacher, many times I’ve seen parents who are interested in whether their kids will do well in math and English, but don’t care about the rest of it.”
Yair feels passionately that it is crucial that students learn literature and other liberal arts subjects. “We’re Jews. Studying books is part of our DNA.”
Nevertheless, in the context of the film, Yair understands Asher’s father’s point of view. “The father is right in a way. He tells Asher, ‘Scaffolding is a kind of work where you can be outside, throw iron around, no one is your boss.’ “
Yair, whose literary tastes run to Nobel Prize winners Kazuo Ishiguro and J.M. Coetzee, has also written a novel that tells a similar story to film, although the book is told from the perspectives of different characters. The novel, his second, will be published by Yediot Aharonot.
Following its Cannes debut, Scaffolding has been shown at festivals around the world, including at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released theatrically in Spain and in Poland, which was a co-production partner on the film, and is scheduled to be shown at a number of Jewish film festivals.
While Yair is at work on a new screenplay, if you need to get in touch with him in the morning, he’ll be in the classroom, teaching. He’s still working with the tough kids, the troublemakers.
“These kids always have character, they always have a story... When they pass their bagrut [matriculation exam] in literature with a 70 or an 80, and they are from houses with no books, you feel like it is a victory against the system.”