When I was ten, I was obliged to write a poem for a class exercise. Inspired by some tragic news I read in the newspaper, I composed a very tortuous, extremely affected sonnet in perfect hendecasyllabic verses. My teacher, who was greatly impressed, suggested only a small change in order to reinforce even further (as if it were necessary!) the already annoying, monotonous, consonant rhyme.
Three years later, my younger brother did the same exercise. This is what he wrote: “The goat on top of the mountain, / the burning sun, / Lord, how hot it is here!” Let me tell you: he was not congratulated. But, deep down inside, I knew that his poem was better than mine. My sonnet was a struggle with language, a desperate attempt to fabricate emotion through choosing the “right” words — while his three, effortless lines evoked an image stripped of all superfluity, an idea in a clear, powerful form. Today I still remember his poem, but I have completely forgotten my own.
This anecdote came to mind while watching Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher (2014), a fascinating film with a very unusual premise. Nira (Sarit Larry) becomes obsessed with one of her pupils, the 5-year-old Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), upon discovering that he has an exceptional gift for poetry. In Yoav’s compositions there’s a directness of imagination, a simplicity of language, that I relate to my brother’s poem. But, at the same time, there are techniques and inflections that don’t fit at all with our idea of a 5-year-old soul (no matter how cultivated).
The mystery about the poems’ authorship drives the film from start to end. Yoav could indeed be an extremely talented, precocious poet. But, through a complex mirroring game, Lapid also suggests other possibilities: Yoav might be stealing the words (as several characters do), or speaking the feelings of others through a strange, magical transference. Amazed and intrigued, the teacher starts obsessively questioning the kid. But her curiosity will soon be replaced by the faith of the believer and the fanaticism of the missionary.
A poet: born or made? The Kindergarten Teacher confronts this clichéd quandary by formulating a deeper question: where does poetry come from? Lapid has declared that Yoav’s poems were, in fact, written by himself when he was five. But, by repurposing his own creation, Lapid makes a film about five poems in search of an author.
The Spanish poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer wrote some famous lines that come in handy here: “What is poetry?, you ask while fixing / Your blue pupil on mine. / What is poetry! And you are asking me? / Poetry … is you.” According to this vision, poetry is unaware of its essence or status; in order to be revealed, it needs to be sung to life by the poet. Thus, a fundamental split between the poet (subject) and poetry (object). The Kindergarten Teacher is built, precisely, in this gap. But, rather than reinforcing the subject/object relation, Lapid challenges it by putting in question the poet’s presumed self-awareness.
How does the film depict the creative act? Here, a poem’s birth resembles every writer’s dream. Yoav, usually in the middle of some game, starts walking like a robot, back and forth, between two points in space, announcing: “I have a poem!” Then he recites, without mistake or hesitation, the exact words. We never see him writing or pondering. Rather, he behaves like a mystic prophet: he enters a trance state, uttering the words as if they were being dictated to him. So, poetry still needs a poet in order to be revealed. But, instead of presenting this poet as the master of his creation, the film shows him as an instrument or channel: poetry has become the subject, the poet its object.
Today, when any film with a vaguely Instagram look is celebrated as the truest portrait of our times, The Kindergarten Teacher takes a far more intricate path: instead of superficially imitating the world, it develops an elaborate formal and narrative system so as to reflect on the contemporary beliefs and uncertainties brought on by the twin crises of art and authorship.