An intelligent, thoughtful film that lingers long in the mind, Big Bad Wolves is writer-directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s follow-up to the excellent Rabies, which had the distinction of being the very first Israeli horror film. With their second feature, Keshales and Papushado continue their subtle exploration of their country’s mood through the story of a suspected paedophile and murderer, and the men who hunt him. Avoiding any heavy-handed allegories, the film examines a macho culture in which men think they can solve everything through violence; the complex intricacies of guilt and responsibility; and the troublingly easy role reversals between victim and persecutor. Opening with a beautiful, haunting credit sequence set to a gorgeous score, the film mixes fairy tale and political subtext, black humour and disturbing subject matter with skill and assurance.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado at Film4 FrightFest in August 2013, and discussed victims and victimisers, corrupt politicians, and taking revenge on your parents.
Virginie Sélavy: Big Bad Wolves seems much more ambitious than Rabies. Is it because you developed your filmmaking skills, or had more money or better production?
Navot Papushado: All of the above! Rabies was a shoe-string-budget, guerrilla kind of film. It was shot over 17 days using only available light in a forest, in one location, and a bunch of the crew were Aharon’s students. Aharon was a film a critic and a university lecturer. Still, we are very pleased with the result. For Big Bad Wolves we worked with the top people in the industry – we got the best cinematographer and the best production designer. We were much more prepared, and we had more shooting days. The budget was bigger, although still not big in terms of Israeli film. Rabies was in the middle of what we could achieve and what we wanted to achieve. Big Bad Wolves is the kind of film that we are aiming to do.
Rabies was described everywhere as the first Israeli horror film. Did that feel exciting or was it a lot of pressure?
Aharon Keshales: Both! The good thing is that you have the opportunity to become a pioneer, you’re building the path for future generations. The bad thing is that if you do a crappy job that’s the end for you and for the entire genre. If you don’t collect prizes and you don’t do well at the box office, that’s it, because Israel is a small industry and it doesn’t like to take big chances on new stuff. So it was a lot of pressure. But when we did Rabies we were these young people who didn’t think about this kind of stuff. We just wanted to make the first Israeli horror film and to have fun. When you ask us now, we’re a bit older so we know what that meant.
Horror films have always worked very well as allegories for social or political issues, which potentially makes it a rich genre for Israeli films. This is something you do in Big Bad Wolves, but very lightly and suggestively. It feels more like you tried to evoke the mindset and atmosphere of the country, rather than specific issues. Is that fair to say?
NP: Yes. We both feel that most Israeli cinema is very heavy-handed and deals with political subject matter in a way that feels like they’re trying to educate you about the wars of Israel, the conflict with the Palestinians, or the memory of the Holocaust, and it’s always so serious. And sometimes you think, I didn’t come here to be educated. We have no fun at the movies, we cry all the time – and we cry in reality too. And we thought, wouldn’t it be nice to give Israel the gift of entertaining cinema? So people would go to the cinema and forget real life and tragedy, even though we are talking about it. We tried to do this a little with Rabies because it’s a movie where Israelis kill other Israelis and the real killer goes to sleep, so you see the allegory in that film. But with Big Bad Wolves, we tried to look at the macho, male-dominated Israeli society, but not upfront. First of all, it’s a revenge comedy thriller, and once the tone of the movie has been set, you start to think about what you’re seeing. What you’re seeing is three guys who were in the army and all their instincts from that time just come to life when the girl’s life is in peril. So it’s not in your face, but it’s there. And I think you’re willing to get this kind of subtext more easily because it’s not in your face.
Watch the trailer for Rabies:
There is also the idea that despite their violence and belligerence those men are unable to protect their loved ones.
NP: I think that growing up as Jews in Israel we carry this weight, first of all for being Jewish – and we don’t need to go back far into the past, we can just go back to the Second World War and the Holocaust. The instinct for survival is very strong in our people and we brought this with us to Israel. We are a small country surrounded by Arab countries, some of which we were at war with, some of which we’re at peace with, and we have the Palestinians within us. So you grow up in an environment where there is war in the air, you absorb it, you develop this survival instinct which is so strong, and sometimes can lead you to do horrific stuff in the name of survival, in the name of our children. Sometimes these moral questions need to be raised. In the name of our kids, in the name of surviving, are we allowed to do certain things? We’ve never been in a war or a combat situation, but as teenagers in the 80s-90s we were walking the streets of Tel Aviv and buses were exploding. It’s a very strange environment to live in – life goes on, it’s a very complex situation. And a lot of the film is about us growing up in Israel, but it’s filtered through an entertaining film.
AK: There’s a strong debate about torture these days, and the film by Kathryn Bigelow put it out there. I think that when you’re talking about torture you have to ask yourself, is this violence justified? Even if it’s justified by the fact that they will tell you where Bin Laden is, did you just create another enemy inside the guy that you’ve just tortured, maybe for his entire life and that of his family? It’s like a big circle of blood. That’s how we see things. It started with Rabies and it’s evolved to be this idea of a circle of death, a big dance that you can never stop.
You also seem to lay some of the responsibility for what happens to the girl at her father’s feet – and he’s not the only character in that position. Do you think that ideas of guilt and responsibility are more complicated than just pointing the finger at one man?
NP: When we wrote the script the idea was that we were writing a revenge thriller that was upside down. You have the avengers and the suspected victimiser, but the suspected victimiser is also a victim, and we wanted to have that kind of flip in the film. You see a lot of revenge films that end with the triumph of the vindictive hero. But those films support this kind of behaviour – people who take the law into their own hands, who do horrific stuff. We didn’t want to make that kind of nihilistic movie. We wanted to do a Dirty Harry movie where Dirty Harry gets punished for his deeds – personally, not because someone he knows dies. Stick it to him. That’s what we tried to do with Big Bad Wolves.
AK: We had a few arguments with our producers about the moral questions we tried to raise at the end. They wanted a lighter ending, a slightly funny, uplifting final scene, even though everything that happens is terribly wrong. But we wanted to have a heavy, serious ending, because you can never foresee the consequences of violence, you never know when or why it ends. That was very important to us. With this subject matter it was important for us to infuse some more moral layers into the film.
Watch the trailer for Big Bad Wolves:
Both Big Bad Wolves and Rabies show the Israeli police in a very negative light, they are consistently brutal and abusive of their power. Are they really that bad?
AK: I think it has to do with authority, because when you want to do a movie that questions the patriarchal society – and Israel is still patriarchal – you have to deal with authority figures, so the best thing to do is to make fun of the military or the police. We decided to do this one with the police, but that doesn’t mean that in the next film we won’t make jokes about the army.
NP: There have been a few rumbles with the police in Israel lately. The police have not had a very good reputation in the last two years. At the time when Rabies came out there were huge protests on the streets of Israel, and the police reacted very violently.
AK: And it was a very peaceful protest, they were students, they weren’t doing anything, but the police turned violent in order to smash their spirits. But I don’t think it has to do directly with the police, I think the authorities in Israel are corrupt these days. You have prime ministers under suspicion, a president who is a rapist and is doing time in jail now. So when we wrote the script for Rabies we had this scene with the cop who’s molesting the girl, and the producer came over and said, ‘This kind of thing doesn’t happen in Israel,’ and I said, ‘What are you talking about? We have a president who’s just been tried for molesting women inside his chambers’. So I think we have a problem with authority figures, a lot of people are under investigation in the government.
NK: I think we can call ourselves a bit patriotic because we love Israel, but we don’t love the way that things are run over there. It’s a complex thing to say, because a lot of movies that come out of Israel only criticise the country in the way they treat Palestinians, and we’re saying that first of all we have to question ourselves. And the movie is also about that, because you have a corrupt policeman, a man who is a politician or a lawyer, very high up, and a teacher who is suspected of being a paedophile. So they’re all the authorities that we grow up with in life, and something really needs to change. But they should do more popcorn films in Israel, that’s the first thing we’d like to change.
There is also a strong fairy tale element in the story. Do you see the film as a dark fairy tale?
AK: Yes. We decided to take revenge on our parents, because they told us horrific stories before we went to sleep, and they were all about wolves, which are really paedophiles. That’s what we were told as children – stay away from the wolf, they will lure you in with candy. And we wanted to take revenge on our parents with a nice story before they go to sleep, and now my mother can’t sleep. That was the idea, to make a grown-up fairy tale, and that’s what’s happened, because every spectator who’s a father or a mother takes it much harder than young kids, who just like it because they see it as a violent genre movie.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy