‘Land of the Little People’ reveals big household effects of war
Written and directed by: Yaniv Berman
Starring: Lior Rochman, Mishel Pruzansky, Amit Hechter, Ido Kestler, Maor Schwitzer, and Ofer Hayoun
“Land of the Little People” – In writer/director Yaniv Berman’s film, two teens and two preteens enjoy a tight friendship, a friendship that adults rarely share due to preoccupied duties of marriage and mortgage payments. Here, any one of these particular four kids can walk into the home of another, during any time of day, and they would immediately leave together in order to grab the other two. As part of their seemingly daily ritual, the four trek to the nearby desert brush with a crossbow and a bow and arrow in hand. Chemi (Lior Rochman), Yonatan (Amit Hechter), Tali (Mishel Pruzansky), and Louie (Ido Kestler) may live in large, suburban homes, but they partake in a very different existence when they step outside the comforts of warm meals and manicured neighborhoods.
As the movie opens, they catch a prairie dog (of some kind) in a trap and feed it to an imaginary entity at the bottom of an abandoned well, and Tali recites, “Don’t eat us. Keep us safe. We’ll take care of you.”
Well, Berman immediately calls to distant memories of “Lord of the Flies” (1963, 1990) but without savage mutiny or scrummages for power. There is no Piggy to ridicule, as these friends treat one another with mutual respect, like brothers and one sister in arms, and in this story, they find a common enemy.
“Land of the Little People” is a raw, edgy and sometimes very intense drama about a group of kids reacting to or coping with their circumstances at home, and Berman carefully includes several important scenes along the way that help illuminate the causes of Chemi, Yonatan, Tali, and Louie’s collective primal, warlike actions.
Set in Israel, the country might share a collective anxiety – albeit, not always high – about the threat of war.
On a personal note, I have traveled to Israel for work a few times, and an Israeli colleague once told me over dinner in Jerusalem, “You see, in Israel, we are surrounded by nations who want to kill us and wipe us off the map.”
Those specific words have certainly stuck with me over the years, and in this film we organically see households impacted by military conflict. Fathers are rarely seen, and in fact, at the beginning of the film, Chemi’s dad says goodbye, because his career resides in the military, and he must leave – like so many others – for the front. At times, we do see brief glimpses of worried mothers – sometimes pregnant – wondering when their husbands will return, but how does this affect the “little people” in these communities?
This is the underlying theme of the picture, and when dealing with the minds of children, they reason based upon their limited experiences. They do not exactly know war, but they know their feelings about it.
All of the child actors are convincing (led by Rochman and Pruzansky), as ordinary kids frustrated by two things: adulthood is still out of reach and their fathers face danger. Those feelings are ever-present as they regularly leave for their wilderness playground, but they firmly walk with a purpose. A purpose of exploring territory that they declare as their own with rules that they define. They are not robots, however, and do enjoy a rare smile or two, but when it comes to claiming their space, these kids are determined.
Berman employs an especially effective camera technique to show this resolve. In a couple key instances, the kids fire their weapons, but he keeps the camera on them instead of their targets, so we do not immediately know the impact of their decisions. Their steely tenacity and Berman’s creative camerawork certainly raise our anxiety in a picture already filled with plenty of tension. These four kids may share a close camaraderie like the gang from “The Goonies” (1985), but the film recalls a definite – and as previously mentioned – “Lord of the Flies” edge. You see, on this random patch of Israeli desert, this tightknit group of little people find someone else attempting to lay claim.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.