by James Waters
The objects of Ha-Shoter’s opening minutes are five Israeli policemen, riding their bikes in the desert and lead by their unspoken leader, Yaron. He pedals ahead, approaching the camera while the others stay behind. The focus takes a second to adjust to his face that now occupies most of the frame, his helmet partially cut off by the top portion of it. It’s later revealed that one of these men on a bicycle, Ariel, is growing weak and dying of a brain tumour, prompting Yaron’s pull back to the fold.
His push-pull relation to the camera eases the eye into an otherwise overwhelming close-up. If the opening 30 seconds were occluded from the edit and his face were shown immediately following the black title card, it would be too conventional and ostentatious an opening; a smash cut bumping Yaron’s head against the camera unannounced. One could refer to it as an “establishing close-up”, yet it contains neither the attributes of an establishing shot nor a close-up. Its shift in focus marks the transition between the workings or build-up of the shot into the close-up itself. But it’s essential that neither the build-up nor the close-up feel prioritised. The 30 seconds and this transition are the “trimmings” or “errors” of any other film that, here, buttresses the film’s compositions.
The camera sees as if it were an eye, but not the traditional eye of a “subjective” camera. There’s no hurried panning, handheld, snap zooms or punch-ins that are often used and mistaken for this “subjectivity”. There’s one very slight zoom in the entire film – in one of the final scenes/close-ups – but besides this all movement is conveyed via slow pans, dolly shots or through each actor, whose movements in Nadav Lapid’s first three features are captured instead of contorted by the camera.
Given the main movements in the film are of the actors surrounding a stabilised camera, the images resemble those of an eye, composing frames without a clear focal point. The 16:9 aspect ratio emphasises the images’ neutral qualities, everything usually within focus and lit with available/practical light. Each body is either in constant – but not overt – motion or, when still, slightly off-centre or obscured by the edges of the frame. This aligns the camera and the viewer’s eye towards a similar space; a space where one can focus freely on visible objects without the unnecessary emphasis of a zoom or rack-focus. It’s a perspective not preoccupied with overt technique and truer to the eye’s functions without sublimating it completely for the camera’s technical flaws. Imperfections remain in the image as evidence for the mediation between an eye and the camera. As a by-product, the only close-ups appear momentarily, in the midst of longer sequences.
At the forty-minute mark, the film shifts focus onto four student radicals, planning an attack on a wedding among an Israeli aristocracy – the students’ ruling class surrogates. They’re first seen together in an arid landscape similar to the one in the opening – perhaps the same one, most likely in Jerusalem. The policemen remarked, upon seeing an empty vista, that theirs is the greatest country in the world. The students, here, remark upon a “good tree”, living off the fat of the same land from before – even if only to destroy it. They fire pistols at this tree, shooting a branch off it. Approaching the camera from a wide shot is one of the students, Nathaniel, spinning his gun. His three other comrades look down at the branch they’ve shot, flaming on the ground. The close-up on the branch is almost an insert shot, without a premeditated, developing shot before it – the first of its kind in the film. The group’s unspoken leader, Shiri, strokes her pistol against Nathaniel’s arm. The camera pans up according to her hand’s movement, locking into a two-shot of their faces staring at the ground offscreen. The camera then pans down, back to the close-up of Shiri’s gun stroking Nathaniel’s hand – all without pulling focus.
The students infiltrate a wedding, where they take a salt factory tycoon and his bridal daughter hostage. Yaron’s team is called in to capture the radicals. In line with his blind momentum, a visible discomfort is now changing his composure – an effect more evident now after his extended absence from the film. Ariel watches by, goading Yaron on, unable to participate in the raid except as a malignant thing, weaponising frailty and obsequiousness now as a form of leverage over his leader.
Receiving press photos of the student radicals – a compromise after their request for a news camera crew – Yaron looks at Shiri’s photo, in which she obscures her face with the manifesto she’s blaring via loudspeaker and refusing a close-up. As the police arrive, she surprisingly tries to curry their favour in seemingly good faith, positing them as an unseen “serf” surrogate to the salt tycoon’s “lord”:
“Policemen, listen to me, we are not your enemies and you are not ours. Policemen, you are also oppressed.”
The policemen remain unseen to the radicals, cutting the lights and shooting the students in the dark before freeing their hostages.
Lights flicker back on and Yaron walks towards the camera, pulls off his mask and stares down at Shiri. The reverse shot is her bloody face, breathing slower and with deadening eyes. The tycoon jovially shakes hands with the other policemen from the raid. Ariel approaches from behind, slings his arms around Yaron and whispers in his ear. He speaks to Yaron positioned like a lover, yet his ghastly complexion resembles that of a pale demon. Faces haven’t approached the camera in this way since the Jerusalem set introductions to both Yaron and Shiri. Yaron crouches down and connects Shiri’s face with the obscured profile from the photo, loosing himself from Ariel’s embrace in the process. The camera holds on his face for 17 seconds, where one can discover the imprint of his infrared goggles.