Israeli filmmaker Roee Rosen’s short film, starring Hani Furstenberg and written ostensibly for his longer Kafka for Kids feature project, is a piece of astute and absurdist stand-up comedy, and if you’re not familiar with his work then prepare to expect the unexpected.
Explaining the Law to Kwame starts off plausibly enough as an Israeli lawyer, Ada Biniamini, outlines the different ages at which childhood is presumed to end among Palestinian and Israeli children (12 and 18 respectively, we are told), and hence how they are subsequently dealt with by the authorities. At first Ada is articulate and convincing and, for all intents and purposes, looks the part in her dark trouser suit and lawyerly white shirt.
But then she starts to acts strangely. She is distracted by a smell which seems to emanate from her armpit, erotic memories interrupt her flow and she begins to deploy inappropriate car-related metaphors to underline her academic arguments. She sings, she ends up on all fours and she eventually declares a desire to be “released from the taxing grotesquery of sex.”
Meanwhile, in the audience, as students begin to shuffle and look nervous, two men consummate their finger flirting with an open-mouthed snog, while three young bearded Orthodox men respond to what Ada is saying with closely choreographed gestures of worry and consternation.
“Ada is the name of my youngest daughter and Biniamini is a sort of a silly gesture to Walter Benjamin (German Jewish philosopher and essayist),” says Rosen. “I have a history of inventing fictive characters and searching for a twilight zone between actual documentary material and fiction.”
His first film was about the fictitious Justine Frank, supposedly a Jewish Belgian painter and pornographer working in the 1930s. “It took me about ten years to fabricate her oeuvre and to write her novel, but with Ada in Explaining the Law the reason it looks compelling is that the information is actually real. I spent a good amount of time [studying] military law and… talking to people who are dealing with different aspects of the application of the law.”
(For the record, the three Orthodox men in Explaining the Law reference the three tenants living in the house of Gregor Samsa, the character who undergoes transformation into a vast insect in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.)
Speaking to FID Marseille before the festival launch, Rosen explained the wider project Kafka for Kids as, “a musical comedy…which promises to make Kafka’s tales fit for toddlers. It is a perverse, almost sacrilegious premise towards this venerated author, but of course it is also emotionally invested in Kafka, so it is a project of violent love and laughter.”
That said, Rosen will be looking to re-shoot Explaining the Law before its inclusion within the overall Kafka piece. “The style of the [setting] is wrong for the feature,” he says. “Sometimes the camera goes out of focus which doesn’t really matter stylistically [in the short] but the film is very pristine and very carefully put together. And thirdly there is the language. Kafka for Kids is in English. Initially I thought the monologue should be in Hebrew… but then I came to the conclusion that there is no reason really to break the flow and continuity of English in the future. And Hani [Furstenberg] is a native speaker of English, so it’s not a problem.”
“In fact Jean-Pierre Rehm (FID Marseille Executive Officer) was instrumental in convincing me that Explaining the Law could work on its own merit,” adds the director. “As soon as he knew that I was not going to incorporate the monologue into the film he asked me to be in the competition of FID, and of course I agreed.’
As in her previous collaboration with Rosen (Hilarious, which also comprises an absurdist monologue), Furstenberg is a tour de force, and dominates both the material and every frame of the completed work.
“When I wrote Hilarious I auditioned 12 or 13 actresses… and I felt like no-one could actually perform it, but as soon as Hani came in and gave a few lines, [the part] belonged to her. She really took over. And yeah, ever since then I really wanted to write something else for her.
“Indeed [in Kafka for Kids] she also plays the person to whom The Metamorphosis is being read. So she is playing a double role, she plays Ada the legal expert but also a 6 or 7-year-old child, and she is doing it amazingly. The film is also a musical in which she sings very beautifully as well.
“Now editing [by online screenshare] on a daily basis with my editors the footage for Kafka for Kids. The entire cast is amazing but Hani is a delight to see every day.”