Life & Culture

Exploring a young man's fear of undertaking national service in IDF

Matan Yair's new movie A Room of his Own follows a young man facing his mandatory spell in the army


When Israeli author and filmmaker Matan Yair was growing up, his early life was overshadowed by one thought: that one day he would be forced to do national service.

“I was very bothered,” he explains. “It really troubled me. How would I fit in? I didn’t feel man enough to do it. And I didn’t have a male role model at home to look to. My father had been shell-shocked from the 1973 Yom Kippur war.”

Initially, Yair poured this into his prize-winning 2008 novel A Room of His Own, set around the time of the 1991 Gulf War.

With the story led by a teenager in middle school, other autobiographical elements plundered included his father leaving home and the boy subsequently sharing a room with his mother, as well as an enduring interest in the Holocaust literature of Primo Levi and others.

But more than anything, he tapped into his feelings about the machinery of war.

“I remember seeing hundreds of tanks near my house going up north,” he recalls, “and in 1987, during the first intifada, they took us from school to learn martial arts to protect ourselves …so you grow up with this all the time. And you ask yourself, ‘How will I cope?

How will I manage in the army?’ Going to the army means that you are becoming a man. [In the story] this kid, he can’t become a man because he’s sleeping in the same room as his mother.”

Now, 15 years on and with films like Scaffolding (2017) and Unseen (2019) behind him, Yair has adapted the novel for the big screen.

Receiving its British premiere at the UK Jewish Film Festival, A Room of His Own stars charismatic newcomer Gilad Lederman as 17-year-old Uri. With his mother depending on him after his father’s departure, Uri is also facing his mandatory spell in the army.

Updating the story, Yair abandoned the idea of the 1991 setting and was also forced to change his protagonist who, in the book, was overweight and younger.

“Then I found this kid, Gilad and I thought that his acting was really good…when we made the film, he was still in high school, studying drama, but he wasn’t on the big screen. It is his first production and definitely his first main role.

"But if it wasn’t this, it would be another film because I’m sure that he will be an actor.”

Even just a glance around Uri’s bedroom suggests something of his character: posters of John Lennon and Taxi Driver’s vengeful protagonist Travis Bickle adorn the walls.

“I think my character is between John Lennon and Travis Bickle,” says Yair. “John Lennon … his father who disappeared and his mother who died very early. And he was very strong with words and humour.

"And Travis Bickle, carrying the gun, is able to kill… he’s becoming like this lethal machine. So Uri is looking for his model in life.”

Curiously, when Yair was due to enter the army, he found a way out. “I think my body reacted to it. When I was 17, they found that I had melanoma. So I had it taken out and the army didn’t want me because of that.”

He ended up volunteering in a naval office in Tel Aviv. But it was enough to inspire a story that he’s been living with for many years. While his 2008 novel wasn’t commercially successful, he’s naturally keen for the film to enjoy a life of its own. “I hope it will find its audience.”

The Jewish Film Festival is certainly a good place to start.

A Room of His Own screens on 18 November at 8.30pm at the Everyman Muswell Hill

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