IFFR 2022 review: Kafka for Kids (Roee Rosen)

“Only one word suffices to describe Kafka for Kids, and that word is ‘singular'”

What is a child?” a choir comprised of a talking bed and talking pillows sings at the end of Roee Rosen’s colorful splash of surrealism Kafka for Kids. A philosophical question, though in line with the thematics of the film the question could have easily been “When is a child?” You see, Kafka for Kids is a story of transformation, and transformation is a process linked to a passage of time. It takes the film over an hour to lay its cards on the table, and many a viewer may have zoned out by then, weirded out by the talking lamps and the expressionist animations, but when the kids’ programme is interrupted for a panel discussion (well, monologue, really) on children under military law the film takes a sharp turn for the political.

But back to the beginning. Kafka for Kids tells the story of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, his 1915 novella about a traveling salesman who wakes up one morning to find out he has transformed into a giant insect, to the increasing disgust of his family. But this is a story about a story, not a straightforward telling, so built around Kafka’s tale is a kids’ TV show (titled ‘Kafka for Kids’) in which an older man in a bathrobe (Jeff Francis) tells the story to a little girl in pigtails (Hani Furstenberg) in a typical children’s television setting. You know, where desks and lamps and paintings have faces and can talk. Interspersed are surrealistic animations which help tell The Metamorphosis, as well as songs (Kafka for Kids is a musical too, you see) and commercials that are quite inappropriate to be run during a kids’ programme.

The animation itself almost immediately presents a problem, because Kafka explicitly stipulated that the insect should never be depicted. What to do? Ask Kafka’s shoe of course! Since Kafka was a lawyer but is also dead, the best option is to turn to an inanimate object tied closely to him. Yes, it’s that kind of film. Luckily, Kafka’s shoe clears up the legal issue and the show can go on. The further the old man progresses with the story, the more the question arises if Kafka really is for kids. But what is a child?

It is at this moment that Kafka for Kids transforms (pun intended, likely also by Rosen) into something else. A scheduled programme on the kids’ channel is cancelled for unclear reasons and is replaced by a lecture that asks precisely this question in a very specific context. In the Israeli occupied territories two types of law co-exist, military law as dictated by Israel and Palestinian civil law. According to Israeli law a person is a child until the age of 16; in Palestinian law the situation is more complicated, but childhood ends at 12. In a 20-minute monologue Furstenberg, in a double role, explores this paradox through a legal and a philosophical lens, also delving into issues like sexuality and growing older. This part of the film is essentially Rosen’s short Explaining the Law to Kwame (2020), where Rosen was already exploring life as a form of transformation: when does one state of being change into the other?

Only one word suffices to describe Kafka for Kids, and that word is ‘singular’. Theatrical (it started its life as a play, actually), bizarre, philosophical, wild, all apply but do not fully capture the experience of watching this film. Its audience will be niche, and the point is quite belabored if at all clear, but there is enough fun to go around in Kafka for Kids for it to at least work as a spectacle. Hell, even kids may like it!