Early in Naf, there is a scene in which Naftali and his girlfriend are in a heated debate about whether he should be taking advantage of Christian missionaries, duping them into believing he believes in Jesus, so he can stay in their youth shelter.
To lie for the sake of personal safety – one of many dilemmas for a homeless teenager.
Directed by Moshe Alafi, RIGHT, and presented at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre as part of the recent Toronto Jewish Film Festival, the documentary Naf: Street Kid follows 16-year-old Naftali Yawitz, who spent 21/2 years living in the streets of Jerusalem. He left his haredi parents’ home in England at 13.
The protagonist of the film is neither entirely bad nor entirely good. He is both a hero and a victim, with deep flaws. Indulging in petty crime, he steals money from cab drivers. He is a drug dealer who passes off baggies of oregano to unsuspecting buyers.
Yet there are some moments that show Naf’s good character.
He refuses to sell drugs to a certain addict and spends a long time arguing with her about why he cannot conduct such business, for moral reasons, lest she risk overdose. He visits the Kotel to pray to “Aba” – the heavenly Father – for good fortune. He dons tfillin and tallit in a downtown square. How much of this is a show for the camera no one can be sure. But who of us should refuse a boy the opening to come home again, even if initially through superficial actions?
This street kid does not wholly live in a world of sex, drink, drugs and party-induced stupors, the film tells us. His ambition is to make life better for himself – to keep hope alive, however misguided the course.
He wants a career in rap music, and Naf negotiates with the Israel Defence Forces radio station to play his CD.
As a representative of 350 homeless youths, Naf wants an acknowledgment from the Jerusalem City Council that street kids need more, and better quality, attention. Exasperated, he later resigns from his position, doing so by sending a handwritten letter of protest. The viewer learns that, for Naf, the sting of indifference is worse than life’s pain .
“Naf has a goal. He fights for something. He doesn’t accept his situation,” said Alafi at the film’s Q&A. “I’m not a social worker, but my duty as a filmmaker is to raise this problem up.”
Naf has the strength to keep on fighting when many are indifferent to him. He is to face in court the middle-aged neighbour who sexually abused him, but the trial is postponed twice without prior notice. Enraged, Naf raises his voice to the prosecuting lawyer and is promptly escorted away by security, left to weep on a courthouse foyer bench.
Alafi’s direction is discreet, without contrived closeups or ham-handed focus on the grittier aspects of homelessness. Pulling strings of empathy, however, is not the film’s thrust.
Naf is injured in a street brawl, of which little is shown. No doubt the four-inch gash in Naf’s skull is one of many bodily scars he has. It’s through this that we meet Chana, a social worker who makes a complaint to the authorities on his behalf. It is through her the viewer learns that love is thicker than blood – for a homeless boy, she is all he has for family.
She is his protector after he is caught selling drugs. It is she, on camera, who quietly protests at the courthouse that a 16-year-old cannot be rehabilitated by throwing him in jail.
The film is not an investigation into the issue of the some 39,000 abused and neglected street kids in Israel. Though it is a documentary on street life, there are no interviews with government officials, social workers or many other street kids. Through Naf’s story, Alafi conveys the message that without something to open our eyes to the higher possibilities of life, we might all be Nafs.
At the Q&A, Alafi told the audience that as of last Yom Kippur, Naf has returned to observant Judaism, works full time at a supermarket and is engaged to be married.