Israeli cinema has long had a love affair with army stories, with some of them — Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir,” Joseph Cedar’s “Beaufort” and Amos Gitai’s “Kippur” — plunging deep into the nation’s military heart and exposing the vulnerabilities its soldiers wear beneath their uniforms. “Zero Motivation,” the first feature from tyro helmer and screenwriter Talya Lavie, does that too, but the circumstances are far different: There is no combat, no border conflicts and not really even any men.
The film is a biting, darkly comic look at the life of the women of the Israeli military — and it showed audiences that for these female secretaries and paper-pushers, boredom can be just as dangerous as battle. The pic nabbed two major prizes at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and has been picked up for U.S. distribution by Zeitgeist Films.
“Even in Israel’s great war films, the thing that attracts is the emotional action and the relationships between the characters,” says Lavie over coffee at a trendy Tel Aviv cafe. Despite her flawless English, the petite helmer says she is still getting comfortable with giving interviews, and that her life since Tribeca — where “Zero” picked up the fest’s kudo for best narrative feature and the Nora Ephron prize for distinctive woman writer or director — has been a whirlwind. “Those army films are amazing, and I wanted to add another film to this list, but one that shows a different sector of the army, where people who aren’t important do their jobs, get through their work, and are never in the spotlight.”
Israel has mandatory conscription for men and women at age 18, and some of its female soldiers do see combat. But for a huge chunk of the young women who graduate high school and enter the military, those two years are carried out in front of desks and computers, making coffee for male higher-ups, swapping bored gossip and waiting for the clock to strike 5 p.m. so they can go home.
Lavie, now in her mid-30s, completed her army service as a secretary on a base, but she says the film, while inspired by her experience, is not autobiographical.
After graduating from the Sam Spiegel School of Film and Television in Jerusalem, she completed three short films and did a brief stint as a television director. To write “Zero Motivation,” she visited army bases all over the country, sitting down with one bleary-eyed young woman after another, and asking them to tell her everything about their day-to-day life.
Those dozens of interviews formed the composite for the film’s three leading characters: Zohar, a records clerk addicted to the computer game “Minesweeper,” played by Dana Ivgy (whose father, Moshe Ivgy, is considered one of the pillars of the Israeli film industry); Daffi (Nelly Tagar), who wants nothing more than to escape to the bright lights of Tel Aviv; and commanding officer Rama (Shani Klein), whose bark is big enough to compete with any of the men in her ranks.
“After my own military service, I thought it would be funny to make an army film about the lives of girls like me and my friends, about us jobnikiot,” she says, using the Israeli slang for a soldiers who don’t see combat. “It was only after I started researching and writing the script that I realized how much deep meaning there could be.”
The film, despite being hailed as seriously funny, has a dark underbelly to its plot. There is depression, sexual violence and crushing bureaucracy. Variety reviewer Ronnie Scheib called it “a black comedy full of unexpected twists and turns that inventively recasts conflict in decidedly non-heroic, absurdist terms.”
Despite avoiding the most hot-button Israeli issue of all, the Palestinian conflict, Lavie says she feels she has made a very political film. “It’s a look at Israeli society from the inside,” she says. “I didn’t go into bigger political issues because I wanted to tell the truth, and the truth is that the girls who work in these kinds of army offices don’t deal with the conflict. They live their own private lives, occupied with their thoughts and problems, and are just trying to figure out who they really are in a world where everyone wears the same uniform.”