Israeli director Samuel Maoz’s vivid, memorable — and not easy to watch — film, “Foxtrot,” has already generated controversy in Israel. Minister of Culture Miri Regev has accused him of being a traitor and done everything in her power to generate a boycott against the film. Maoz has received death threats. At the same time, the movie won a host of Ophir Awards (Israel’s Oscar), including one for Best Film and Best Director. “Foxtrot” was on the short-list for an Oscar nod in the Best Foreign Film category (but in the end didn’t make the cut).
Best known for his earlier award-winning (also tendentious) film, “Lebanon,” a searing indictment of war as experienced by Israeli soldiers claustrophobically housed inside a tank, Maoz extends his anti-war motif coupled with explorations of fate, chance, and free-will.
Structured in three acts — each with its own definable visual, rhythmic and cinematic style — the movie opens with a middle-aged couple Michael (the always impressive Lior Ashkenazi) and Daphna (Sarah Adler) receiving the worst possible news — their son has been killed in the line of duty. The long, torturous first act centers on Michael’s unspeakable anguish only to make a 180 degree turn when the powers that be discover that his son Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray) is in fact alive and well. It was all a case of mistaken identity. The second act, the most visually and dramatically compelling segment, is set at a surreal desert checkpoint where several very young soldiers, including Jonathan, suffering from interminable boredom, spend their dreary days and nights, verifying the identification cards of Palestinian travelers who drive through a decaying gate. More usually the soldiers are lifting the barricade for camels wandering about the dessert. The rest of the time they play video-games, dance to old tunes, and constantly re-measure a cylindrical shipping container that seems to be tilting.
Their psyches deadened, while always on the lookout for potential terrorists, the soldiers commit an atrocious act, knowing immediately they made a terrible judgment call, and then cover it up under the leadership and guidance of the Israeli military hierarchy.
It’s the narrative turning point and not unexpectedly the major source of contention; all the more so since the scene in question is inspired by Maoz’s imagination, not actual events.
Speaking from his home in Tel Aviv Maoz discussed the film, its controversies, and his views of Israeli society.
FORWARD: I’m going to cut to the chase: Do your detractors have a point in suggesting that the film is designed to make Israel look bad?
MAOZ: No. If the crime was committed by the police, not the army, nobody would be shouting that the film is unfairly assaulting police and is therefore anti-Israel. Audiences would understand that this is not a documentary and I’m not obliged to recount an actual event. Art is designed to provoke debate. But the fact that I touched on the army, that makes me a traitor to a large part of Israeli society.
Could you elaborate?
The army has come to symbolize our triumphant response to historical trauma — the Holocaust — and we have not moved beyond that. The memories of past traumas continue to define us. We’re now a second generation, born after the Holocaust, and still traumatized by it. We’re not allowed to say anything or even admit to our own traumatic experiences in war. After all, how dare we complain, we didn’t endure the Holocaust. We’re told to be quiet, behave like men. We’re told we’re on the cusp of war and living in existential danger — we’re not — and that our strong army is our defense against it. That’s equivalent to saying I’m young and strong and healthy because I’m sick. The film does not defame or glorify anything. Truth is complex and influenced by many factors, including the collective state of mind. I believe every society should improve itself and that means self-criticism without fear of being called a traitor. Our minister of culture, who hates the film never saw it, and has no interest in culture. In fact, she doesn’t have any real political ideology either. She’s just making comments to get ratings. She wants to be the next Prime Minister.
I gather you’ve received some harsh criticism from the far left as well.
The traditional left liked the film, but the extremists felt I was not really taking a strong enough stand, the soldiers weren’t all bad. And in a way that’s true. I’m trying not to judge my culture, but understand it.
Is it true that the film was only in part inspired by your experiences in war, but more significantly by a particularly horrific personal experience you had in connection with your daughter?
Yes, that is true. Eighteen years ago when my eldest daughter was 13 she’d oversleep frequently and always asked me to call her a taxi to get to school on time. This was costing a lot of money and it occurred to me that I was giving her a bad education. One day I told her to take the bus like everyone else and if she was late to school she wouldn’t do it again. The bus she was supposed to take was on Line 5. Twenty minutes after she left I hear on the television that the bus on Line 5 blew up. It was a suicide bomber. I was calling all over and I couldn’t get any more information. An hour later my daughter walks in. It was the worst hour of my life, much worse than any war experience I had. She actually saw the bus leave was running towards it and waving her arms for it to stop, but it didn’t. I asked myself what I can learn from this experience. I realized I couldn’t learn anything, but I could explore the gap between what we can control and what we cannot control. This was my film’s inspiration: is life the result of chance or is chance a sophisticated plan? Can we cheat our fate and if so at what cost? You know, Einstein said, coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.
The film has been compared to a Greek drama. Do you see it that way too?
Yes, through his actions Michael creates his own inevitable punishment and then fights against anyone who tries to save him.
There are several scenes that are very unpleasant to watch and may simply alienate parts of the audience. Is that something you think about or do notions of truth take precedence over audience response?
I don’t think of myself as a supplier of entertainment. I create from my world view and I don’t censor myself. I take risks. If you walk on the safe side it will be boring. This is the challenge.
What do you want American audiences to walk away thinking and feeling?
It’s a film about Israeli society for an Israeli audience, though I’ve come to understand that what I’m describing is not only local. It’s true for many societies. Of course Americans will think about life in Israel because that’s inherent in the film, but I also want them to see a family drama about the conflict between love and guilt.
What do you want them to feel towards Israel, compassion, anger, both? What do you want them to do?
It’s naive to think that any film — especially a foreign language film — can make any real impact. But it would be nice to think they’d want to see Israel encouraged in reaching a peace-agreement with the Palestinians. That would be good for everyone.
Any speculation as to why you did not get the Oscar nomination? Was it political?
I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. Of course I would like to have been there. But my biggest regret is that an Oscar nomination really helps a film, especially a foreign language film. Still, I’m getting plenty of publicity. When “Foxtrot” was recently selected to open a small French film festival our minister of culture went to the head of the festival and told her she could not show my film to which the festival director said she had no intention of listening to her. The culture minister then went to the ambassador and told her not come. My French distributor called me and said even if he put a million dollars into marketing I would not get the kind of press that I’m getting now. The French are reading all about it in the papers and seeing it on television news. She’s given me a great advance that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. This woman tried to harm me and created just the opposite of what she wanted. When she was elected she said she’d change culture, said something to the effect that ‘Chekhov lovers, your time is over.’ The irony is that she’s a typical Chekhovian character. Tries to achieve something, fails at it, and achieves just the opposite.