NEW YORK — It’s “M*A*S*H” meets “Girls”! No, it’s “Catch-22” meets “Broad City!” No, it’s… its own original thing?
One of the most discussed and praised movies at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival is “Zero Motivation,” a modestly-budgeted comic take on boredom and postponed dreams among young women in the Israeli Defense Forces. With her first feature-length project, writer-director Talya Lavie blows the lid off of stuffing envelopes, shredding paper, serving coffee and on-base dating hassles while soldiers waste time with “Minesweeper” and “FreeCell.”
Along the way she tells a touching story of three women — rebellious Zohar (Dana Ivgy), discontented Daffi (Nelly Tagar) and their gruff-yet-overwhelmed commander Rama (newcomer Shani Klein) whose hopes of rising in the ranks are unfortunately tethered to her not quite ship-shape squad.
With a script that is extremely funny and a little bit sad, “Zero Motivation” walks a fine line between wacky farce and the brutal realism of the mundane. Individual moments have the ring of specificity and truth, but the characters are wonderfully universal. With some good marketing and a little bit of luck this could be the most successful Israeli film in a generation.
I spoke with Lavie after her premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Her producer Elion Ratzkovsky was also on hand to help a bit with translation. Below is a truncated version of that conversation.
The Times of Israel: So tell me, are you a Zohar, a Daffi or a Rama?
Talya Lavie: I’m all of them.
One third each? Or do you secretly identify more with this one, aspire to be more like this one? Were you more like this one when you were younger?
I really realized that I am all of them when each one of the actresses secretly thought that she’s me.
All of the actresses are terrific and very funny, but I was amazed that Shani Klein, the woman who played Rama, this was her first film, right?
She’s hilarious on screen, but also a little frightening as the commanding officer.
There was once an officer I really hated when I was a soldier myself. And now I don’t know why I hated her. But when you write a character, you cannot hate her. And you cannot tell the actor, “You are bad.” So, you have to understand her and to be her. And then I found myself more and more identifying with her, so it became really so dear to me.
You saw things from her point of view in retrospect?
Definitely. And she also felt — somebody asked [Klein] what it’s like to be the antagonist and she said, “I didn’t feel an antagonist for a second.” She recently graduated from acting school and we auditioned her and — it’s not that she looks like I imagined her but she was just fantastic.
So, obviously, this comes from a lot of personal experience. You worked your mandatory years in the IDF and you did work in a secretarial pool. Was that something you chose, or something that they said, “You’re going to do this”?
Were you in charge of shredding, like Daffi? Or were you in charge of putting things in envelopes, like Zohar? Or was it a little bit of everything?
It was a little bit of everything. I don’t think we had a shredding machine, you know? Maybe that’s why I have that in the movie. I love shredding machines. I really like to shred things.
Was it because where you were stationed shredding was too advanced of a technology?
It’s been a while since my own mandatory service. But I was inspired and amused by this idea of making an army film about this aspect of the army. I was inspired by so many real stories. The film happens in a different kind of base than I have been to.
Were you in the desert, like in the film?
Yes. I actually love the desert. It was important for me to have the film in the desert because it’s like another character. Something in being there, isolated, it changes your proportions, and the weather.
None of the characters are too happy to be there, but they’re not looking for a way to get out of the Army — they’re just looking for a way to make their situation a little better. None want to walk away from their responsibilities. It’s not an anti-army film, it’s more like a “This is kind of a drag; how can we make it better”?
I think it’s like school; you don’t like it, but you go there. It’s not a question of dropping out. It’s not even an issue. It’s an issue for some people, but not in the film. But I was just telling the truth. Being in the army is, for many people, like going to college. It postpones a need to take responsibility on your own life, to decide what I need to do and when I need to do it. There’s something very comfortable in being like this.
And of course, all Daffi really wanted to do was wear high heels and walk around Tel Aviv. That’s her dream.
Yeah. Even her fantasy is very, very low. And I think in the film you can see different approaches to the Army, because as you see Rama is very devoted. The army caught her. She thinks it’s important; she wants a military career, and other people don’t want to be there, or they get carried away in the situation.
The film is episodic, it’s three sections — one can watch it and say, “Oh, this can be an ongoing television series.” This could be bought, and maybe that’s something that you want to do, to get it bought for television. It could run for ten years, because you could just roll out stories.
[Note: Lavie remains expressionless, her producer Ratzkovsky brightens.]
(continuing) But then there are many parts of the film that are very “cinematic.” There are match cuts that are artistically put together. Can you talk a bit about your approach?
I definitely wanted it to feel like a film, to be like a film, and to be as cinematic as I could do it. And the idea of dividing it into three parts was from a theatrical thought. Like three acts. Because I wanted it to be, in a way, very big and organized.
Another funny thing is that in the army, everything is divided into three. Everything. It’s like a very known thing in the army. But that’s not something that I expected anyone to understand, not even in Israel. It’s just, maybe, an inner joke. I like classic plays, and I thought not only about my cinematic inspirations, which were, obviously “M*A*S*H” and “Catch-22” and classic army satires, but also serious army films.
There’s only one stray line in the film about, oh, war could happen at any moment. Did you specifically try to keep that out, because you wanted to keep things light, or because you figured everybody knows this already?
Well, I figured that everybody knows it. But I really wanted to express the truth — the reality is that we live in Israel and we go on buses and we go in places and we don’t really spend our time being afraid. But [war] is a fact that for the Israeli Army. I don’t know if you’ve noticed in the film that we hear the helicopters all the time; they are in an operational base. They are serving, these girls; they’re serving at an operational base, and all the guys are actually warriors, all the generals and everything; they fight. It was important to me that they deal with their own dramas in this environment.
There’s a lot of room for comedy. A dare to not get out of their chairs, or when they’re all playing Minesweeper on the computer, which is sort of a perfect game, because there are mines everywhere.
I came to the army so serious, but there was a sense of absurd. With this film I wanted to show the silly things. Maybe that’s a way to deal with this situation. The part of them doing those nonsense games is a serious part in the film.
There’s a benefit to being an Israeli filmmaker, which is that critics can look for meaning that may not even there, but it adds to the depth of the films. Zohar and Daffi are from the same place but they’re intractable, and no matter what they do, you know they’re leading to conflict. One could pull back and say this is a grand statement on all sorts of topics in the Middle East. Or it could just be your story. Don’t comment, because as soon as you make a clear yes or no, it ruins it!
[laughs] My thought was to work on the personal stories, but knowing that it means more than it is. But more to the Israeli society than a larger Middle East situation. Israeli society is very influenced by the army. It was important for me to show that the girls are so unseen and unimportant. They would tell them that they are important, but nobody has made a film about them so far.
Is there a very noticeable glass ceiling in the IDF for women?
I think that all over the world there is this ceiling.
Your film touches on some serious issues. There is the date-rape scene, which I imagine is a touchy subject in an army base.
Those kinds of things, again, are all over the world. Not only in the army, not only in Israel, it’s all over the world. The environment that makes them behave in a certain way or say certain things is specific to where they are.
I love that you had the Russian immigrant character, which is such a key part of Israeli society right now. And of course, she’s very serious. She doesn’t like the joke about the Holocaust.
This scene where she won’t joke about the Holocaust — when we test-screened the film, we gave the people a questionnaire, and only one person wrote, “Oh, the Holocaust joke, I didn’t like it.” Who was this person? My mom!
Do you have a next project lined up?
I am in the process of writing a contemporary, free adaptation to a Sholem Aleichem short story “My First Romance.” And it actually takes place in Brooklyn.
So you’re going to shoot it here in New York?
Hopefully. I’m still — it’s just the beginning, I’m working on the script.
Well, the idea is you bring “Zero Motivation” here, make a big splash and next thing you know you’re granted a whole wad of cash to cover New York and make the film.
I guess so? [Producer Ratzkovsky has a wide smile and thumbs up.]