Acclaim for controversial film puts Regev in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot situation

The culture minister is on the attack against Samuel Maoz’s ‘Foxtrot,’ which won a top prize at the Venice Film Festival and could sweep Israel’s Oscars

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

When the Ophir Awards, Israel’s version of the Oscars, take place in just eight days, on September 19, it’s a good guess that “Foxtrot,” Samuel Maoz’s internationally acclaimed film about parents mourning the loss of their son killed during army duty, will be one of the big winners.

And it’s fair to say that Culture Minister Miri Regev won’t be too happy.

“Foxtrot,” for which Maoz was awarded the prestigious Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival on Saturday, is nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Lior Ashkenazi) and Best Supporting Actress (Shira Haas) at the Ophirs.

The film, a quiet story about parents’ grief, with some unexpected twists and satire, has been sharply denounced by Regev as a defamation of the State of Israel.

Immediately after Maoz was awarded the prize in Venice, Regev, rather than reaching out with congratulations, sent out a sharply worded statement on Facebook.

Culture Minister Miri Regev spoke to a crowd at the Jerusalem Film Festival on July 8, 2016, and received boos in return (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

“When an Israeli film wins an international prize, the heart fills with pride and my natural desire is to strengthen and encourage the Israeli success,” she wrote. “This rule has one exception — when the international embrace is the result of self-flagellation and cooperation with the anti-Israel narrative.”

Regev, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, took particular issue with a scene during which soldiers commit a deadly war crime.

The IDF in which I served for more than 25 years had no scenes like this. This is slander, pure and simple,” said Regev, a former chief spokeswoman for the military, who has acknowledged that she has not actually seen the movie.

Reporting on the controversy, Israel’s Channel 2 on Sunday noted that this scene is “surrealistic, not realistic.”

At the festival, Maoz commented that he was receiving many text messages congratulating him for scoring a victory over Regev, and for fighting the notoriously sharp-tongued culture minister, who has made a habit of going after cultural institutions and artists perceived as undermining Israel’s policies.

Director Samuel Maoz receives the Silver Lion – Grand Jury Prize for his movie ‘Foxtrot’ during the award ceremony of the 74th Venice Film Festival on September 9, 2017 at Venice Lido. (AFP/Tiziana FABI)

“I didn’t win anything over her,” Maoz told Channel 2. “Since Lebanon, I’m done fighting.”

He told reporters Saturday that no society can flourish when “critics are considered to be traitors… If I criticize the place I live, I do it because I worry. I do it because I want to protect it. I do it from love.”

Maoz was a gunner in the 1982 Lebanon War, and suffered from PTSD. He trained as a cameraman afterward. “Lebanon,” his first feature film, which came out in 2009, was based on his personal experiences in a four-man tank crew that entered a Lebanese village early in the war.

That movie was rejected at the Berlin and Cannes film festivals, but Maoz won the Golden Lion, the top prize, at the Venice Film Festival, and it was then nominated for the Ophir in 10 categories. “Foxtrot” is Maoz’s long-awaited follow-up.

As a Vanity Fair review of “Foxtrot” pointed out, the film is more of a fable than a work of non-fiction, but “there are few topics that are more loaded than movies about the Israeli Defense Forces. But other than knowing a few things about Jewish funeral customs, one need not be specifically up to date about the ongoing security crisis. This is an allegorical film and, although its temperament is very Israeli, its content could just as well be about any nation and its Army.”

Regev surely won’t be pleased about any additional wins for this film. The minister is known for vocal criticism for anything she considers unbecoming of Israel, whether it’s nudity at the Israel Festival, or films that are critical or disapproving of the state and its government’s policies.

Last September, she walked out of the Ophir Awards ceremony when a poem by late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish was read, because his poems preached objections to the existence of a Jewish state.

During the same awards ceremony, two Palestinian actresses from the award-winning Bedouin drama “Sand Storm” wouldn’t take the stage to receive their awards from Regev, to protest the minister’s positions.

In March, Regev asked the Israeli film funds to provide detailed information about the approval process for films, in an apparent attempt to clamp down on state funding for those movies that are critical of Israel’s policies. Most film funds receive a significant portion of their budgets from the state.

“Foxtrot” has been hyped as awards circuit material ever since its first previews in the spring. The jury that awarded “Foxtrot” at the Venice festival included jury president Annette Bening, who has attended Hollywood evenings in support of Israel, and Mexican filmmaker Michel Franco, who is reportedly Jewish and applauded the film’s excellent script and acting.

In contrast to the culture minister, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin has said he looks forward to watching the movie. I do not know if I will like it, but I will watch it as I try to watch every Israeli film,” he said Sunday. “In general, I am a great fan of Israeli cinema, which is a symbol of freedom of expression and the strength of Israeli democracy. Israeli cinema is one of the most important ambassadors of Israel in the world because of its quality, and because of the way it reflects different aspects of life in Israel, with all the challenges and magic within it.”

Regev’s reaction also spurred a vociferous reply from lead actor Lior Ashkenazi, who called a press conference in Tel Aviv on Sunday.

“Israel isn’t mentioned in the film, and there’s no mention of the IDF either,” said Ashkenazi. “But Miri Regev doesn’t know that because she won’t see the film.”

Director Samuel Maoz, center, and actors Lior Ashkenazi, left, and Sarah Adler pose during the photo call for the film ‘Foxtrot’ at the 74th Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

The culture minister has said that the award for “Foxtrot” is proof that the Israeli government must not fund films that become ammunition in the hands of the country’s enemies.

“She says, ‘I won’t give my money to it,'” Ashkenazi countered. “It’s not her money. Her job is to review Israeli films, not to decide what gets made. She isn’t critical, she attacks.”

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