Interview'It's a struggle for freedom of speech and expression'

Samuel Maoz choreographs Israel’s cycle of trauma in ‘Foxtrot’

Ahead of two TOI Presents events, a conversation with the director behind the prize-winning film that’s set to compete at the Academy Awards

Samuel Maoz, the director of 'Foxtrot,' the film that swept the 2017 Ophir Awards, here at the Venice Film Festival ((AFP PHOTO / Tiziana FABI)
Samuel Maoz, the director of 'Foxtrot,' the film that swept the 2017 Ophir Awards, here at the Venice Film Festival ((AFP PHOTO / Tiziana FABI)

LONDON — Writer and director Samuel Maoz’s latest film “Foxtrot” is an unflinching, multi-layered tale of parental grief, trauma and loss.

Told in a distinctive three-act structure, each section is different in style and tone. In the first part, middle class couple Michael and Dafna Feldman, are informed that their soldier son, Yonatan, has fallen in the line of duty. The second act is based at an unnamed, remote Israeli roadblock and the last section returns to the family’s Tel Aviv apartment.

Foxtrot won the Silver Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival. It also received eight Ophir awards and will be Israel’s Foreign Language submission to the 2018 Academy Awards.

The film has been widely acclaimed but it has also provoked controversy and debate about contemporary Israeli reality. Culture Minster Miri Regev, who allegedly has not seen the film, condemned it as a work of treachery, calling for the state to end funding for films that can be used as “a weapon of propaganda for our enemies.”

A screen capture from Samuel Maoz’s film ‘Foxtrot.’ (Courtesy)

Maoz is no stranger to controversy. His previous film, “Lebanon” (2009), which was based on personal experience, is an intimate and claustrophobic portrait of a group of Israeli soldiers operating a tank in hostile territory during the 1982 war in Lebanon.

The Times of Israel spoke to Samuel Maoz prior to the UK premiere of “Foxtrot” at the BFI London Film Festival earlier this week.

I understand there is a personal aspect to Foxtrot’s premise.

It was a short story that happened to me a long time ago.

When my eldest daughter went to school, she never woke up on time and in order not to be late she would ask me to call a taxi for her. This started to cost us quite a bit of money and one morning I got mad and told her to take the bus like everyone else, and if she was late, maybe she would learn the hard way and [eventually] wake up on time.

Half an hour after she left I heard on the radio that someone had blown themselves up on the number 5 bus, her bus route, and dozens of people were killed. I tried to call her but the cellular operator had collapsed due to the unexpected [demand]. A short time later, she came home. She’d been late for the bus that had exploded — she’d seen it in the station, had started to run for it but it left and so she got on the next one.

I experienced the worst hour of my life. Worse than the entire Lebanon War. I felt like I’d sent my daughter to die.

I asked myself what could I learn from this experience because, after all, I did something that seemed to be right and logical and suddenly — chaos. But I realized that I couldn’t learn anything.

I wanted to explore, or maybe to deal with, the things we forget we control and the things that are beyond our control.

Are there aspects of Michael’s character (the father and main protagonist) that are based on yourself?

There’s a part of me in all of the characters.

Michael is a post-traumatic man and, usually, the common image of the post-traumatic man is a cliché — one who has nightmares, is lonely and does not communicate. Michael, like many of his generation, is a case of repression and denial.

He’ll do everything to prove that he is all right. He’ll build a successful business, raise a family, surround himself with luxuries and have an expensive apartment. There’s a desperate attempt to hide the secret. Outside, everything seems to be fine but deep inside, his soul is grieving and when he has nowhere to [take out his feelings], he hits the dog.

In Israeli society there are many like Michael because Michael’s generation — my generation — is the second generation after the Holocaust. We couldn’t complain [about anything] to our parents and our teachers, who were actually not very stable.

When I went to school, for example, and got say, seven in arithmetic, my mother would say, “For this I survived the Holocaust? For a seven in math?”

How did that make you feel? How did you manage that tremendous pressure?

When we came back from war with two hands and two legs, etc., [it was made clear] that complaining was unacceptable. [We were told to] be a man, overcome it. We had to repress [our emotions]. So we have become an additional generation of victims — the endless traumatic circle. Like the foxtrot [whose dance steps always come back to the same place].

Lior Ashkenazi plays Michael Feldman in ‘Foxtrot.’ (Courtesy)

Why did you decide to structure the film like a Greek tragedy?

I wanted to build it as a Greek tragedy in which the hero creates his own punishment, fights anyone who tries to save him and is obviously unaware of the outcome that his actions will bring about.

Fate, from my point of view, is the spine of the film. The dirty nature of fate and the attempt to understand it — to clean it — is what’s interesting to me.

The movie is a philosophical puzzle. It tries to correct the very concept of fate.

Perhaps the conclusion of the film is that fate cannot be changed, not because it’s divine but because of the nature of Israeli men and women who shape the collective — a collective that is stuck in trauma.

You offer no answers to coming out of this trauma, as you see it.

I think that little steps will save us from the loop of the foxtrot. It must be done by the leadership but they do the opposite and press on the trauma with [phrases] that have nothing to do with reality or logic. ‘We are in existential danger’ is the mother of all slogans. When they say we are a technological superpower, we have the strongest army or [according to foreign sources] we have nuclear weapons — so of course we’re in existential danger.

I was surprised to see how, before the film was released, our culture minister reacted [without seeing it], by pressing on those trauma buttons and actually confirmed the statement of the film. She does it with statements such as, “’Foxtrot’ is destroying the country,” as if the film were a nuclear weapon.

Lior Ashkenazi and Daphna Feldman in ‘Foxtrot.’ (Courtesy)

Regev has accused you of creating bad publicity for Israel. Some people may argue that the scene where (spoiler alert) Israeli soldiers kill innocent Palestinians in a moment of panic — an incident that then gets covered up by their commander — plays to anti-Israel sentiment.

There have been [numerous] articles and interviews, and none has said that. The job of the creative arts is not to reflect reality, it’s to do something that will create discussion.

Every day at least 10 people write to the papers that she’s [Regev] creating great PR for the film. Movie theaters and the public support the film so this struggle is no longer about the film itself. It’s a struggle for freedom of speech and expression.

Imagine if I did a film about a horrible crime in the police [force]. The next day, nobody would say anything about it. But to lose a soldier, a son, is obviously one of the worst things. Criticizing the army is very, very sensitive.

I was aware that the film would provoke a reaction but not to such a volume.

Yonatan Shiray, now an active combat soldier, in his foxtrotting scene in the award-winning film ‘Foxtrot’ (Courtesy ‘Foxtrot’)

The film is filled with metaphors and allegory. Can you comment, briefly, on the significance of the surreal second act?

You don’t have to be a genius to understand that this isn’t a specific roadblock and a specific reality — it’s quite understandable that this is one big allegory.

There is a political statement but more social, and more broad than specific. I don’t have an interest in a realistic film about a roadblock. The roadblock is a microcosm of a society — our society — an anxious society that has its perception distorted by a terrible, past trauma.

The last [part of the tragic] scene with the car is the climax of an unhealthy situation, a situation that is getting more and more acute and is one of repression and denial. We prefer to bury the truth rather than confront it and ask ourselves [challenging] questions.

Having made two award-winning features, do you feel under pressure for your next film to be such a success?

I never work from fear. The pressure is not to have any ideas! I’m just working from my heart, from my head and try to be loyal to my artistic ways.

What are you working on now?

A project about a mother and a daughter — women. No army.

The Times of Israel hosted two exclusive screenings of “Foxtrot,”
with English subtitles, on Sunday, October 15 at Lev Smadar, Jerusalem, and Monday, October 16 at Lev 1, Tel Aviv. There was a Q&A with Samuel Maoz after each screening.

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