Director of Israel's 'Foxtrot' Responds to His Critics in Government

Why Samuel Maoz would have happily done without the free PR that Miri Regev gave him by calling his film a ‘disgrace,’ and how Israelis can only benefit from this kind of work

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Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

Three weeks ago, when Samuel Maoz came to Ben Gurion Airport to fly to the Toronto Film Festival, the security guy recognized him. In addition to all the usual questions about if he packed his own bags, etc., he had one more question for him: “So, what’s the story with that scene?” And before Maoz could answer, he says, the security guy called someone else over and told her, “Come on, he’s going to tell us about that scene, the one that, because it’s the final scene in the movie, is supposed to express the director’s intentions and what he wants to say.”

That scene. Throughout the interview, Maoz refers to it as “the scene.” He smiles when he calls it that, but it’s not a completely happy smile. The “Foxtrot” director says he would have happily done without all the fuss stirred up in recent weeks by Culture Minister Miri Regev when she talked about the “final” scene that “shames the IDF’s reputation.” Regev did put “Foxtrot” in the headlines and ignited curiosity about it that will surely translate into ticket sales, but she also made the discussion about it exclusively political and superficial, completely ignoring the film’s artistic value.

'Foxtrot' director Samuel Maoz.Credit: Eyal Nevo

In September, “Foxtrot” won the prestigious Silver Lion grand jury prize at the Venice Film Festival and Israel’s Ophir Prize for Best Picture (along with seven more awards), automatically making it Israel’s candidate for the best foreign language film category at the Oscars. It is certainly one of the most impressive films Israeli cinema has produced in recent years.

However, what most Israelis know of the film from following the news is that it has this “shameful final scene.” That the scene in question isn’t actually at the end of the film was mentioned in some of the discussion but quickly forgotten; that this is a feature film and not a documentary, one that is meant to tell a story and not record reality, has also been largely overlooked. Meanwhile, the narrative put forward by someone who admits she hasn’t seen the film is what has taken over the headlines and become fixed in people’s minds.

Maoz tried to avoid responding to Regev and her claims, and did so only sparingly, but once “Foxtrot” hit the theaters (It has been playing in Israel since last week), he realized he had no choice. This interview took place two days before the Ophir awards. He arrived for the ceremony tired and worn out after a long night of work that was preceded by the return flight from Canada. For the past couple weeks, he’d been flying from one movie premier to another, from one awards ceremony to another, smiling for the cameras and chatting with the foreign press, and simultaneously doing all he could to promote the film among the members of the Israeli Academy of Film and Television to boost the movie’s chances of winning the Ophir and becoming Israel’s Oscar nominee. Maoz’s email and WhatsApp filled up with messages and congratulations that he didn’t have time to look at. The list of film promotion tasks kept getting longer, and his sleep deficit was now being compounded by nervous anticipation over the Ophir awards.

‘The scene’

This was the hurricane into which the culture minister hurled “the scene,” which created its own powerful aftereffect. All the talk about “the scene” – without giving away too much of the plot, we’ll just say it involves a cover-up of a killing of civilians committed in error by IDF troops – aroused a lot of curiosity, gave members of the Israeli film academy greater incentive to go see the film, created an aura of it being the latest victim to be crushed beneath the government’s predilection for censorship, and ultimately helped it snatch the coveted ticket to the Oscars. The Oscar bid was also helped, of course, by the film’s quality, its shelf of awards, its presence at three of the most important international film festivals (besides Venice and Toronto, it also played at Telluride), and the enthusiastic response from academy members. Still, there’s no denying that the culture minister did some superb PR work here. In fact, the film’s distributors decided to take advantage of the momentum and get the movie into theaters sooner.

The argument was that such incidents of killings and cover-ups don’t occur in the IDF, so a movie that says it does is therefore slanderous.

'Foxtrot' director Samuel Maoz.Credit: Eyal Nevo

Maoz: “And if I were right now to make a movie that depicts horrible crimes that occur within the Israel Police – not just one scene, but a whole movie? The next day, nobody would say, ‘He slandered Israel’s police.’ They’d say, ‘Okay, it’s just a movie, everything’s fine.’ Even the Americans who are patriots don’t think that Oliver Stone or Michael Cimino are traitors, even though they show pregnant women being shot up and babies being hurled against walls. They understand that it’s a movie, that it’s a work of art that’s not supposed to exactly reflect reality but to give it expression, and that’s a big difference. The role of a piece of art is not to mirror the reality, but to express it, to exaggerate it, to distort it or take it to an extreme – in order to convey a message, to stimulate, to open a discussion, to generate a dialogue.”

So criticism of the police would have been okay, but the IDF is off-limits?

“There’s a certain philosophical idea in the movie that ‘the scene’ corresponds with. I’m not just making a movie about a shipping container that gets ruined [One of the movie’s three sections is set on a remote military outpost, where a container being used as living quarters by the soldiers keeps tilting further on its side and sinking into the mud]. So it bugs me to hear people say, ‘The minister is boosting your ratings. If you win the Ophir award, you should thank her.’ It bugs me because I think the movie doesn’t need this sort of cheap PR. I feel it has enough virtues to get along fine on its own.”

How did you feel the first time you heard Regev’s remarks about the movie?

“It didn’t put me in a good mood. Not because I felt that from now on I’m going to be turned into the new [Yair] Garbuz, but I was upset by the way it makes the discussion so shallow. You sit down, you put a lot of thought into it, you put a lot of work into it. And you also say – ‘Fine, don’t agree with me if you don’t want to.’ Within this context that’s called culture, when you have a discussion about a piece of art, you hear and you listen. If she would have said – ‘I will go and see this movie,’ really, I would have said to her – Come sit and watch it with me and with an audience, and afterwards we’ll sit for an hour and talk about it. You’ll talk, the audience will talk, I’ll talk, but without TV cameras and without putting it on Facebook. Just a discussion about a movie. If that would’ve happened, I’m certain she would have discovered how much unifying power such a thing can have, just from the fact that a dialogue is created.”

Not in our stars, but in ourselves

How much can such attacks hurt the movie?

“They might do so temporarily, but I believe that in the end, the work wins. I once heard Noam Semel (director of the Cameri Theater) say that no one knows who the culture minister of Athens was, but everyone knows who Sophocles and Plato and Aristotle were. In other words – that’s what remains in the end.”

In an email sent a few days after the interview, Maoz asks to add a few things. In the interview he had made it clear that he didn’t want to provide an interpretation of his film, but now he said the situation had pushed him into a corner. “The film’s conclusion is that fate is unchangeable not because it’s decreed by the heavens, but due to the nature of the human being who shapes the nature of the collective that is stuck in the situation of the occupation,” he wrote.

“The tragedy is that the small step that will pull us out of the loop of the foxtrot has to be made by the leadership. And it’s doing the opposite. It’s pressing the trauma buttons with slogans that have no relation to reality, except for an emotional memory of the trauma, whose instinctive power is stronger than any logic or reality.

“’We’re a nation in existential danger’ is one of the slogans brandished by the Israeli leadership. When Bibi says – We’re a technological superpower and we have the strongest army in the world (and nuclear weapons, according to foreign sources) because we’re in existential danger, it’s like saying: I’m strong, healthy and handsome because I’m sick. I was surprised to see how, even before the movie came out, the minister was starting to press the hatred buttons and depicting the film’s message with slogans that bring the pathos to a new height: ‘Foxtrot is destroying the country,’ as if the film is an intercontinental ballistic missile that will wipe the people and the country off the face of the earth. Miri Regev’s version of existential danger. And worst of all is that they’re doing this consciously, not out of ideology but out of personal frustration and for political capital.”

One biographical detail that might have softened Miri Siboni Regev’s attacks on Maoz is that he was born in 1962 as Shmulik Aziz. He grew up in Herzliya, the son of a father of Turkish descent who worked as a bus driver, and a mother who came from Poland and worked as a medical secretary. He is the youngest of three siblings, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that his parents decided to Hebraicize their surname to Maoz. In the army, he was in the tank corps, and was sent directly into the inferno of the First Lebanon War. And as if that weren’t enough, six months after finishing his compulsory service, he was sent to reserve duty in Rafah, Gaza, where he was struck in the face by a rock that shattered his eye socket. At first it seemed the eye was lost for good, but eventually the doctors were able to save it.

Breaking through with ‘Lebanon’

After a few years of recovery, he began studying film at Beit Zvi. He was there in the next-to-last class, alongside Shahar Segal and Ron Kedmi, and when he finished his studies, he started working as an artistic designer (“Shuru”, “Hesed Nifla”). In time, he moved on to directing commercials, then some music videos, and did some video art. In 2000, he directed the well-received film “Total Eclipse” for the Arta channel. The movie straddled the line between video art and documentary filmmaking, interwove dance and drama, and also brought together Ohad Naharin and Evgenia Dodina. But he really broke onto the Israeli and international movie scene in 2009, with his film “Lebanon.”

“Lebanon” starring Oshri Cohen, Itay Tiran, Michael Moshonov and Yoav Donat, and was based on Maoz’s traumas and memories of the First Lebanon War, in which he served as a tank gunner. The film had its premiere at the prestigious Venice Film Festival. The judges were deeply impressed by the antiwar film that was boldly set almost entirely inside the cramped space of the tank, and awarded it the Golden Lion for best film, making Maoz the first Israeli to ever win one of the film world’s most important prizes. “Lebanon” went on to become one of the most notable Israeli films of the past decade, among those that helped to establish Israel’s status as a source of original, hard-hitting and high-quality filmmaking. At home, the film got a cooler reception. It was not a big commercial success, and unlike two other Lebanon films that were made around the same time and came out a little before it – “Beaufort” (2007) and “Waltz with Bashir” (2008) – it was not sent to represent Israel at the Oscars.

Now, with eight Ophirs to his credit, including the award for Best Picture, Maoz is finally ready to go for the Oscar with “Foxtrot.” Given the enthusiastic reception the film has gotten in America (and Europe), it doesn’t seem like mission impossible. Maoz says he was surprised by the reaction the film has received internationally. While he says he felt he put out a pretty good film and hoped it would get a warm reception, he says he was not at all expecting to end up with the grand jury prize at the Venice Film Festival (the festival’s second most important prize), to have it accepted to the very exclusive Telluride Film Festival, or the flood of highly positive reviews the film has received abroad.

“When we went to Toronto, a competition started, like an auction, between several American companies that wanted to distribute the film,” he says. The distribution rights were ultimately sold to Sony Classics, a real coup for any foreign movie that comes to America. “Then I was invited to attend a premiere with Annette Bening. I took Eitan (Mansuri, a co-producer of the film) with me, and I said to him – ‘How in the world did we get here? I feel like an oil stain floating in a pool of water. It doesn’t stick.’ And then someone says to me, ‘I’d like you to meet Warren (Beatty),’ and then he says to Warren, ‘This is Samuel, he made the movie ‘Foxtrot,’ did Annette tell you about it?’ And then I hear Beatty say, ‘I need Annette to tell me? The whole industry is talking about this film!’ And then it dawned on me: I’d been hoping and waiting for positive reviews, but I never dreamed it would get anywhere near this kind of level. The movie has already been sold almost all over the world, and Netflix and Amazon are interested and want to develop the next project with me. I’m happy, believe me, but I can’t help feeling like I’m out of my league. I still think like Shmulik who lives in a rented apartment on Allenby with loose floor tiles so it’s a little hard to take this all in.”

The culture minister declined to comment for this article.

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