Perseverance and Zero Motivation

Talya Lavie’s debut film, which won top award at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a black comedy about paper-pushing Israeli female soldiers.

Yaron Scharf

NEW YORK – A young, gangly waitress who somehow manages to break almost every glass before she reaches the table suddenly stands in the center of the cafe and begins a speech. “Success does not come all of a sudden,” she says in a trembling voice. “It comes from effort, desire and perseverance.” This brief, surreal scene is at the center of Talya Lavie’s first short film, “Sliding Flora” (2003).

Like the movie’s anti-hero, Lavie, 35, is reaping the fruits of her efforts over the last years, when she worked on her first feature film, “Zero Motivation.”

Although Lavie proved that she has plenty of desire and perseverance, the impressive success of her debut feature film, about Israeli women soldiers stuck on their base, surprised her as well. “Zero Motivation” recently won the Nora Ephron Prize, the top award at the Tribeca Film Festival, and was acquired for commercial distribution in the United States and other countries.

In an interview Lavie gave in New York two days before “Zero Motivation” received its debut screening at the film festival last April, it appeared that Lavie was still in shock. “I made the film with the Israeli audience strongly in mind,” she says. “I took into account that there was a good chance that the film would not be distributed outside Israel, but that did not scare me. My producers, romantics at heart, gave me full artistic freedom. We are all motivated by love for the cinema.”

One can pick up Lavie’s unique voice in the short films that she directed as a student at the Sam Spiegel School of Film and Television, including “Sliding Flora” and “The Substitute,” her graduation project, which won several international awards, including the Audience Award at the Berlin Film Festival. “The Substitute,” starring Dana Ivgy, is a kind of first draft for “Zero Motivation.” In 2011, after completing her studies, Lavie received a film development grant from the Sundance Institute and the Mahindra Global Filmmaking Award for the screenplay of “Zero Motivation.”

“In the screenwriters’ lab at Sundance I worked with American actresses, and that was a very interesting experience because my English is not good,” she says. “In writing the script, I dealt a lot with dialogue and speech and very specific slang of each of the characters. I don’t have those crutches in English – all I have is drama.”

Both “The Substitute” and “Zero Motivation” focus on female characters who are almost completely unrepresented in Israeli cinema – women non-combat soldiers in the regular army. What is the source of your interest in these characters?

“As a little girl I saw all the big army films, and also American films such as ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket.’ I also saw Israeli army films, which were filled with heroism and machismo. I thought it could be funny to do an army film of epic proportions and breadth that matched the warlike style but was also a comedy, from the perspective of the women clerks serving on the home front. I wanted to make a connection between these two worlds. When I started doing research, I realized that it was possible to touch on a much bigger problem in the army, which might be called ‘the problem of the women clerks.’ The fact that the army has mandatory service for both men and women makes it look like an egalitarian and progressive institution, but within that system are a huge number of women whose job is mostly to be a status symbol. The hidden unemployment is not so hidden. There are offices where several women do the work of one person. It’s important for me to say that the film is not autobiographical. I didn’t write the film from a traumatic place, but from an idea that was funny to me. From a dramatic standpoint, the army served me very well because its rules are very clear, so the obstacles it poses to the characters are quite obvious.”

Army service with no enemy

The result is a black comedy that impressively combines dramatic subjects such as suicidal thoughts and sexual violence with countless key sentences and dialogues that will certainly help to turn the film into the first Israeli cult movie that portrays regular army service from a feminine perspective.

The film, which is made up of three short stories that take place on the Shizafon army base in 2004, focuses on Zohar (played by Ivgy), a frustrated clerk of the Adjutant Corps, and Daffi (Nelly Tagar), the “NCO in charge of paper-shredding,” whose greatest dream is to transfer from Shizafon to the Kirya in Tel Aviv. Zohar and Daffi spend most of their time surpassing their high scores in video games or obsessive shredding of papers. At the same time, their nemesis, a commanding officer named Rama (played by Shani Klein), declares an all-out war on the cynical, rebellious Zohar and tries to break her spirit, and the hostile relationship between them provides the funniest scenes in the film.

In almost every scene, somebody takes the trouble to remind the two clerks that “our soldiers are dying in the field so that you can waste time.” But the feeling of war, enmity and real existential threat are blurred in favor of the description of the experience of hopelessness at Shizafon, the remote army base in the south. Even the scene in which the soldiers are supposed to practice the “procedure for arresting suspects” before their rotation on guard duty very quickly becomes an amusing fight between Zohar and her commanding officers.

When Lavie is asked whether her choice to document the army from the perspective of the non-combat women soldiers is a kind of rebellion against the heroic myth portrayed in Israeli war films, she answers in the affirmative. “I really like the Israeli films ‘Halfon Hill Doesn’t Answer’ and ‘The Troupe,’ which I’ve seen over and over again. But in most of the army films, the men are at the center.”

The enemy is an abstract entity in the world you created. Nobody mentions words such as “occupation,” “Palestinians” or “territories.” Why did you choose not to make any direct mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

“I wanted to tell the truth, and to convey the feeling that as part of military service, there is always something bigger than we are. There is always some war going on outside that overshadows our personal experience or needs. That is the reality for these young women. They are not at the front, so for them, the feeling of the enemy is a vague one.”

Part of the new wave of women in Israeli cinema

When Lavie is asked why she chose to combine elements of comedy and drama, such as sexual assault, in her film, she answers: “I’m attracted to films that have joie de vivre even if the plot is depressing and the characters are bleak. The toughest thing about working on the screenplay was keeping the right balance between humor and gravity, between laughter and sadness. It was like walking a tightrope at the circus. It’s very hard to get to the other end without falling to one side or the other. For me, humor is a tool for releasing sadness. It’s a therapeutic tool for the characters and the audience as well. It is the greatest comfort that human beings can offer one another.”

There are suicidal characters in both “The Substitute” and “Zero Motivation.” Where does your interest in that topic come from?

“When I did the research for the film, I encountered quite a few stories of women soldiers who had committed suicide during their army service. I wrote about things that I connect to personally. I didn’t want to write a didactic film or one that was motivated by a certain agenda. I wanted those subjects to be in the background. It’s one of the things people don’t talk about. I didn’t have a specific agenda, but there is definitely content that interests me and that I wanted to insert into the film, on condition that it did not overshadow the story. As I see it, the major violence in the film is verbal violence, particularly the dynamic between the women. In that sense, the office is a microcosm of Israeli society, and all the unspoken tension trickles in through the walls.”

Lavie says she sees herself as part of the new wave of women in Israeli cinema. “Next year a record number of Israeli films by women directors will be coming to the screens, and that’s very encouraging. I’m proud to be part of this wave, which is typified mainly by mutual responsibility. There is real, authentic support among the filmmakers of my generation, which comes from the understanding that women do not have to fill the ‘woman’s place’ and feel that they’re there at one another’s expense, but encourage and support each other, because this growth is good for all of them. The goal is to stop being a phenomenon and turn equality in every field into something that is taken for granted.”

Lavie is working on her next feature film, “The Current Love of My Life,” based on a short story by Sholem Aleichem. She is also working on a series for the Hot cable television company.

When she is asked whether the success of “Zero Motivation” is a turning point in her career, she says no. “For me, the only way to keep up the flow of work in this field is to cast your bread upon the water – or, in this case, lots of little rolls. I’m still casting the rolls.”

Yaniv Edri
AP
Yaron Scharf