Zero Motivation, the Israeli film about three female Israel Defense Forces soldiers, became Israel's highest-grossing film in 2014.
After four years of struggling to line up financing for her debut film, Talya Lavie readily acknowledges that her hopes and expectations for the reception of Zero Motivation were tempered.
“I didn’t know how it would be accepted anywhere,” says the 36-year-old Tel Aviv-based filmmaker. “I was just hoping it would be understood. It’s a simple thing, but it’s the biggest thing. When you make any kind of art, you want to be understood.”
Mission accomplished — and then some. Since its release last year, her film about three female Israel Defense Forces soldiers — two jobnikiot (Hebrew slang for non-combat soldiers) and their commanding officer in the administrative office of an IDF base — became 2014’s highest-grossing film of any kind in Israel. It was also nominated for 12 Ophir Awards — the Israeli Oscars — and won six, including Best Director and Best Screenplay, which Lavie also wrote. It also garnered Best Narrative Feature and the Nora Ephron Prize for distinctive woman writer or director at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.
Lavie’s success at Tribeca seems particularly bashert in light of the fact that she was invited to participate in the 2006 festival for her short film, The Substitute, which was essentially an early draft of Zero Motivation, right down to the casting of Dana Ivgy as one of the leads.
Ivgy, the daughter of acclaimed Israeli actor and director Moshe Ivgy, plays Zohar, a records clerk who is incredibly disciplined about only two things: beating the world record for the circa-2003 computer game Minesweeper (the movie is set during that time); and doing her best Hawkeye and Trapper John impression in being insubordinate to Rama, the commanding officer played by Shani Klein.
Rama’s whole life revolves around getting a promotion so she can stay in the IDF, but the career-killing combination of her lack of authoritarian presence and leadership abilities, and her soldiers’ lack of motivation to do anything more than the bare minimum in the office, dooms her trajectory.
This ennui and lethargy is personified in Daffi, played by Nelly Tagar. The “NCO of Paper and Shredding,” Daffi’s army life revolves around writing letters to be transferred out of the desert base to the urban oasis of Tel Aviv, and then sobbing in the camp psychologist’s office when she doesn’t get what she wants.
Part of what makes Zero Motivation feel so unforced is that Lavie knows from whence she directs: Like all Israeli citizens, she spent two years in the IDF, stationed on a base and performing duties much like the ones shown in the film. But she also visited installations across the country to talk to both current female soldiers as well as those who served a decade or so ago, around the time that the IDF was making the transition from paper to electronic filing.
“I was looking for girls who served in the army six years after my service,” she explains. “I wanted to hear all of their little, authentic details and stories.”
The decision to focus on the daily grind of non-combat military life ultimately proved to be the film’s biggest draw, she says. Her pitch-perfect depiction of this aspect of the IDF resonated across generations.
“The amazing thing is not that not much has changed, but that Israelis older than 70 told me that it was the same for them as when I was there. I guess it’s something about the vibe and the atmosphere, not which computer or cell phone is being used. It’s about the human dynamic.”
Although the film’s success in Israel can be traced in part to the universality and relevance of its subject matter, the same cannot be said for its appeal in the United States and other global markets where the film is going into wider release. Lavie believes that the film’s frank forays into cramped, group living quarters, sexual situations, an environment of in loco parentis and ever-shifting friendships make life in the IDF easy for American audiences to compare to their college years.
“People relate to the film from their college experience,” she says. “They’re living far from home, it’s the first time not living with their parents, they’re getting to know new people from across the country.” Absent the constant threat of combat, it seems that the two institutions do provide similar milieus for coming of age.
After screening the film at Tribeca and other venues across the United States, including at last year’s Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, she says she discovered another commonality — bureaucracy. “We all share frustration with bureaucracy,” she asserts, whether it’s dealing with the different levels of military hierarchy or steeling oneself for a day at the Municipal Services Building.
Lavie is bemused by another hierarchy, she says, that of the film industry worldwide, especially in Hollywood. She knows that the recent success enjoyed by female directors in Israel, highlighted by the dominance at the Ophirs of Zero Motivation and the film, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, directed by Ronit Eskalem and her brother, Shlomit Eskalem, is atypical.
“There is a very big gap between men and women” in the industry, she says, “and there shouldn’t be. When you go to film school, you see that almost 50 percent of the students are female. When I started to study, I didn’t know there was such a drop-off.”
Though her success makes her career choice seem like a foregone conclusion, Lavie says she was committed for a long time to another visual medium. “From a young age, I wanted to be a comics artist,” she says with still-evident enthusiasm. “Then, I wanted to be an animator. I always loved the combination of text and visuals. In filmmaking, I have found everything I wanted to do.”