Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A Country, Traumatized: Samuel Maoz's Foxtrot

Lior Ashkenazi in Foxtrot. (Photo: TIFF)

Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev’s recent attack on Samuel Maoz’s movie Foxtrot, on the grounds that it’s a slur on the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), is both misguided – only a very narrow reading of the film could come to that conclusion – and ominous in that it suggests that future government-funded movies may now be the possible victim of pre-censorship, if Regev decides to vet future projects on what she thinks they should or shouldn’t do. (She’s floated the idea of ‘loyalty’ oaths for artists.) Fortunately, she doesn’t seem to have put a dent in the success of Foxtrot, which cleaned up at the Ophirs (Israel’s Oscars) and is now wending its way through North America to almost entirely positive reviews. The movie deserves them, too, as it’s quite an impressive achievement.

Foxtrot, which has three distinct sections and a coda, begins with the parents of Jonathan Feldman being informed that their son, who is doing his Israeli military service, has died – "fallen" is the parlance used to describe his death  and follows them as they react to this tragic news. Dafna (Sarah Adler) is so distraught she is given medication to put her to sleep. But Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) reacts with deep anger, insisting that no one from the family, other than daughter Alma (Shira Haas) or any the couple’s friends, be informed of Jonathan’s death. At first Michael’s reaction seems relatively normal but soon the realization creeps in that there is something off about him and his feelings regarding what he has just been told about his son. It doesn’t help that the military authorities sent to inform the Feldmans about their son’s death won’t divulge where or how he died nor will they release the body to the family, insisting that he be buried in a closed coffin. Maoz utilizes this scenario to showcase how impersonal the well-meaning process of taking care of the family can be – Michael is told to take pills on the hour to calm him down as if he were just an ordinary patient and not a bereaved father who’s just been given unexpected and shocking news – and also how ineffectual those folk, such as the hapless Rabbi sent to plan the details of Jonathan’s funeral, actually are. The film is more than a little cynical about the entire process, from the mandatory use of the word "fallen," which is the only way soldiers who have died in service are allowed to be described in obituary notices, to the ritual playing of "Hatikvah," Israel’s national anthem, at the military funeral. But slowly Michael begins to be revealed as the tragic symbol of an Israeli collective suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, both specifically in the case of a man still traumatized from his own military experiences, and in the country as a whole, which is expected to normalize the death of their children in the perpetual pressure cooker that is Israeli life and existence. Even the Holocaust and its own memories can be tarnished by the next generation – Michael’s -- which also has not come to terms with that immense tragedy suffered by the Jewish people, PTSD writ even larger. Not surprisingly, Foxtrot has some of the claustrophobic, uneasy feel of Maoz’s fine feature 2009 film debut Lebanon, which took place entirely within the confines of and through the POV of the inhabitants of an Israeli tank.

The movie adds a sense of foreboding when it takes a slightly surrealistic turn in the movie’s second part, which goes back in time to Jonathan’s mission, Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray) being one of a four-man unit guarding a desolate checkpoint somewhere in Israel. It’s a tedious job, reminiscent of the stultifying depiction of the bored female soldiers on an isolated military base in Talya Lavie’s sardonic Zero Motivation (2014) – the men routinely have to raise the checkpoint to let a camel makes its daily sojourn – and only briefly enlivened by the relatively few Arabs who drive up to cross over. They’re all treated as potential threats, though the soldiers seem to especially delight in checking online whether the female passengers are the ones who need to be cleared of terrorist connections. But when something goes terribly wrong – I won’t spoil it – you begin to glean how Jonathan and his pals, too, are repeating their parents' history, subject to errors and actions that will haunt them forever after.

Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray, right) with his unit in Foxtrot. (Photo: TIFF)

The linkage between past and present is further cemented in part three of Foxtrot, whose title refers to the dance where you end up where you began – a metaphor for Israel, of course. Now it's six months after the events of the opening scene and the family has been torn further asunder by what has happened because of a twist of fate that adds irony to tragedy, embodied in the movie’s final, haunting shot.

It’s no surprise that Lior Ashkenazi is so good in the role of the family patriarch. But though I’ve always considered him to be one of Israel’s finest actors, starring, not incidentally, in some of her finest films (Late Marriage in 2001 and Walk on Water in 2004), I still wasn’t prepared for how riveting he is in this movie, especially as he is pretty much the full focus of Foxtrot’s first part. It’s a brave warts-and-all performance, painful in its anger and intensity and, especially, cruelty.

He is also a sharp contrast to the other calmer characters in the movie – all superbly acted – who range from Michael’s caring wife to his sensitive artistic son Jonathan, both of whom understand what Michael is really made of: that he’s a tragic man who disguises his weaknesses with bluster and (perceived) toughness and thus can’t move out of the box (a.k.a. the "foxtrot") he has put himself in. That’s not necessarily an analogy for Israel but an understandable manifestation of an individual who lives in a country where military service is mandatory for most citizens and who thus experiences things most members of other democratic societies do not. It would be surprising, in fact, if Michael wasn’t scarred in some way by his army sojourn. Similarly, though the IDF does something unconscionable in Foxtrot – the scene Israel’s Culture Minister has seized upon to unfairly lambaste the film as a whole 
 the reasons leading up to that action make perfect sense and are cast in an understanding, humane light while the film does not condone what happened.

While the middle of the movie does sag a bit – the wry bits about the army compound tilting further on its axis each day is really an obvious metaphor – the checkpoint scenes still resonate as an example of the day-to-day, mundane, boring nature of a soldier’s life, all the more so when compared to the horrifying but perhaps inevitable aftermath that is soon to come. I also have to point out that one key plot twist, concerning the news about Jonathan’s death, is borrowed from another Israeli film, Nina’s Tragedies (2003), although Foxtrot utilizes it for much stronger, more lasting,  and more important effect.

Foxtrot, minor flaws and all, ultimately is one of the most emotionally potent films I’ve ever seen, inside or outside Israel. But while it’s a tribute to that country’s openness and questioning nature, as so many Israeli films are, it’s also a sobering, disturbing reminder of divisions in Israel, as in America, that are widening and becoming much more toxic. Consider the reaction when Assi Dayan’s incendiary (and quite brilliant) Life According to Agfa came out in 1992. Despite an ending where an IDF troupe, kicked out of a trendy Tel Aviv bar, comes back and (to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s "Who By Fire"), massacres all its inhabitants, the movie not only won the Best Picture Ophir 
 as Foxtrot did  but was seen by both the right and left ends of the political spectrum in the cinemas and talked about seriously and respectfully as a valuable statement by a filmmaker who was concerned with the direction his country was possibly heading. (The movie begins with a caption indicating it is taking place “a year from now.” Afga was also likely viewed in North America, where Jewish discussions on Israel are a little more timid, as a risk for distribution so it never played outside the festival circuit.) Now, though Assi Dayan’s vision has not come true, and hopefully never will, 25 years later Foxtrot, a movie that is not nearly as angry or in-your-face in its condemnation of Israeli society as Life According to Agfa was but sadder and more disquieting, is pilloried by the government. Regev even gloated that it was not one of the five nominees for the Foreign Language Oscar and its cast and crew, in the ensuing heat of Regev’s vicious attacks, were threatened with their lives. I shouldn’t have to point out that its writer-director Samuel Maoz cares about his country, as any serious Israeli filmmaker does, or why would he continue to live and work there? But since some of the local reaction to the movie has been so adverse, I can only direct you to Foxtrot as something you must see. It personifies Israel, at 70 years of age, at its cultural, courageous best and, the noxious likes of Miri Regev notwithstanding, effectively functions as a continuing harbinger of a vital and relevant Israeli cinema.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches film at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute and just finished teaching a course at the University of Toronto's Continuing Education program entitled Sight & Sound: What Makes a Movie Great?, which will he will also teach, beginning in Feb. 2019.

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