There are not many comedies set in the army. There are even fewer war-related films told from the female perspective. So, to see a comedy told from the viewpoint of three women serving in the Israeli Army is not just unexpected, but a welcome delight.
Zero Motivation, which opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto Dec. 12 before expanding across Canada in 2015, strays from the soldiers and focuses on the secretaries. The young female administrators in the film are unenthused to serve coffee and shred paperwork during their two years of mandatory service.
The comedy is divided into three stories. The first focuses on wisecracking best friends Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and Daffi (Nelly Tagar). Neither is very happy with working as a low-level secretary at an artillery base in the desert.
As the soldiers dodge mines in the battlefield, Zohar and Daffi compete in Minesweeper tournaments on their office computers. Their uptight senior officer, Rama (Shani Klein), has to keep the conflicts to a minimum so that she can get a promotion. However, her whining staffers are sometimes too much to bear.
Bored of her life in conscripted monotony, Daffi wants to be transferred to a post in Tel Aviv. Rama doesn’t understand why Daffi will not just follow the orders she gets. “You’re a spoiled brat with a made-up job,” Rama shouts at her, referring to Daffi’s office title as “paper and shredding NGO.”
The film is the feature debut for Israeli writer/director Talya Lavie, who has earned comparisons to Lena Dunham. Lavie also based some of Zero Motivation on her own experiences during her mandatory stint working for the Israeli military.
However, even though the film focuses on the agony and apathy of young women, the deadpan humour and workplace shenanigans is more akin to The Office than Girls.
Like Dunham’s HBO series, though, it may be hard for older audiences to sympathize with the entitled female unit. Younger adults will likely find the film’s blend of slapstick humour and dark themes about male-female relations refreshing.
Lavie does not insert a great deal of commentary about the current tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. However, even though Zero Motivation avoids getting political, there are various dark themes to offset the office buffoonery.
Sexual assault, suicide and the supremacy of men in high-ranking military positions are all present within the 101-minute film. By framing the story through a female lens, the writer/director gives these topics the weight they deserve.
The performances are all top-notch, especially from Ivgy, who won an Ophir (Israeli film award) honour for best actress.
Ivgy’s Zohar may be lazy and sarcastic, but the actor reveals vulnerability in the film’s second chapter, which focuses on her character’s mission to lose her virginity. A few glimpses in the mirror is all it takes to give us the same feelings of pressure and self-doubt as Zohar.
Many of the characters are oblivious to army protocol. There are a couple of moments that become far-fetched due to what the girls are allowed to get away with. After some seriously damaging acts, a few of the women get quite a lenient punishment.
Meanwhile, in one scene, a character fires a rifle at a male soldier staying in the base, but there are no repercussions or even alarms. Not a single military staff member runs out to deal with the incident.
However, even with some irreverent jokes, the film never comes off as mean-spirited toward its characters. Lavie makes us recognize the humanity, as well as the motivations behind Zohar and Daffi’s rule breaking.
Some may wonder why Lavie chose to spend time with women who give so little of service to the country, instead of focusing on the soldiers fighting on behalf of Israel.
But the troops are not her focus. Instead, she uses the female characters to focus on several military issues, like assault and gender discrimination, that do not often appear in war films.
Zero Motivation, presented in Hebrew with English subtitles, is a wry and witty look at war. It is also a fine introduction to one of the smartest and most original writer/directors to come out of Israel in some time.