Samuel Maoz’s “Foxtrot” is a searing vision of Israeli life overshadowed by military duty. Maoz’s poetic window into the grievances of Israeli society resonates, given the accolades it’s received since its fall festival premiere. A few weeks after snagging the Silver Lion grand jury prize from the Venice Film Festival, “Foxtrot” swept the Ophir Awards, Israel’s grandest celebration of cinema, automatically making it the country’s official Oscar submission into the foreign-language category.
“Foxtrot” faced a chillier reception in its native land. Immediately after its Venice win, Israeli minister of culture Miri Regev took to Facebook: “When an Israeli film wins an international prize, the heart fills with pride and my natural desire is to strengthen and encourage the Israeli success,” she wrote. “This rule has one exception — when the international embrace is the result of self-flagellation and cooperation with the anti-Israel narrative.”
Negev took issue with a scene in which several young soldiers, bored out of their minds at a desert roadblock, react to a quickly to a potential threat and destroy innocent lives. Undercutting her complaint: She hadn’t seen the movie. As local news media debated the backlash, suddenly an allegorical movie about Israeli life got a healthy PR boost. “I’m very happy, because people are talking about it,” the 55-year-old Maoz said, talking to IndieWire in New York. “It presents a mirror for this radical split in our society, beyond the film itself. It’s a struggle for freedom of expression.”
In fact, “Foxtrot” offers a disparate view of Israeli society, one that eschews overt critical perspectives for a window into the complex layers of the Israeli soul. Maoz’s second feature follows 2009’s acclaimed “Lebanon,” which took place exclusively within the confines of a tank. “Foxtrot” takes a series of unexpected turns as it explores the challenges facing multiple generations of a troubled family.
In its first act, stone-faced Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) must cope with news that his only son has been killed at a roadblock outside the city; the second act arrives with a jolting, darkly comic revelation that takes the movie in a whole new direction, shifting focus to the plight of the young soldiers before doubling back to the melancholy of Michael and his family. The movie veers between profound sadness, philosophical asides, and slapstick in a series of creative tangents, none greater than a prolonged sequence featuring a lonely soldier waltzing with his gun.
For Maoz, that scene provides the ultimate rejoinder to Regev’s complaints. “I needed to find a dance that you can do in many versions, but you will always ends at the same starting point,” he said. “This is the dance of our society. The leadership has to save us from the loop of the foxtrot dance, but they’re doing the opposite.”
Though he has only made two features, Maoz has decades in the Israeli film industry, first as a set designer and commercial director before turning to documentary projects. That led him back to screenwriting when the independently run Israel Film Fund revitalized opportunities for film production in the region a decade ago. As a result of this lengthy gestation period, his first two movies show both the eager formalism of a fresh directorial voice and the wisdom of a man who has been contemplating ideas for a lifetime.
Both “Lebanon,” which draws from Maoz’s experience in the 1982 Lebanon war, and “Foxtrot” reflect a cogent window into the challenges of a proud society in perpetual conflict with itself. “Usually, the common image of the Israel post-trauma man is a cliché,” Maoz said, apologizing for launching into an elaboration that would last several more minutes. He went on to explain that people from his generation, many of whom were raised by Holocaust survivors, faced extreme expectations from their parents that impacted them into adulthood. “They would shout, ‘Be a man! We survived the Holocaust!'” Maoz said, recalling his childhood in Tel Aviv. “So we couldn’t complain, we had to repress, and we became a second generation of traumatized victims.”
He funneled that phenomenon into Ashkenazi’s character, a man who attempts to maintain his composure while grappling with the guilt of encouraging his son to sign up for the military. “He’ll do anything to prove he’s all right,” Maoz said. “From the outside, everything seems to be fine, but deep inside, his soul is bleeding. There are many versions of him in my generation.”
Maoz paired this insight with the wrenching suspense of the first act as Michael faces uncertainty over his son’s fate, and later faces backlash for his reaction. For this aspect of the story, the filmmaker drew from an instance 20 years ago, when he forced his teenage daughter to take a bus to school after she slept too late. “She asked me to call a taxi and it cost quite a bit of money, so it seemed like bad education to me,” he said. “I told her to take a bus like everyone else. If she’s late, she’s late.” Some 20 minutes after she left, Maoz heard reports that that the line she took to school had been attacked by a terrorist bomb. He couldn’t get through to her cell phone, and only found out hours later that she had missed the bus and taken a later one.
“I thought, ‘What can I learn from this?’ I saw that I was doing something that seemed right and logical,” he said. “I wanted to deal with the gap between the things we control and those that are beyond them.”
Such a divide becomes the central concern of “Foxtrot,” which veers into absurdist territory as it fleshes out life at the roadblock. The soldiers waste their days playing video games and socializing in the the claustrophobic shipping container where they sleep, noticing with time that the floor has grown slanted. More camels pass through the barrier than cars. Dust clouds the frame.
They’re trapped by a duty they had no role in creating, but accept without question, even as a tragic confrontation with innocent Palestinians complicates their situation in the closing act. “It’s a microcosm of our apathetic and anxious society,” Maoz said. “For me, this was the climax of an unhealthy situation that gets more and more crooked. We prefer to bury the victims rather than asking ourselves penetrating questions.”
Regev’s blind criticism of “Foxtrot” arrived on cue to illustrate that point. After the movie won at Venice, the culture minister issued a second statement, calling the award “further proof that the state must not fund films that can be used as weapons of propaganda in the hands of our enemies.” Maoz said he thought to himself, “If you choose to see this narrow picture, it will be your choice. But I will do anything to force you to see the bigger picture.” Ashkenazi, one of Israel’s most revered performers, has spoken out against Regev’s critique. “A movie like ‘Foxtrot’ can create a real discussion between the parties — what should we do, what should we not do,” he told the Huffington Post. “I don’t know about changing the world, but certainly to talk about problems.”
As “Foxtrot” makes its way to the U.S. for an awards-qualifying run on December 8, it continues to gather acclaim and remains a significant contender in the foreign language Oscar race. (No Israeli film has ever won the prize.) But it might be the last time that Maoz has a shot. “I understood that to make a Hebrew-language film, even if it’s successful, it’s limited,” he said. “I want to get to more people.” As a result, he’s currently developing his first English-language feature. “I don’t want to find myself old and realize I missed the chance,” he said.
“I’ll tell you the truth,” said Maoz. “I’m not a hero. But I never want to avoid creating something out of fear.”