Playing at JIFF.
An army story with a difference: here, at a remote desert army base in southern Israel, the female clerical staff is at the centre of the action. Zero Motivation tells the stories of three soldiers engaged in battles armed with staple guns, paper shredders and strongly worded letters against the absurdity of the bureaucracy that governs their lives. After growing up on macho, male-dominated films about war and heroism, first-time feature director Talia Lavie extends the same attention to the women who do compulsory military service in offices all over the country. A hilarious, poignant and crowd-pleasing black comedy, Zero Motivation will resonate with anyone who has ever done menial, seemingly pointless work, while trying to maintain their love life, sense of dignity and sanity.
There’s been a strong sense of political motivation to some of the more prominent Israeli films of late, particularly the works of Gitai or Fox. Despite behind set almost entirely within the confines of a remote military base, Zero Motivation, the debut feature from writer-director Talya Lavie, remains decidedly unpolitical. The pettiness that arises from the boredom amidst the group of young female vaguely recalls the desperation for combat in Sam Mendes’ fantastic Jarhead. But perhaps a more apt comparison would be to Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. In Altman’s film, the Korean War was secondary to Hawkeye, Trapper and Dukes’ hijinks, despite the horror of combat looming quietly in the background. Just like the ensemble in M*A*S*H, almost every character in Zero Motivation expresses a desire to escape their situation – not out of fear of combat but instead out of the issues that pertain to themselves
The two central figures in the film are Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and and Daffi (Nelly Tagar), members of the base’s haphazard administration team. Daffi is desperate to be transferred to Tel Aviv, and moans about her situation constantly, despite being allowed an enormous amount of slack by her commanding officer. Zohar is a regular teen, rebellious in nature and horrified that she could be the only virgin in the base. The charm of Zero Motivation is its suggestion of just how out of place these two ordinary women are in this militaristic environment. The characters around them have adapted and managed to normalise their situation to a degree, but the fact that Zohar and Daffi haven’t doesn’t diminish their frustration.
There’s a gentle, sometimes absurd, humour that punctuates Zero Motivation, Lavie allowing the drudgery of military administration work to unfold with buoyant ease. What little comment the filmmakers do make on the events is marked by ambiguity. One character expresses a need for a ‘normal life’, although Lavie suggests that she doesn’t know what a normal life could be. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essentially only present in the film as a result of its notable absence. With one very unremarkable exception, the only weapons fired during Zero Motivation are staple guns during an office skirmish.
Even when Zero Motivation veers into darker territory, such as misogyny and suicide, Lavie manages to keep the tone light. There’s an interesting lack of depth to the film, which is perhaps not such a bad thing. Not every film set within the constraints of war need make comment on the bloodshed, and Zero Motivation may be a stronger film for it’s almost utter disinterest in the conflict. “You realize we’re here to serve the system, right?”, one woman cries in exasperation to Daffi. Her cries fall on deaf ears. Daffi isn’t interested in the system. She just wants to live in Tel Aviv.