A subversive movie

Zero Motivation mocks the IDF through the eyes of the immensely non-heroic female soldiers in the secretarial service.

Daffi, a bored and disgruntled IDF clerk, played by Nelly Tagar, contemplates putting an end to it all with a stapler in ‘Zero Motivation (photo credit: YARON SHCARF)
Daffi, a bored and disgruntled IDF clerk, played by Nelly Tagar, contemplates putting an end to it all with a stapler in ‘Zero Motivation
(photo credit: YARON SHCARF)
 AT A certain stage of my compulsory military service serving as a clerk to the commander of a large air force base – a prestigious post I earned merely for being seen by the administration officer reading a book in English, though he didn’t notice that the paperback was Joseph Heller’s anti-war novel “Catch 22” – I was sent for a weeklong stint of guard duty at the rear gate of the compound somewhere in the south.
Having no proper training in handling firearms or in identifying potential assailants, I figured that for the sake of all parties involved, I’d better separate the rifle from its magazine – hiding the latter at the guards’ shack. Having me carry around a loaded semi-automatic¸ I explained to the officer in charge, would place innocent passersby at risk of an accidental discharge of a bullet. Whereas in the case of an attack on the camp, I continued, my chances of defending it were, in any event, much better using the gun as a bat.
That was the last time I was sent to do guard duty and, to this very day, I am convinced, knowing my own clumsiness, that numerous casualties were spared.
Many years have passed since my soldiering years. Yet, watching this summer’s cinematic hit “Zero Motivation,” I was relieved to find that a similar episode triggers – literally – a few of the wittiest and most powerful scenes in the film.
In the movie, which tells the story of a group of female IDF soldiers who serve as secretaries in an administrative office of an armored-corps base in the southern desert, the protagonists are required to do rounds as sentries, ordered by their commanders to adjust to a set of dangerously idiotic rules of engagement. As with other components in the movie, this unfolds into a chain of events that eventually touch deep, troubling aspects of gender relations and divisions of power within the army. And, if you will, in general society just as well. This includes a failed rape attempt, an emotional collapse, and a wonderfully delicate comment on Israel’s predilection for “pinkwashing” the IDF’s human rights record.
“Zero Motivation” does not lack effective scenes or sharp, skillfully written episodes.
Its director and screenwriter Talya Lavie, 36, has thoroughly interweaved them into a smart, multi-layered dark comedy she has described in interviews to the Israeli press as “a war epic.” It is no surprise, therefore, that the film has garnered applause from critics in Israel and abroad. Or that it won both the Best Narrative Feature Award and the Nora Ephron Prize at the Tribeca Film Festival, and just recently scooped up 12 nominations for the Ophir Prize, Israel’s version of the Oscars.
More surprising is the fact that a film focusing on women soldiers, let alone one that observes the IDF through the eyes of the immensely non-heroic secretarial service, has become such a box-office success. In less than a couple of months – during which a real war took place – more than 200,000 Israelis saw the film in cinemas around the country.
“ZERO MOTIVATION” follows four female soldiers – three secretaries at the base’s personnel office, as well as their bureau commander, a young officer who, keen to rise into a military career, conveys an impressively high motivation but tragically lacks in social skills – the Hebrew title of the film translates into “Zero in Interpersonal Relationships.”
The four women’s talents, energies and aspirations are painfully wasted on serving hot beverages to the base’s male officers and on producing, sorting and grinding an unbelievable amount of redundant paperwork. Unappreciated, eternally drowning in dull clerical tasks and in just as unnecessary military errands, the women soldiers are pushed to the remote periphery of the military scale of importance or influence.
Unlike the army, Lavie’s movie refuses to define its protagonists according to their military roles. And, uncharacteristic of the lion’s share of cultural oeuvre of writing about women, it defies the tendencies to portray women via their sexuality, their motherhood or the men in their lives. Men are relevant, and sex is definitely on the itinerary, but “Zero Motivation’s” narratives are determined by the characters’ different worldviews, their dreams, their social background, and their abilities to cope with the demeaning environment in which they are expected to endure two years of their lives.
“The frustration, dreariness and humiliation of the female service in the IDF are used as fertile ground for an intelligent, original and scathing comedy,” Timeout Tel Aviv’s film critic Yael Shuv opined in her review of the film. “Who said,” she added sarcastically, “that feminists have no sense of humor?” Shuv tells The Jerusalem Report that, when the review was published, someone asked her how she knew the filmmaker was indeed a feminist. “There had been no such film in Israeli cinema,” Shuv says. “Films about the Israeli army have always been extremely macho, even when they aimed to explore the fractioning of the Israeli macho.
“Zero Motivation” is a feminist film without identifying itself as such.”
“We already had comedies about the absurdity in military service,” she notes, “but this is the first time that such a comedy is told from a feminine point of view.
Besides, “Zero Motivation” also pokes fun at the myth of women’s service in the IDF and deflates the inflated image of a full and respected partnership in the prestigious act of the Zionist fulfillment.”
In an essay for this summer’s issue of the Tel Aviv Cinémathèque’s periodical, Shuv analyzed the image of the female soldier in Israeli cinema since its initial depiction in “Truce,” a 1950 feature that was the first film to be shot in the state of Israel.
“In Israeli cinema”, Shuv wrote, “army and femininity are mutually contradictory terms.” The characteristic cinematic image of the Israeli woman soldier, she specified, “shows her in partial uniform, reminiscent of the latest fashions rather than of military appearance, peeping through the male officer’s door or peeping from his bed. The door lintel frames her as if she were a picture, a static aesthetic object of no driving force in the narrative.”
The apparent perception of Israel as an egalitarian society and of the IDF – where mandatory service applies to both men and women – as an agent of this egalitarian vision is finally shattered in “Zero Motivation,” Shuv suggested.
The plot takes place in 2003. Yet, despite the monstrous sizes of the telephones and computers at the protagonists’ office, the film’s vibe is as contemporary as it gets.
WOMEN’S STATUS in the IDF has indeed gone a long way since 1994, an era in which aeronautics student Alice Miller had to petition to the Supreme Court to have the Israel Air Force open its pilot course to women. There is a vast change from the 1970s when 70 percent of the women drafted to the IDF were channeled into clerical posts. And today, notes Dr. Orna Sasson- Levy, a lecturer in sociology and gender studies at Bar-Ilan University, women serve in combat and semi-combat roles, in all training positions and in on-field functions, such as rescue and extrication.
Nevertheless, she explains to The Report, even with this progress, army roles allocated to women are still at what is considered in Israeli society as the outer circles of military service.
The proportion of women among the IDF’s combat troops, remarks Sasson- Levy, is only four percent. “There is a list of about 16-20 combat or semi-combat roles open to women today,” she says.
“But these roles are not at the core of the combat forces. Indeed, in Caracal, a lightinfantry battalion deployed at the borders of countries with which Israel has peace treaties (though these are not always peaceful borders), women compose 70 percent of the troops. But, otherwise, women are not drafted to the top-level infantry and armored units.”
A very recent decision to recruit women to the Lavi battalion, which was founded in 2001 to tackle terror in the West Bank, was accepted with much resentment by the male soldiers, she says. “They complained that as soon as the men-women ratio among Lavi troops will have reached 50 percent women, the battalion will not be sent anymore to combat missions and won’t be deployed in the territories.”
When asked if their army service endows female veterans with the same credit granted to their male comrades by the mainstream, Sasson-Levy replies that although the answer is not a categorical “no,” it is still a minority of female soldiers who enjoy the merits of such social recognition.
“From personal experience,” she says, “I can tell you that my daughter, who served in an intelligence unit, found out when she was released that the high-tech industry was awaiting her and the other women who served with her. But although this is true for intelligence units, I don’t think that the army service works that well for women who served in other roles. And weirdly enough, hardly any social dividends are being bestowed on women who served in combat roles. Their self-confidence is evidently boosted following their service, but then, in order to integrate back into civilian society, they often tend to almost hide their past as combat soldiers.”
Sasson-Levy, who authored the book “Identities in Uniform: Masculinities and Femininities in the Israeli Military” also published in 2007 in the Gender and Society Journal research about women in clerical roles in the IDF. The article, titled “Contradictory Consequences of Mandatory Conscription: The Case of Women Secretaries in the Israeli Military,” described a reality quite akin to the cinematic picture so eloquently presented in “Zero Motivation.”
At the time, Sasson-Levy noted that about 20 percent of the women serving in the army were allocated secretarial jobs. Following her research, a special committee was set up and some re-reorganization was implemented. “Today,” she says, “the IDF states that just 14 percent of women are serving as secretaries. But they are only counting the soldiers whose working title includes that term. There are many other jobs that are just as secretarial in their nature, though not in their definition.”
Lavie’s decision to portray army service throughout the eyes of these secretaries, Sasson-Levy concludes, makes it a film about gender relations, as well as a subversive movie. “It mocks the army,” she says.
That a film which so profoundly criticizes the IDF is so popular – all the more so at a time when any remark on the IDF’s conduct in Gaza is flagged as illegitimate or even treacherous – is indeed surprising, she agrees. But being a comedy, Sasson-Levy suggests that “the subversive message is wrapped in a sugary coating, which may be one of the explanations for its overwhelming success.”