The dangerous dance of 'Foxtrot' critics

“Any up-and-coming director knows that if they make films that defame Israel there will be those in the world who will warmly accept them," says Israel's culture minister.

A SCENE from Samuel Maoz’s critically acclaimed ‘Foxtrot.’ (photo credit: GIORA BEJACH)
A SCENE from Samuel Maoz’s critically acclaimed ‘Foxtrot.’
(photo credit: GIORA BEJACH)
"Foxtrot” is not a Hebrew word and is barely used in English anymore, unless people are talking about Dancing with the Stars, but now that it’s the title of a movie that has ignited a huge controversy, it’s been in the news a great deal lately. That’s because a perfect storm of politics put Samuel (Shmulik) Maoz’s film Foxtrot – about a grieving family whose son, a soldier, is killed while serving in the army, and the lives of the soldiers on an isolated base – on a collision course with Miri Regev, the culture and sport minister. Throughout September, in a series of public appearances, she attacked the film, which she admitted she had not seen.
An art-house movie that has drawn rave reviews all over the world for its cinematic quality and moving story, Foxtrot would normally only have been seen by serious film buffs. The public here prefers Israeli comedies and Hollywood action movies. However, because of Regev’s attacks, Foxtrot is very much in the public eye, and has become a lightning rod for criticism against the movie industry, which Regev has long condemned as a bastion of leftist elitism.
The war of words escalated in the run-up to the Ophir Awards ceremony, the awards of the Israel Academy for Film and Television, in late September. As Amy Spiro reported for The Jerusalem Post, Regev said at a ceremony at the Cinema City complex in Glilot to celebrate Israeli Cinema Day on September 4, that the state would not fund films that “slander the name of Israel, its symbols, and its values… [Foxtrot] received state funding, and portrays soldiers as murderers and whitewashers of the truth.”
Filmmakers, she added, “can make films like this with their own money. Not with public funds, with our money, which includes that of the families of soldiers… I will not support those who defame IDF soldiers.”
The Culture and Sport Ministry gives money to privately run funding organizations, such as the Israel Film Fund, which contribute part of the budget of nearly every movie made in Israel.
Since Regev has not seen the movie, it’s impossible to know exactly why she has condemned it, but since I have seen it, I can guess that she was told about a scene in which the Israeli soldiers in the film, who are portrayed as the sweetest and most gentle people you could imagine, commit a shocking act of violence in which they kill people who pose no threat and this killing is covered up by the army brass.
When Foxtrot won the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize at the Venice International Film Festival on September 9, Regev said this only proved how worthless it was.
FOXTROT Trailer | TIFF 2017. (YouTube/TIFF Trailers)
This prize “shouldn’t excite anyone,” Regev said. “Any up-and-coming director knows that if they make films that defame Israel there will be those in the world who will warmly accept them.”
This is patently untrue, as many stridently political films have not been successful on the international circuit, while dramas not concerned with politics, such as Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit, Talya Lavie’s Zero Motivation and Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, have been very popular abroad. But Regev seems to know very little about the movies her ministry funds.
For the Foxtrot filmmakers, the Venice win was a triumph.
“Thank you for a wonderful moment that will remain forever in my heart,” Maoz said when he accepted the award. “I would like to dedicate this award to Mr. Katriel Schory [the director of the Israel Film Fund], who stands like this lion and protects freedom of speech and expression and the purity of art.”
Foxtrot is a brilliant movie about what it means to be Israeli, filled with tragedy, suspense, humor and contradictions, beautifully acted and visually and musically rich. There could be a worthwhile debate about the violent incident and its cover- up in the film. Everything is heightened in this allegorical movie and nothing is meant to be to be strictly realistic – the soldiers listen to retro music played on old radios, and while there seems to be snow in the distance, camels roam by the checkpoint. Nevertheless, it would certainly be possible to discuss whether this cover-up is presented in a way that is too glib, and whether it presents an overly dark and brutal picture of the IDF. But that debate can only take place among people who have seen the film.
In an interview at the Haifa Film Festival, Schory told the Post: “It’s really a pity [Regev won’t see Foxtrot] because I believe that this movie is a film that leads you to think… and I think the most important thing is to actually see the film. You have to see the movie, and after that, it’s possible to discuss whatever you want… then you can discuss, argue, come to whatever conclusions you want.”
Maoz won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2009 for his first film, Lebanon, which was based on his experiences during the First Lebanon War (1982-85), and which takes place almost entirely in a tank. The diffident, chain-smoking Maoz, who spoke at the Haifa Film Festival screening of Foxtrot about how he still lives in a rented apartment with creaky floorboards, worked for nearly 20 years on the Lebanon screenplay, struggling through the PTSD he developed as a result of fighting in that war.
Following Regev’s recent comments to the media, Maoz and Foxtrot’s star, Lior Ashkenazi, began receiving death threats. Even Ashkenazi’s five-year-old daughter’s life was threatened. This was especially disturbing because even the most successful members of the Israeli film industry don’t live like Hollywood stars. They live in apartment buildings and can’t afford bodyguards.
Ashkenazi, one of Israel’s most distinguished actors, who recently starred opposite Richard Gere in Joseph Cedar’s Norman, spoke in a television interview about Regev. The minister often points to her Mizrahi background, saying Western culture doesn’t represent her or speak to her, and that she has never read Chekhov. Ashkenazi said that if Regev were to read the work of Anton Chekhov, “she would understand what a metaphor is, and she would understand what an allegory is. But she hasn’t, so I can’t address her.”
As the threats escalated, Israel Academy president Moshe Danon disinvited Regev from the Ophir Awards ceremony.
In a Facebook post prior to the ceremony, Maoz wrote: “The job of a minister is to restrain the belligerent. An argument about art should not deteriorate into threats, and certainly not against a five-year-old girl. But instead of calming and moderating [things], [Regev] continues to incite and fuel the flames.”
Maoz concluded his post: “Mrs. Regev, if something bad happens, the responsibility is yours.”
Speaking on Facebook live before the ceremony, Regev said, “You decided that my voice, which represents the Israeli majority, should not be heard.”
She did not condemn those who made the death threats, but said that the filmmaker was “taking another cheap and fake shot,” and has “moved to the height of incitement, to remove any responsibility from yourselves.”
Regev also repeated her threat that when the Israel Film Academy renegotiates its deal for state funding next year, “the deal that was is not what will be.”
Foxtrot swept the Ophir Awards on September 19, winning eight awards. Most important, it won Best Picture, which makes it Israel’s official entry for consideration for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It also won Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor for its star, Lior Ashkenazi.
The success of Foxtrot did not surprise anyone who watches the film industry closely. Aficionados had been awaiting its release with great anticipation, because Maoz’s previous movie, Lebanon, struck many moviegoers as brilliant. Like Foxtrot, it is sympathetic to the soldiers at its center, but is critical of the policies of the government that put them there.
Regev’s decision to avoid the movie, which President Reuven Rivlin said he was looking forward to seeing, expresses a certain cynicism about the ministry she oversees. Her only interest in the movie industry here, which was in the doldrums until 15 years ago and has since flourished, has been to condemn it. x`She has been outspoken in her criticism of the film industry on many previous occasions, notably the 2016 Ophir Awards, in which she ostentatiously stormed out when one of the musical performers quoted Mahmoud Darwish’s “I am an Arab” and then stormed back in. When she returned to the auditorium, she turned the presentation of an award into a platform for a tirade against the elitism of the movie industry.
While 20 or 30 years ago it may have been correct to call the movie industry elitist, in 2016, the winning film was Elite Zexer’s Sand Storm, an Arabic-language drama about a Beduin family. Moris Cohen, who is of Mizrahi descent, won Best Actor for Avinu, a gritty drama in which he played a bouncer who is reluctantly drawn into working for a gangster. Noa Koler won Best Actress for her portrayal of a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) woman in The Wedding Plan, and the movie’s script, which was written by haredi director Rama Burshtein, won for Best Screenplay. Israeli-Arab actress Ruba Blal won Best Supporting Actress for Sand Storm. Tamer No-far, another Israeli Arab, whose musical performance offended Regev, was one of the winners of the Best Music Award for Udi Aloni’s Junction 48. It’s hard to imagine a more varied list of winners, or one that better represents the demographics of modern Israel.
The nominees also included other movies about just the kind of working-class, non-Ashkenazi Israel that some observers feel have been excluded from cultural life. Emil Ben-Shimon’s The Women’s Balcony, the most popular Israeli movie locally last year, is about a conflict between men and women in a Mizrahi synagogue, and was also successful abroad, earning more than a million dollars in the US, a huge sum for a subtitled movie. Erez Tadmor’s Homeport, another 2016 Ophir nominee, is about power struggles among port workers.
I report this in so much detail because amid this talk of condemning the film industry, one can easily find reasons to celebrate it as never before.
This year’s nominees were equally, if not more, diverse. One of the strongest films, apart from Foxtrot, was Maysaloun Hamoud’s In Between, the story of three Israeli-Arab women roommates in Tel Aviv, which won awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Two of the other nominees for Best Picture, Doubtful and Scaffolding, focused on working-class high-school students and their teachers.
Many more movies from Israelis of diverse backgrounds are in the works. A young filmmaker of Ethiopian descent, Alamork Marsha, is making a movie called Fig Tree, about her family’s journey to Israel, and this is just one example.
Refusing to see Foxtrot also shows a disregard for the true, egalitarian nature of the Israeli film industry today, an indication that criticizing the industry has little to do with the actual movies being made, and everything to do with winning popularity or scoring political points. The Ashkenazi elite are an easy target and the fact that they no longer dominate the industry doesn’t matter to some politicians when they are making speeches, apparently.
Many people in the industry whom I contacted for this article preferred not to speak on the record, for fear Regev would scapegoat them and try to stop funding for their projects. One of the few to speak out against the minister was veteran director Avi Nesher, who said in an interview with Army Radio in March: “Anything that Regev does to harm Israeli cinema is damaging to Israel’s interests.”
I asked Schory, who recently won an award at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado for his contribution to Israeli cinema, why Foxtrot has been the focus of so much resentment, when many other films critical of Israeli policies – including two Oscar-nominated films, Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, along with a long list of other movies, among them Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s Ajami; Udi Aloni’s Junction 48 and Forgiveness; Yariv Horowitz’s Rock Ba-Casba; and, of course, Maoz’s Lebanon – drew virtually no comment from the government. He pointed squarely at Regev.
When those other films were released, she was not yet the culture minister. Schory said, “It’s very personal. There isn’t any other reason. Because those films were, as you say, from the same point of view. There is no reason other than the persona [Regev]… Without this, [Foxtrot] would have been just one of the movies that was released this year… She gave it a phenomenal buildup.”
He worries that this controversy could undermine filmmaking here.
“If this hurts creative freedom and freedom of expression, it will be terrible. It’s excellent that in a democracy, a state that calls itself a democracy, there will be freedom and movies that are critical; this is a good sign. You have to see it positively. There are countries that did not make movies about their pain and doubt.
“How many movies did France make about the war in Algeria? Two or three? But Israeli creators deal with the pain, with our reality… When Francis Ford Coppola made Apocalypse Now, no one said to him, ‘Why did you make this film? How could you do it?’ He made the film about the pain of the war. When Cimino made The Deer Hunter, did people say, ‘How could you do that to us?’ No. That’s how he saw the story of the war in Vietnam, and that’s how he made it.”
This tendency to insist that moviemakers are so “anti- Israel” that it is unnecessary to see their work in order to comment on it is childish. I often receive emails from readers who claim to be offended by movies they have not seen. Yes, there are political movies, such as Foxtrot, and many will find much to criticize about them – but only if they actually see them.
At the same time, it is important to note that political films don’t dominate the Israeli film industry and never have. They are a part of it. If people want to engage with them, they need to see them or refrain from commenting on them.
A few years ago, I got into an email argument with a prominent political newspaper columnist who said all recent Israeli movies were anti-Israel. It occurred to me that this woman had not actually seen the films she was condemning in print, which I found baffling. So I pressed her.
What did she think of The Band’s Visit, about a town in the Negev that welcomes an Egyptian band that gets lost there, and Reshef Levi’s Lost Islands, the story of two brothers locked in a rivalry over a young woman? How were they anti-Israel? She insisted that she had seen them and hated them.
Finally, I resorted to a prank: I made up several titles and asked her about them. She claimed to have seen them and to have hated them as well.
I never told anyone about this exchange, but I have often wondered about it. Why was she so convinced that these films were the vile work of self-hating Jews and would reflect badly on Israel? It would have been easy to see the actual movies (not the ones I invented) – why hadn’t she?
I couldn’t understand what drove her, but now I imagine it’s the same impulse that is behind Regev’s attitude. You can increase your popularity by demonizing a whole group of people, in this case filmmakers. If they are beyond the pale, there is no point in seeing their work or condemning those who threaten their lives. For that newspaper columnist and Regev, directors like Maoz, who have faced danger during their IDF service, who could easily find work abroad but choose to live and make movies here, are so despicable that anything they have to say is not worth hearing. If you are right, as Regev and her sympathizers seem to think, everyone else is not only wrong, but is the enemy. It’s easy to see how this attitude leads to hatred and death threats.
Maoz said at a press event in Venice, “If I criticize the place where I live, I do it because I worry. I do it because I want to protect it. I do it out of love.”
As several characters in the movie point out, Foxtrot is a dance that brings the dancer back to the place where he started, and that’s exactly the path this controversy has taken. There could be a genuine debate about the portrayal of the IDF in Foxtrot, a discussion of what the film says about Israel, but there hasn’t been one. Perhaps that stagnation is inevitable when those who protest a film and threaten its creators have not seen the work in question.