stacks_image_236While many Israeli film exports are straightforward or dramatic movies, Zero Motivation offers a breath of fresh air with a funny yet critical look at the role of women in the military. In a series of stories featuring women serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the film weaves different vignettes through an episodic narrative that at times is pure hilarity and at others shifts to insightful criticism with dark undertones. The film received an award from the 13th Annual Tribeca Film Festival for Best Narrative Feature and the Nora Ephron Prize, given to a female writer or director with a distinctive voice. Zero Motivation is the debut feature film from writer-director Talya Lavie who served in the IDF as a secretary on a base.

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In Zero Motivation, Lavie uses a critical inward-looking gaze at her own homeland with a focus on one of the strongest institutions of Israel: its military. Often touted as an achievement in gender equality, Lavie’s portrayal of the IDF is far from the international perception of the Israeli military as a model for gender equality. The machine, as presented by Lavie’s lens, is filled with the usual patriarchal practices you would expect in that setting: harassment, a lack of representation at the top and almost no engagement in combat. The film presents a group of women serving in the IDF — all of them quite different but all women — relegated to a highly bureaucratic human resources office characterized by a typical gendered division of labor. Not only does the office concern itself with having paper backups of leaves by soldiers, it also shreds papers and serves coffee and drinks to other officers.

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Early in the film we meet Daffi (Nelly Tagar), a young and naïve soldier who is also the “Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of Paper and Shredding.” Her storyline involves her quest to be transferred to a Tel Aviv station. In Daffi’s mind, the mindless paper tasks would be the same at any station, but at least Tel Aviv offers the glamour of the big city. Daffi’s good friend Zohar (Dana Ivgy) is focused on even smaller goals, her one quest at the office is to beat a Minesweeper record on the office’s outdated computer. Zohar’s other main priority is to lose her virginity, which is one of the standout chapters of the film. Zohar finds a soldier who seems interested, only to quickly learn that even for the seemingly polite young man, being a soldier means being entitled over the women around him. These are well-drawn characters that speak to the overall disconnectedness between the institution and its female population.

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With her comic storytelling, Lavie skillfully reveals the contradictions in the system of mandatory conscription in the IDF for women, while the status of women within the organization remains systematically constrained. On the one hand, including women in the IDF is an important step towards equality, but the governance of the organization has relegated women to secretaries far removed from the realities of combat. In a poignant and clever montage, two of the characters walk around the station while in the background another female soldier posts reminders of all the historic military engagements of the IDF and their significance. The message and design of these posters is quite institutional and shows the distance between that reality and the contained environment in the military stations.

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We have no clear sense of why each of the characters made it to service but all have hopes and dreams that, however small or funny it might seem to the audience, are upended via their military service. Even the one woman in this institution who holds genuine aspirations to grow within the IDF fumbles her chances. Rama (Shani Klein), the female officer in charge of this group of misfits, cannot seem to access the “good old boys network,” as her group of slackers sabotage her in one instance after another.

All the stories in Zero Motivation speak to the uncomfortable relationship between Israel’s Western aspirations and its embedded traditional structure. While the film is critical with an undercurrent of dark humor, it does not settle any of the issues it raises. It will certainly be the opening for many conversations that will be plagued with more questions than answers.

Ana Morgenstern

Zero Motivation runs 100 minutes, is in Hebrew with English Subtitles and is unrated (there’s cursing, violence, nudity and sexual situations). The film will premiere in Miami at the Miami Jewish Film Festival where I have been asked to introduce it on Sunday, January 25 at 6 p.m. at O Cinema Miami Shores. It is being distributed by Zeitgesit Films to theaters and has begun a theaterical run that continues expanding. For other screening dates and times around the country visit the film’s official website here.

Update: Zero Motivation opens for a brief three-day run at the Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus on Friday, Feb. 13.

(Copyright 2014 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

“We’re all bad seeds,” says a character in Elena, a Russian film so focused on moral corruption it feels like a perfectly symmetrical sculpture of drama. The film by Andrei Zvyagintsev unfolds with a graceful efficiency that I have not experienced since the Dardenne Brothers’ Kid With a Bike (‘The Kid With a Bike’ harnesses potency of simple filmmaking). But where that film ended on a poetic, if ambiguous note, Elena hums along on a stark, chilling drone that never lets the viewer go.

The film’s tone steers far from the high-pitched. Zvyagintsev guides the drama with a firm, steady hand. It opens slow, as dawn arrives outside an upscale apartment. The shrieks of crows on the bare branches outside the ultra-modern apartment turn to the twitter of little birds. Inside, a couple wakes in separate beds. Middle-aged Elena (Nadezhda Markina) gets up just ahead of her alarm, and she wanders to another room to tap her slightly older-looking husband, Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). Their relationship seems ambiguous at first, even after discussion of family and money. Instead,little details of it (they have been married two years, he met her when she worked as a nurse almost 10 years earlier) come out in well-placed tidbits here and there, cropping up to do the best service to the drama, calling for an attentive but not over-alert audience.

The film seems to just wash over the viewer with simple but illustrative situations. The viewer will soon meet Elena’s son Sergey (Alexey Rozin) and his family, after Elena takes a lengthy trek via streetcar then train followed by a long walk. All the while Philip Glass’ broody  “Symphony No. 3, Movement III” drones along. It is the only extra-diegetic music Zvyagintsev uses, and it will only appear three times in the film. Like the best of efficient filmmakers, Zvyagintsev knows how to use mood music for maximal effect, cuing audience awareness.

He also knows how to use action, dialogue and set pieces to their fullest narrative potential, including subtext. The extreme difference between Sergey’s rundown, tiny apartment, located near a nuclear power plant, which also houses his wife, teenage son and baby boy feels cramped. It seems to ooze cheap possessions from its cracking façade. The graffiti covered hallways on the ground floor, along with the teenage punk loiterers stooped outside the building sharing a bottle of drink bring to mind A Clockwork Orange.

Elena is a stark experience to watch unfold, and it is so well made, it almost feels like a spoiler to explain the plot beyond the director’s expert handling of all the devices he can employee of cinema. He earns every scene while avoiding quick, flashy cuts, hysterical acting and over-stylized camera use. The film only has one jarring scene of shaky handheld camera, and when it appears it carries with it an ominous sense of dread.

Zvyagintsev employs steady-handed direction that even makes the banal dreck of game shows and lifestyle reports coming out of the TV in some scene feel relevant to his statement. Do not expect much of a cathartic release come the film’s end. In fact, the path the director takes to arrive there feels like a sickening downward spiral that offers a harsh critique of society and only continues to propagate the scary image of post-Soviet Russia. Despite its bleakness, watching the masterful work of Zvyagintsev offers its own reward. This film did not win the Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize at Cannes 2011 for nothing.

Hans Morgenstern

Elena is not rated, runs 109 min. and is in Russian with English subtitles. Zeitgeist Films provided a preview screener for the purposes of this review. It opens in South Florida on Friday, June 8, at many independent cinemas Miami Beach Cinematheque, the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema, Cinema Paradiso, Living Room Theaters, Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth and the Lake Worth Playhouse. For screenings across the nation, visit the film’s official website.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)