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Zero Motivation

(Efes beyahasei enosh)

Winner of six Israeli Film Academy Awards!

If you show a staple gun in the first act, it has to go off in the third. But that’s about the only dramatic principle to which the characters in Zero Motivation adhere. Normally, that would be a problem, seeing as how this film is set in the army, but it’s not like we’re on the battle lines. Writer-director Talya Lavie drew from her own experiences in the Israeli Defense Forces, setting her first feature in the dullest administrative office on a remote desert base. The elevator pitch "'Girls' meets M*A*S*H" may seem reductive, but it’s apt. The angst is the same, though the specifics, and urgency, have changed.

The Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of Paper and Shredding, Daffi (Nelly Tagar), has devoted her time in compulsory military service to one goal: getting transferred to a base in Tel Aviv. Visions of walking amid gleaming towers in high heels are the only thing keeping her alive. This potential abandonment causes some stress for her pal Zohar (Dana Ivgy), a coarse and slightly unkempt fellow secretary/soldier whose sole job, it would seem, is playing Minesweeper on an outdated computer. Zohar is a Yossarian-esque rascal, the only one who can see that everyone else at the base is nuts. If Daffi goes, Zohar will be left alone with the twin ditzes who sing pop songs and twirl their gum, a brusque Russian immigrant who makes fatalist remarks in a voice so low certain dogs couldn’t hear it and the by-the-book commander whose twin passions are paperwork and brown-nosing. It’s a textbook case of an individual mortified by dense authority. If Bill Murray were a twenty-something Israeli woman, he’d be Zohar.

The bulk of the film plays out in episodic form (indeed, it is segmented in three chapters) but this sitcom-like setup serves a purpose. Characters weave in and out. Someone that seems key will drift away as someone seemingly unimportant takes centre stage for a while. This approach works well to underscore the feeling of a life in which unseen and inexplicable forces are in control. In time, Zohar’s brusk exterior reveals an inner timidity beneath her khaki parka. She’s actually a virgin, likely the only one on the base, something we learn just as a new platoon of handsome paratroopers bunk down for a few nights.

The comedy in Zero Motivation ranges from wordplay to visual gags to some 'saw that coming down Broadway' moments of comeuppance, but there is an undercurrent of sadness, particularly with Rama (Shani Klein), the group leader. Clearly she’s the foil – she keeps a framed photo of Margaret Thatcher on her wall – but it’s not her fault her battalion of paper filers are the Bad News Bears of the Israeli desert, and the way in which the male officers disregard her smacks of unspoken sexism. Are any men in her position asked to serve coffee?

There are no references to Hamas or Palestinians or Arabs or anything else connoting the unending conflict in the Middle East. Yet our bumbling leads are reminded time and again that ‘we are at war’ and ‘our soldiers are dying’. The only nod to headlines or history is a shot of a woman stapling up posters commemorating Israel’s numerous conflicts from 1948 onward.

There are some whose politics have no room for a film like this. ‘This is not a laughing matter’, they’ll say. This attitude negates reality, and perhaps negates storytelling in general. Zero Motivation is a shot of honesty, in which short-term goals are far more important than larger geopolitical ones. Perhaps because they are the only ones over which we have any control.

– Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian

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