Zero Motivation Dir. Talya Lavie

[Zeitgeist Films; 2014]

Styles: “zany,” black comedy, war comedy, workplace comedy
Others: Officespace, M*A*S*H, Orange is the New Black

What an apt title on this end Zero Motivation is for this particular film. I’m always in the text, so here I am, no motivation to critique something that’s been nagging at my inbox for well over a month. Appropriately though, that’s what this Israeli slice-of-life-during-war-time-during-down-time dramedy is about: all the inert distractions we put in our way to keep away from our big looming responsibilities. If it seems grisly to equate forgetting to write for a webzine to distracting oneself from the probable horrors of war, note that in Zero Motivation, war is painted more as an administrative hassle than an actualized threat. Its portrayal of the IDF isn’t from the frontlines but from the remotest of cubicles, where gum-smacking girls are armed with staple guns and white-out in lieu of M14s.

Promotionally described as “M*A*S*H meets Orange is the New Black” (I don’t know if they meant to invoke the Altman or the Alda version), Zero Motivation is neither, although I understand a desire to advertise in those terms. It hasn’t the New Hollywood burdened insouciance of Hawkeye nor the humanistic depth-of-character and substance of OITNB. It seems the main crossover elements are olive fatigues and that its principle cast is female? Instead Zero’s motivations are tiny, potentially a refreshing and even radical revision of the conventional cravenly murderous “heroism” of the male-driven war film (wink wink, Clint). Putting the girls in gray in the front functions not to undermine the nationalism and patriarchal back-patting (fist-bumping?) of the generic war film, but to naturalize war as quotidian. In minimizing its war content to another one of the daily annoyances faced by its cast of vaguely quirky teen comedy stereotypes, Zero Motivation does not convey the necessity of distancing oneself from duty, but merely erases danger as background noise.

Set in a remote base camp in Israel’s arid south, the film is a coming-of-age tale as light and tradeable as a friendship bracelet. Separated into three loosely segregated “stories” (“The Replacement,” “The Virgin,” and “The Commander”), Zero operates offers a few episodes perhaps better left for the small screen. It could be my grossly inflated expectations from having just watched Paisa, but the war pastiche treatment here seems to speak more in the language of television — acerbic, nimble, self-aware — than that of film. The episodes feature different members of a unit of IDF pencil-pushers who bond and bicker over boys and bosses, encountering a new obstacle in adolescence’s brutal basic training. It tugs the ol’ heartstrings to see no respite from the louder-than-bombs narcissistic pain of growing up even during wartime, but the film’s comic project only undermines it’s own potent bromide — “life goes on.”

Daffi, the Brat, contends with hair dried by desert conditions. Zohar, the Punk, tries to overcome virginal shame. I was only pretty recently seventeen; I know these sort of petty trials are the world when viewed with teenage tunnel vision. Yet, adding to these mountained-molehills elements of clunky black comedy, it’s hard to tell with whom to identify. Are they unduly selfish for putting their individual battles over the “greater good” of the IDF? Or are we hoping for an internal rebellion, an Office Space-like (the film’s easier match in tone and substance) burning of the bras/hard drives?

More likely though, the film’s project is much less evocative than I am inclined to read. Directed and filmed in Israel by an all-Israeli cast, this is essentially a workplace comedy. The IDF is a first job for the majority of Israeli citizens; it’s as “teenage” a locale as, say, a strip mall or pseudo-bohemian coffee shop in American film (though I in no way contest that it is very differently charged). Working the offices of the IDF is a very common reality for non-combatant draftees in the IDF, largely women, and largely women like the peaky gum-smacker who might hand you your Auntie Ann’s. Coming to an international audience, however, a political reading is nearly inevitable (see also: me, a paragraph ago). Minimizing without erasing the military content, while already naturalized in Israeli culture, ironically problematizes “neutral” viewership for the international audience. Please read this critique with that notion in mind: that I cannot extricate my politics from my spectatorship and I am going to ascribe political meaning where the project may be nil. This is, of course true of any film, but especially those coming from a cinema where our prejudices our particularly pronounced. And as someone who jokes on the reg that Israel is really just New Jersey that happened to get s/oed in the torah, I should probably just sheket.

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