Israeli Film ‘Foxtrot’ Examines a Dance with Fate

November 22, 2017
Actor Lior Ashkenazi as Michael Feldman (third from left) is stunned when he is informed that his soldier son Jonathan has been killed. Photos by Giora Bejach, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The controversial film “Foxtrot” opens with two somber-faced soldiers arriving at the front door of a successful architect, Michael Feldman (played by Lior Ashkenazi), and his wife, Daphna (Sarah Adler). Daphna immediately guesses their mission and faints, while the emissaries regretfully inform Michael that the couple’s son, Jonathan, has fallen in the line of duty.

As family and friends gather for the funeral, a third military messenger arrives to announce that there has been an unfortunate mistake. Another soldier, also named Jonathan Feldman, has been killed, but Michael and Daphna’s son is alive and well.

The mood and locale of the film then change abruptly to a remote army checkpoint on Israel’s northern border, guarded by Jonathan and three fellow soldiers. They live in a large, converted container and operate a manual gate to allow an occasional camel to pass through. Even more rarely, a car with a Palestinian family stops for inspection.

During one such stop, the bored Israeli soldiers get their kicks by making the nervous driver and passengers, dressed up for a wedding, stand in the pouring rain during a lengthy car inspection. During another inspection, something goes horribly awry,
but the Israeli army brass quickly covers up the traces.

“Foxtrot” is a wrenching film about parental grief, the joys and stresses of marriage, the boredom of army life, and how Israel’s occupation policy humiliates the occupied and hardens the occupiers.

The drama won the Grand Jury Prize at the prestigious 2017 Venice International Film Festival and racked up 13 Ophirs (Israel’s version of the Academy Awards), including best film, which automatically makes it the country’s entry in the Oscar race for best foreign-language picture.

In a telephone interview from Tel Aviv, director Samuel (Shmulik) Maoz described “Foxtrot” as “the dance of a man with his fate.”

Despite its superb artistry and acting, the film has become somewhat of a political and ideological football in Israel. As in many other countries, the predominantly left-liberal filmmakers (in Tel Aviv) often have been at loggerheads with the right-conservative government (in Jerusalem). Another factor in the tense relationship is that the government-supported Israel Film Fund contributes to the budget of practically every film made by Israeli talent, including “Foxtrot.”

The movie has come under fire publicly from Miri Regev, minister of Culture and Sports in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet. “It is inconceivable that movies which shame the reputation of the Israel Defense Forces are those that are supported by the Israel Film Fund, which is supported by the state,” Regev declared in an interview on Israel’s Channel 2 TV station. “And those are selected to showcase Israeli cinema abroad.”

In the interview, Maoz pointed out that Regev had not actually seen the film, adding, “When my brothers are dying, I have the right to make such a movie.”

When “Foxtrot” screened in various European cities, Israeli diplomats frequently told Maoz that the film single-handedly had negated years of Israeli public relations efforts.

Actor Yehuda Almagor (seated) as Avigdor Feldman, tries to console his brother in “Foxtrot.”
Actress Sarah Adler portrays Daphna Feldman, mother of Israeli soldier Jonathan in “Foxtrot.”

The director believes that underlying many of Israel’s actions is the enduring trauma of the Holocaust. But he also maintains that Israelis who have seen action in the defense forces have been supportive of “Foxtrot.”

When he speaks of combat, Maoz, 55, is talking from personal experience. He was a gunner in a tank during the first Lebanon invasion in 1982, and his harrowing experiences are reflected in his first film, “Lebanon” (2009).

Maoz also knows firsthand the trauma of believing, mistakenly, that one has lost a child. It happened when his oldest daughter ran consistently late for school and always asked her father to call (and pay for) a taxi to get to her class in time.  After a while, Maoz concluded that the habit was not only expensive but also bad for the girl’s education, so one morning he told her to take a public bus — Line 5 — to school like all the other students.

About half an hour after she had left, her father heard on the radio that a No. 5 bus had been blown up by terrorists, with dozens of people killed. Desperately, he tried to get through to her on the phone, but all the lines were tied up. “The next hour was worse than all my time at war put together,” he said.

Later, his daughter returned home. She had just missed the bus that was blown up by terrorists.

“Foxtrot” will screen for one week at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, starting Dec. 8 — its qualifying run to compete in the Academy Awards. The movie will be released in Los Angeles theaters on March 2.

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