September 18, 2019

‘Zero Motivation’: An art film by and about women

When filmmaker Talya Lavie was growing up in the 1980s, Israel had only one television channel. Lavie got her initial film education watching the same movies over and over again: Among her favorites were Federico Fellini’s “The Nights of Cabiria” and Jim Sheridan’s drama “In the Name of the Father,” about the Irish Republican Army — and the entire “Monty Python” oeuvre.

That eclectic, undifferentiated early exposure may be one reason Lavie’s first feature, a giddy dark comedy about female clerical workers in the Israeli army, glories in its cheerful promiscuity with genre, tone, pace, score and just about any other tool in the filmmaker’s box. No wonder she cites John Ford, Billy Wilder and Quentin Tarantino, among others, as primary role models. “When I pitched the movie, I would say, ‘It’s “Apocalypse Now” meets “The Office,” ’ ” Lavie said.

Director Talya Lavie Photo by Rubi Castro

“Zero Motivation” turns on the travails of two quarrelsome best friends, played by Dana Ivgy and Nelly Tagar, who file and shred in a chaotic, all-female office on a desert army base. Mostly, they play video games while doing as little as possible under the baleful gaze of Rama (Shani Klein), a gung-ho officer who’s striving to gain respect and promotion from her own, openly sexist male superiors. Rama is a figure of fun, but professionally speaking, Lavie can relate to her predicament as an authority with little power. “As a director, I’m very identified with Rama,” the 37-year-old filmmaker said. “She’s trying to give orders, to be respected by men as one of them … and they never will.”

“Zero Motivation” opens up into an enchantingly zany social satire with the army as an over-the-top microcosm of Israeli society. In place of the heroism and disciplined efficiency for which the Israeli military is known, the film addresses bureaucracy, boredom and the futility of routine army work in a male-dominated environment. Israeli women do serve in combat roles, and some become officers. The majority, however, are lowly clerks whiling away the days until discharge or transfer. 

In its refreshingly unorthodox way, “Zero Motivation” is a feminist chick flick about the hothouse blend of jealousy, competition and solidarity that thrives in any situation where young women live together in cramped conditions. Women often tell Lavie that the film reminds them of their college dorm days. But, she said, the film will speak to anyone who “has played a small part in a big system.” 

The movie’s charm comes from watching the struggle when these women plunge into absurdly incongruous situations. In that sense, the movie’s unnerving formal plasticity fits the content. “You don’t need to stick to one genre anymore these days,” Lavie said gaily. “It’s interesting to put them together and see what happens. There’s a broad scale of emotions, and the actors play them all very seriously throughout.” You might call the movie a romantic melodrama that also touches on some pretty hot-button social issues, minus the usual reverence. A sudden death, she said, with mock solemnity, “is an expression of a very, very strong love.” A zombie of sorts lurches around the action for a bit.  A Chopin piano sonata plays at a very odd moment; Schubert is played on guitar. The climactic battle sequence, played deadpan, is waged with office supplies.

“I was influenced by ‘M*A*S*H’ and ‘Catch-22’,” Lavie said, “but also by great army films such as ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and ‘Apocalypse Now.’ And I got inspiration from many Israeli war films. I wanted to make a movie with the same pathos and epic proportions, but about secretaries.” 

With all its juggling of form and subject matter, the film could easily have gotten out of hand; now and again, the farce is repetitious or goes on too long. Yet it’s held together by a fairly conventional three-act structure, with each act focusing on a different player, with a different style and a different season. That frame, Lavie said, grew out of her prodigious reading of classic plays — and repeat readings of Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” which she called “one of the greatest scripts I ever read.”

Lavie, who was an army secretary herself, knows the terrain intimately. But she also brought to the making of the movie a rigorous training in several popular arts, and a confidence she attributes to the unconditional love and support of her parents, neither of who has a background in film. After studying comics and animation at the Bezalel Art Academy, Lavie went on to graduate from the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem. Worked up from a 2006 short called “The Substitute,” “Zero Motivation” was developed at the Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Lab. The film carried off six Israeli Academy Awards — including best director and best screenplay — along with best narrative feature at the Tribeca Film Festival and the Nora Ephron Prize, awarded to a woman writer or director with a distinctive voice.   

“In Israel, film is considered an art,” Lavie said. Unlike in the United States, where film is primarily a privately funded business, Israeli films are largely made with money from the state. “Without government funding, there would be no cinema,” she added, “only television.” Given the intensity of competition for scarce funding, it’s heartening that almost a third of Israeli features in the last few years were made by women, of which 10 were first features. That ratio leaves the United States — where a total of three female-directed movies were given a wide release in 2014 — in the dust.

Lavie is already working on her next script — an adaptation of a Sholem Aleichem story about an Israeli in Brooklyn — though she has no immediate plans to move to Hollywood.