In 'Foxtrot,' A Filmmaker Captures The 'Bleeding Soul Of Israeli Society'

Mar 3, 2018
Originally published on March 5, 2018 10:10 am

Foxtrot is Israel's most celebrated film of the year — and its most controversial.

It tells the story of one family grappling with the loss of their son at war. But it's also a searing critique of a society stuck in perpetual war.

It opens with uniformed soldiers arriving at an upscale Tel Aviv apartment. Actor Lior Ashkenazi describes what happens next: "You see a finger on the doorbell, and you see the face of the wife, and she faints." Ashkenazi plays the film's central character, Michael, a soon-to-be grieving father. He says, "This is the [biggest] fear of every parent in Israel when they send their children to the service: to hear the door bell. Everybody's afraid of it."

It's a fear born of experience in a country caught up in a seemingly unending dance with war — part of the reason for the film's title, says director Samuel Maoz.

"Foxtrot deals with the open wound or bleeding soul of Israeli society. What a traumatic circle we are trapped in. I mean, we dance the foxtrot. Every generation tries to dance it differently, but like the foxtrot steps, we always end at the same starting point."

His characters even dance it on screen.

In one surreal scene at a remote Israeli checkpoint, code-named Foxtrot, an armed soldier dances with his rifle, twirling before he returns to the starting position.

Journalist Allison Kaplan Sommer covered Foxtrot for the newspaper Ha'aretz. She says the film is a metaphor for all wars, but it's also about the central role of the Israeli Defense Forces.

"Israel is a society in which, because of compulsory military service, every layer of society is affected by what happens in the IDF. Everyone from the highest classes to the lowest classes has this universal experience of sending their children to the army. And if you have a unique community in Israel of artists who have served in the military, have sent their children to the army, that is going to be, you know, very rich material to sort of explore creatively, and very critically what happens."

Before Maoz became a filmmaker, he was a tank gunner and fought in Israel's first war in Lebanon in 1982. Maoz came home from that conflict with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, and it inspired his acclaimed debut film, Lebanon.

He says his trauma was inseparable from that of the preceding generation of Holocaust survivors.

"My generation, our, let's say, main problem was that we couldn't complain about anything. I mean our parents, our teachers obviously survived the most horrible trauma in modern times and were naturally not very stable. When I, when we came back from war with two hands, two legs, 10 fingers, without any burning marks on our skin, complaining that we feel hurt inside us was unacceptable. I mean, 'Overcome. Be a man. We survived the Holocaust.' "

Actor Lior Ashkenazi says successful, high-functioning Israelis, like his character, didn't talk about their experiences. "They have the best family you could have, the best life you could have. But deep inside, there's a word for it in Hebrew — it's srita: They have a scratch in their soul."

As his character struggles with the fate of his son, the scene shifts to the young man at his desolate border checkpoint.

One night, in a moment of panic, he opens fire on a car full of Palestinians, killing them all.

Journalist Allison Kaplan Sommer says it's a dark moment, but it's also in the classic tradition of war films. "You've got very confused and immature 18- and 19-year-olds making these sort of tragically fateful decisions, and Israelis see them, you know, as their 18- or 19-year-old kids who, in other circumstances, would be freshmen figuring things out on a college campus and instead they're making life and death calls in a terrible conflict."

It's that scene that led Israel's culture minister, Miri Regev, to lash out against the filmmaker. In a televised speech she said, "You know Israel, you know the Israeli army and you know how moral it is. And you dare to present Israeli soldiers killing Arabs at a checkpoint and then burying them. And you call this horrendous lie a metaphor."

The culture minister questioned director Samuel Maoz's loyalty after Foxtrot premiered at the Venice Film Festival.

"The fact that I fought in bloody battles and paid a heavy price for my part in the first Lebanon war has no public value anymore. I'm a traitor because my culture minister announced, without seeing the film, that the film defames the IDF. And she incited a large public who has not seen the film and consider me as a traitor."

Despite the controversy, Foxtrot was Israel's entry to the Oscars, though wasn't nominated by the Motion Picture Academy.

"There was pride that it was an artistic achievement and that it would be nominated for an Academy Award," Allison Kaplan Sommer says. "And there was disappointment when it wasn't nominated for an Academy Award."

But Maoz says he didn't make the film for global awards — it's his contribution to his country's future.

"Our mistakes are the failures of our children. And I really believe that every human society should strive to be better, to improve itself. And a basic and necessary condition for improvement is the ability to accept self-criticism. But when self-criticism is marketed to the people as betrayal and critics [are] considered to be traitors, you have no chance of rising. So if I criticize the place [where] I live, I do it because I worry. I do it because I want to protect it. And I do it from love."

Maoz says he did his Foxtrot to keep another generation from becoming stuck in the same dance.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Foxtrot" is Israel's most celebrated film of the year and perhaps its most controversial. It opens in theaters in the United States this weekend and tells the story of one family trying to grapple with the loss of their son at war. But it's also a searing critique of a society stuck in perpetual war. NPR's Bilal Qureshi has the story.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: "Foxtrot" opens with uniformed soldiers arriving at the front door of an upscale Tel Aviv apartment.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL)

QURESHI: Actor Lior Ashkenazi plays the film's central character, a grieving father named Michael.

LIOR ASHKENAZI: This is the most fear of every parent in Israel when they send their children to the service - to hear the doorbell. Everybody's afraid of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FOXTROT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking foreign language).

QURESHI: It's a fear born of experience in a country caught up in a seemingly unending dance with war - part of the reason for the film's title, says director Samuel Maoz.

SAMUEL MAOZ: "Foxtrot" deals with the open wound or bleeding soul of Israeli society. What a traumatic circle we are trapped in. I mean, we dance the foxtrot. Every generation tries to dance it differently, but like the foxtrot steps, we always end at the same starting point.

QURESHI: And his characters dance it onscreen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FOXTROT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking foreign language).

QURESHI: In one surreal scene at a remote Israeli checkpoint, code-named Foxtrot, an armed soldier dances with his rifle, twirling before he returns to the starting position.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QURESHI: The film is a metaphor for all wars, says journalist Allison Kaplan Sommer. She covered "Foxtrot" for the newspaper Haaretz. But she says it's also a story about the central role of the Israeli Defense Forces.

ALLISON KAPLAN SOMMER: Israel is a society in which, because of compulsory military service, every layer of society is affected by what happens in the IDF. Everyone from the highest classes to the lowest classes has this universal experience. And if you have a unique community in Israel of artists who have served in the military, have sent their children to the army, that is going to be, you know, very rich material to sort of explore creatively and very critically what happens.

QURESHI: Before Samuel Maoz became a filmmaker, he was a tank gunner and fought in Israel's first war in Lebanon in 1982. Maoz came home from that conflict with severe PTSD, and it inspired his acclaimed debut film, "Lebanon." He says his trauma was inseparable from that of the preceding generation of Holocaust survivors.

MAOZ: My generation - our, let's say, main problem was that we couldn't complain about anything. I mean, our parents, our teachers, obviously survived the most horrible trauma in the modern times and were naturally not very stable. When I, when we came back from war, we had two hands, two legs, 10 fingers without any burning marks on our skin. Complaining that we feel hurt inside us was unacceptable. I mean, overcome. Be a man. We survived the Holocaust.

QURESHI: Actor Lior Ashkenazi says successful, high-functioning Israelis like his character didn't talk about their experiences.

ASHKENAZI: They have the best family you could have, the best life you could have. But deep inside, they are - there's a word for it in Hebrew - it's srita. They have a scratch in their soul.

QURESHI: As his character struggles with the fate of his son, the scene shifts to the young man at his desolate border checkpoint. One night, in a moment of panic, he opens fire on a car full of Palestinians, killing them all.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FOXTROT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, speaking foreign language).

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

SOMMER: It's a really dark moment, but it's sort of, you know, in the classic tradition of war films.

QURESHI: Journalist Allison Kaplan Sommer.

SOMMER: You've got very confused and immature 18- and 19-year-olds making these sort of tragically fateful decisions. And Israelis see them, you know, as their 18- and 19-year-old kids who, in other circumstances, would be freshmen figuring things out on a college campus. And instead, they're making life-and-death calls in a terrible conflict.

QURESHI: It's that scene that led Israel's culture minister, Miri Regev, to lash out against the filmmaker.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIRI REGEV: (Through interpreter) You know Israel, you know the Israeli army, and you know how moral it is. And you dare to present Israeli soldiers killing Arabs at a checkpoint and then burying them, and you call this horrendous lie a metaphor.

QURESHI: Following the film's premiere at the Venice Film Festival, the culture minister questioned the loyalty of director Samuel Maoz.

MAOZ: The fact that I fought in bloody battles and paid a heavy price has no public value anymore. I'm a traitor because my culture minister announced, without seeing the film, that the film defames the IDF. And she incited the large public who has not seen the film and consider me as a traitor.

QURESHI: Despite the controversy, "Foxtrot" was Israel's entry to the Oscars. It wasn't nominated, but Samuel Maoz says he didn't make the film for global awards. It's his contribution to his country's future.

MAOZ: Our mistakes are the failures of our children. And I really believe that every human society should strive to be better. And the basic and necessary condition for improvement is the ability to accept self-criticism. But when self-criticism is marketed to the people as a betrayal and the critics considered to be traitors, you have no chance of rising. So if I criticize the place I live, I do it because I worry. I do it because I want to protect it, and I do it from love.

QURESHI: And Samuel Maoz says he did his "Foxtrot" to keep another generation from becoming stuck in the same dance. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.