Interview: Samuel Maoz
By Neta Alexander on December 22, 2017
Samuel Maoz’s long-anticipated second feature, Foxtrot, is a three-act drama about faith, free will, and grief that happens to take place in modern-day Israel. Much like Lebanon, Maoz’s claustrophobic 2009 tank drama, the new film’s second act centers on four Israeli soldiers during their military service and culminates in a traumatic, violent event. However, Foxtrot is not to be mistaken for yet another war drama in the Israeli tradition of Shooting-and-Crying films (which includes festival hits like Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir).
It is, rather, an allegorical film tackling questions of contingency and loss. It does so by closely following Michael Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi), a middle-aged Israeli architect who shares his ultra-modern home with his wife Dafna (Sarah Adler) and their teenage daughter, Alma (Shira Haas). In a memorable opening scene, Dafna and Michael are informed that their 18-year-old son, an IDF soldier named Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray) died while guarding a military outpost. This shocking realization leads to a chain of unexpected events. Moving between the Tel Avivian house and Jonathan’s checkpoint, the film offers us a Kafkaesque, tragic, and profoundly depressing story that stands for the perpetual violence of the conflict.
Shortly after winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, Foxtrot was selected as Israel’s contender for the Oscar’s Best Foreign Film. These achievements, however, created a public stir after right-wing Israeli Cultural Minister Miri Regev condemned the film. Admitting that she had not seen the film, Regev was told it contains a scene in which IDF soldiers mistakenly kill innocent Palestinians and are somehow able to bury all evidence for their atrocities. This depiction of the IDF proved too much to bear for Regev and her supporters, some of whom went as far as sending death threats to Maoz and Ashkenazi.
In a conversation with Film Comment, which was conducted in Hebrew before the Foreign Language Academy Award shortlist had been announced, Maoz reflected on the controversy, his Oscar chances, and the intricate relationship between trauma and creativity—the two tropes that seem to dominate his work.
Both Lebanon and Foxtrot operate within the cinematic tradition of the war drama, while simultaneously trying to reinvent it. Are there any war films that influenced you?
I can see why they are often described as war dramas, but both do not neatly fit into this category. They have very little to do with classic war films like Where Eagles Dare or Ice Station Zebra (both released in 1968). In fact, the most memorable war dramas do not care that much about wars. Take, for example, Apocalypse Now. This is a work that uses war as a radical scenario through which we can study human behavior: what happens to the human soul when our survival instinct takes hold? What happens when the morality, politeness, and kindness we have been cultivating throughout our lives are swiftly replaced with the laws of the jungle? The best war dramas are these rare works depicting a bunch of children who fall into the chaos. After a day or two their metamorphosis is complete; moral values lose relevance and one is left with nothing but the sheer will to survive. It is a fascinating psychological state of mind that cinema enables us to explore.
This is why, while I was always fascinated by Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter, my most memorable source of inspiration is Elem Klimov’s 1985 World War II drama Come and See. It follows a young boy who joins the Soviet resistance movement against the German force. I don’t remember every detail of the plot, but I could never forget the emotional experience of watching this boy’s struggle to survive in a chaotic, brutal world.
For me this not only an artistic evaluation but a very personal perspective. I have been through the hell known as war, and was severely scarred by it. My previous film, Lebanon, was based on my experience as a 20-year-old gunner in one of the first Israeli tanks to enter Lebanon in the 1982 Lebanon War. That film helped me to try and understand what it means to kill other human beings, as I did during my military service at the IDF. I had no other choice, and yet the notion of taking lives is an excruciating burden I am forced to live with. Foxtrot was born from a different place. After Lebanon was released in 2009, I was overwhelmed by the stories other Israelis with PTSD have told me. I realized I was not alone. There are endless variations of my story and the kind of pain and guilt it germinates.
Is Ashkenazi’s character, Michael, one of these many variations?
Yes. In a way, Foxtrot is an attempt to push against our misconception of how a post-traumatic man looks like. We have seen him time and time again: an isolated, repressed man who wakes up sweaty in the middle of the night, thinking he is still in the battlefield. Michael, on the other hand, is a functioning, successful architect and family man. He will do everything to hide his secrets and weaknesses. After he is told that his son died, he is unable to break down and cry. Instead, he brutally kicks the family dog. There are many Israeli men like Michael: second-generation Holocaust survivors who were told they can never complain since their parents have been through hell and back. The trauma is multigenerational. We thus enter the Foxtrot dance of traumatic circle: no matter what you do, you always end up where you began.
Foxtrot can also be read as a Greek tragedy: not only that it has a three-act structure, but the story also borrows its tropes—faith, free will, and human hubris—from classic Greek plays. How did you come up with this idea?
The story functions like a classic Greek tragedy in which the hero summons his own punishment and fights everyone who tries to save him. There is something round in this process, and a sense of irony since Michael ends up just where he started. He is punished for his hubris, which convinced him he could save his son.
But Israel is not ancient Greece. Its faith cannot change—not because it is divine and controlled by the Gods, but due to the traumatic nature of the Israeli existence, which always goes back to the Holocaust. Today, Israel is a technological superpower with the strongest army in the Middle East and nuclear weapons, and yet its leaders still exploit the notion of an existential threat—a small country surrounded by enemies.
At the same time, the three-act structure enabled me to offer an emotional journey for my viewers: the first act should shock them, the second should hypnotize, and the third should be moving. Each sequence reflects, by using various cinematic tools, the character that stands in its center. The first act, featuring Michael, is sharp and concise—just like him. It consists of detached compositions. The third act is loose and warm, just like Dafna. It floats a few inches above the ground.
The second act takes place in a surrealist outpost, occupied by four soldiers and an occasional wandering camel. There is very little dialogue throughout the film, but this act is uniquely non-verbal. Its wry sense of humor and surrealism reminded me of Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, who used a checkpoint as a microcosm in his 2002 film, Divine Intervention.
I wasn’t specifically thinking about Suleiman, but I agree with you that Foxtrot is not a film based on dialogue. I am a visual thinker: An idea is always created in my mind first as an image, and only later as a story or a line of dialogue. My films were created as a direct result of visual stimulation and they try to reflect the souls and agonies of the characters. The text is the enemy; If I can deliver a feeling, a thought, or an idea without speech, I always prefer to do so. A quick look at Michael’s apartment should tell us half the story. His carefully-placed furniture, his position, his body language. These aspects should save us many pages of dialogue.
Much like Lebanon, Foxtrot is not only a film about a national trauma, but a film about your personal trauma. I recently watched a Nick Cave documentary titled One More Time with Feeling which was shot shortly after Cave had lost his teenaged son. In a heartbreaking moment, he rejects the idea that every great work of art is born out of pain. Instead, Cave proclaims, traumas are black holes that destroy creativity.
I agree. This is why it took me almost two decades to be able to write the script for Lebanon. Of course I tried to write it in my twenties, but I lacked the emotional perspective. The wound was too fresh and the pain too paralyzing. The many years that passed enabled me to write a story about a gunner named “Smulik” without feeling his pain as if it was mine. I identified with his suffering like a screenwriter who identifies with his characters—but nothing more.
Do you see filmmaking as a form of therapy?
I’m not sure if there is any cure for this kind of pain. You learn to live with it, not to eliminate it. My ongoing therapeutic process includes writing, filmmaking, and a healthy dose of repression. As someone who has never been to therapy, I don’t think about “repression” as a dirty word. It makes it possible to move on. There is a core of pain left inside, but it did not prevent me from becoming a filmmaker who has a certain distance from his characters.
The film uses Michael’s personal traumas to talk about Israel’s national trauma. This might explain why its release in Israel lead to a passionate public debate. While you were attacked by Miri Regev and her right-wing supporters, leftist columnists attacked Foxtrot for “the aestheticization of the occupation.” The film, they argued, was “too beautiful” or “too stylized.” How do you respond to these critics?
First, they are simply wrong: this is not a film about the occupation or the Palestinians. It is a film about Israeli society. Second, a work of art should not aspire to imitate recreate reality; it should interpret, illuminate, or unravel its hidden aspects. And this is exactly what Foxtrot is trying to achieve.
Within the context of Israeli cinema, I find the accusation of the film being “too beautiful” to be ironic. For decades, Israeli films were dismissed as ‘too ugly’ to be considered as meaningful works of art. In general, categories like “beautiful” or “ugly” make very little sense for me. Foxtrot reflects my inner world, and I chose the cinematic style best suited for my needs. I used bird’s-eye-view shots not because they are more visually stunning, but because they serve the idea that we do not control our faith. Looking from above, Michael or the soldiers are tiny, meaningless chess pieces controlled by an invisible hand—whether it is the gods or the Israeli political leadership. So I reject these attacks. However, I do think they testify to the film’s strength: the fact that it germinated an ongoing debate means I achieved my goal as a filmmaker.
Did you imagine the film will cause such a stir? Looking back, did this public debate help to boost the film’s profile in Israel and abroad?
I was surprised by the fact that Regev attacked the film before it was released. Ironically, her attack proves just how accurate the story is. By stating that Foxtrot is harmful to Israel and should not have been founded by governmental agencies like the Israeli Film Fund, Regev once again casts Israel as a small child who needs constant protection. Soon after her attack, it became a struggle for the freedom of speech and the need to support art.
The silver lining might be that the public debate can help the film in the Oscar race. Do you believe Foxtrot might be selected for the Oscar shortlist? [Note: Foxtrot was indeed selected, after the interview was conducted.]
Sadly, I have yet to see the other contenders—so I really can’t answer that question. I think that an Oscar can open many doors, which is why every filmmaker dreams of it. It is not about having your 15-second of glory, as flattering as they may be, but about securing the ability to make the kind of films you truly want to make. And that is a temptation I find very hard to resist.
With or without the Oscar, do you see yourself directing an American remake of your films or writing a television series for Netflix?
There is nothing concrete, but I can’t say I have not been thinking about these scenarios. In fact, my next project will be English-speaking, although it is too early to share more details. As much as I enjoy writing and directing in Hebrew, Israeli films have a limited audience. As a filmmaker, I would like as many people as possible to watch my work.
Neta Alexander is a doctoral student in the department of Cinema Studies at NYU, researching technology and failure. She serves as an Assistant Editor of Cinema Journal, and her articles have appeared in Cinema Journal, Film Quarterly, Media Fields Journal, and Flow Journal, among other venues.