In the summer after she graduated from college, my daughter Dena volunteered for a short stint with the Israel Defense Forces. She was posted to a naval base outside Haifa, but because she didn’t speak Hebrew she was assigned to applying bright red paint to the curbs on the edge of the sidewalks of the base so that nobody would dare to park there. And in the afternoon she went to the beach.
I couldn’t help thinking of this as I watched Talya Lavie’s brilliant new film “Zero Motivation.” The biggest hit of the year in Israel, nominated for 12 Ophirs, the Israeli equivalent of American Oscars, and named the Best Narrative Feature Award at the Tribeca Film Festival, “Zero Motivation” is a wry and poignant look at the tedious work done by the women behind the lines.
Way behind the lines. The movie is set at a small military base a million miles from nowhere, with nothing around in the bleak southern desert but the distant mountains, some dried-out flora, and a lone camel. Even the color-saturated photography can’t make these surroundings appealing.
Stuffed into a crowded, seedy office are five young women serving their mandatory two-year term in the military. They are the staff of the Human Resources Office, and each one has an official title that is more nonsensical than the last. For example, Daffi, our ditzy heroine, brightly played by Nelly Tagar, has a high-falutin title that identifies her as the office’s commander in chief in charge of document shredding.
Daffi’s best friend, Zohar (a tough, mean-spirited kibbutznick played by Dana Ivgy), willfully promotes havoc when she isn’t being mesmerized by the games on her computer. Or dying of boredom.
As writer/director Lavie has explained, “Israeli women may of course serve in more glamorous roles … but I wanted to focus on us office girls, the unseen and mostly-ignored majority whose contribution is lacking any social or symbolic value.” (See my daughter’s job description, above.)
But they have their dreams. Daffi is obsessed with trying to get posted to Tel Aviv, but she is thwarted at every turn. Zohar is humiliated by being the only woman she knows who is still a virgin. And Rama (Shani Klein) their platoon commander who aspires to be promoted and have a significant military career, has two things working against her: she is useless as a commander, and Zohar and Daffi keep screwing things up.
The story is told in a straightforward style, moving through life in chronological order. No flashbacks or sudden surprises. But Lavie has divided the action into three distinct vignettes. The first is about a new recruit whom Daffi latches onto, insisting that the girl is meant to be her replacement when she (Daffi) transfers to Tel Aviv. But the girl has an agenda of her own which leads to tragedy.
In the second episode Zohar decides to do something about her virginity and she approaches a young man who is happily obliging. It’s a hilarious episode, but it also ends badly.
Having followed the women through their enlistment, the film ends with their return to the rest of their lives. Each receives her appropriate desserts, but Daffi, with her relentless determination to be transferred to Tel Aviv, transforms herself, almost inadvertently, into something she neither anticipated nor particularly craved: a professional soldier in the IDF.
“Zero Motivation” is a beautifully realized film. Most definitely a “must see” movie. It makes its Los Angeles debut at the Nuart Theater, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., in West Los Angeles, on Jan. 16.