Israeli writer-director Talya Lavie debuts with ‘Zero Motivation

Talya Lavie

Israeli cinema is rich with movies about war and the army. But even novel ones - Amos Gitai's "Kippur" (2000) or Eytan Fox's "Yossi & Jagger" (2002), for instance - are blood-soaked and male-dominated. Director Talya Lavie's debut film, "Zero Motivation," subverts the military genre by focusing on army secretaries stuck in a drab office, pushing pencils instead of pulling triggers.

Lavie, 36, did her mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Forces when she turned 18. "Zero Motivation" isn't autobiographical - Lavie "met with many, many women on different bases and did lots of reading and research" - but its satiric sensibility is all her own. "The army is not just fighting. It's a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of sitting around," says Lavie, who traveled from Tel Aviv to Boston when "Zero Motivation" screened at the Boston Jewish Film Festival last month. "There are women in combat but there is a large part that's ignored: the secretaries. I wanted it to be a dark comedy. People can relate to it because it's not just about the army, it's about the system. It's for everyone who has a boss."

Lavie credits a steady diet of American and British films and television not just for her command of English but for exposing her to favorite filmmakers such as Billy Wilder and John Ford. "I saw a lot of army films as a kid, but I loved Monty Python. I always felt comedy was not a low form of art, but the highest." Other influences, cultivated once she enrolled in the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem, included "M*A*S*H" and "Catch-22."

Like those absurdist war movies, "Zero Motivation" is driven by an assortment of misfits and oddballs who clash with authority figures. There's Zohar (Dana Ivgy), a sullen slacker who spends her time playing video games on the office computer as she schemes to lose her virginity; her friend Daffi (Nelly Tagar), whose job title is paper shredder, and who yearns to be transferred off the desert to a base in Tel Aviv; and their immediate supervisor, Rama (Shani Klein), who worries that her less-than-ambitious charges will undermine her chances for advancement.

There were those who cautioned the filmmaker that she needed to provide a context - meaning the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict - so audiences outside Israel would get it.

"But whenever I did, I felt like I was lying," Lavie says. "The truth is, the girls aren't talking about those things. There's no sense of an ‘enemy.' The real-life experience is not on the front lines. They're young, they're coming of age; it's like being in college. Everyone goes into the army at a time when you want to find who you are. That's a challenge when everyone wears the same outfits. I like how, even under these rules, you can find your self-expression."

Lavie's instincts must have been correct. Since its June release, "Zero Motivation" has become Israel's top-grossing film of 2014, Israeli or American. "More than half a million people in Israel have seen it," says Lavie. The film won best narrative feature at this year's Tribeca Film Festival.

Amy Geller, the BJFF's artistic director, calls Lavie's take on female military secretaries "genius and hysterical."

Noting the comparison to "M*A*S*H," Geller cites another title, the Netflix series "Orange Is the New Black." "Like ‘Orange,' ‘Zero Motivation' boasts an incredible ensemble cast made up largely of women, is set in a prison-like atmosphere, and plays with the characters' but also the audience's notion of sanity.

"And I have to note that the two films that swept the Ophirs [Israeli Oscars] this year were directed by women: ‘Zero Motivation' and ‘Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,' which was co-directed by Ronit Elkabetz and her brother Schlomi Elkabetz. Maybe Hollywood, where less than 9 percent of films are directed by women, could learn a thing or two from the Israeli film industry."

While earning a living by teaching and writing for television, Lavie spent four years raising the money to shoot "Zero Motivation." She got into the Sundance Institute's Screenwriters Lab on the strength of her translated screenplay, and spent a month working with advisers and industry professionals. Her next film, though it will be made in Israel, will be set in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"Zero Motivation" is drawing audiences of all ages and backgrounds, Lavie says, because it depicts "a microcosm of society. I didn't want to have an agenda. That was [secondary] to the characters. Everything had to be from characters and from the story.

"People outside of Israel can relate because they don't think of it just [in terms of] the army. It's about relationships and friendships," she says."The army is a very big part of our society; culturally, politically, it's all very central. But it's really about the relationships between people."