Films about war and soldiers tend to be a staple of modern dramatic cinema, so many of Australia’s most lauded films tends to center on the subject. One subset of such features looks at the notion of boredom and idleness within military ranks, the most well-known recent incarnation being Sam Mendes’ Jarhead.1 It’s rare, though, to see a comedic film about life in the army focused entirely on the roles women play, even more surprising that the country in which this film was made is Israel. Tayla Lavie’s Zero Motivation, adapting her 2005 short film The Substitute to feature-length (and retaining its 2004 setting), is a smart and funny take on gender roles and a subtle criticism of the mindset of war and conscription.
The film is divided into three vignettes that follow one another chronologically, dealing with a replacement NCO (non-combat officer) for the perpetually complaining and presumably spoiled Daffi (Nelly Tagar), her best friend Zohar (Dana Ivgy) in her quest for love (or at least sex), and their commanding officer Rama (Shani Klein) who wants to rise the ranks of the army. It’s a surprisingly effective structural tool, because whilst the wider narrative works sans these divisions, they manage to make the film feel like three distinct episodes, each with a beginning, middle and end. Whilst the first and second stories manage to work mostly standalone, the third brings the first two together, perhaps a little too neatly, feeling less fresh and interesting than the two stories that preceded it. It’s also refreshing to see a film willing to go so darkly comic in its first half hour, the story taking an abrupt left turn and injecting an unsettling shift that, instead of becoming a major plotline for the film as a whole, is relegated to the background and referenced in later scenes to some great comedic effect.2
Despite being set mostly within the confines of an office, the film manages to build upon existing elements of workplace schtick, we have a long-running joke about Minesweeper that’s as much a commentary on technological advancement as it is office tedium and, as oft-described in interviews with Lavie, Chekhov’s staple gun, amusingly placed in a cabinet in act one, leaving us waiting with great anticipation for its return.3 It also achieves some humour in its visual style, which is mostly awash in contrasts – between the army greens and either the beige of the base walls/office or the slightly more complex beige of the desert surrounding the base. That said, even when leaning on the overdone clash of personalities in the workplace, it manages to get some big laughs, primarily because of the sardonic way Zohar reacts to absolutely everything.
Igvy is the clear standout of the film, with cutting line delivery and some adept physical comedy, particularly in her reactions to tasks asked of her.4 Her character represents the purest rebellion against conscription, she treats the work she has been assigned (as “Post NCO”) like a prison sentence, only to change her approach when Daffi leaves, realising that she now has nothing that brings joy to her on the base. Her evolution to a force of destruction leads to some of the best absurdist sequences on show, all of which seem to undermine the seriousness of army training whilst still managing to make Zohar feel like a fully formed character.
Comedies about soldiers often fall into slapstick and absurdity, and whilst there is some of that on display throughout Zero Motivation, it is always in the progression of these realistic characters and their relationships. The commentary on gender roles is nuanced and astute. Whilst there are scenes that actively deal with sexual assault and the distinction between men and women in their assignments on the army base, Lavie presents a range of characters and scenarios in which entrenched bias rears its head but also includes quite a surprising scene late in the film in which a perceived bias is unfounded.5 Lavie also plays off perception amusingly, when we are introduced to two other girls in the office, Livnat (Heli Twito) and Liat (Meytal Gal), we see them arrive late (conveniently avoiding a scolding from Rama) and spend the morning singing loudly (much to the chagrin of Zohar) only to later discover that they are, in fact, the only people who actually do their job in the entire office.
The pervasive nature of war is presented less as something confronting or horrific than as a mundane fact of life, the ingrained perpetual status of “we’re at war” is milked for comedic effect throughout. Whilst Zohar walks past a soldier stapling up posters listing recent conflicts involving Israel, she doesn’t bat an eyelid, just waiting for the return of her sacred staple gun. Likewise, when the army officers are planning their work for the week, they seem to be predisposed with complaining about their lack of coffee and leering at the female NCOs as they leave the room.
There’s a scene late in the film where Rama slightly misquotes Franz Kafka, a clever alteration by Lavie, wherein Kafka’s “the chains of tormented mankind are made out of red tape” becomes “the chains that bind mankind are made of office paperwork“. Though Rama goes on to relate it to personal circumstance, the line as it stands is laughable in context. No one was bound to paperwork bar her office, the threat of random inspection the only tangible connection to the army base. That said, the fact that all of the members of the Administration department are women seems to suggest that, especially in Rama’s case, the relegation to office paperwork bound her to that position. Their jobs are mundane replicas of those in civilian life, so their dreams of leaving them are as much a statement against conscription as normality itself. Lavie’s film is an echo of this idea, a refreshing debut feature sidestepping genre convention and providing a witty showcase for an impressive ensemble cast to navigate social issues alongside the purity of a staplegun fight.