It is unlikely Samuel Maoz was surprised by the attack on his new film, Foxtrot, by Israel’s Cultural Minister, Miri Regev, before its world premiere at the 74th Venice International Film Festival last month. After all, the former Israeli soldier had chosen to explore his country’s psychic wounds through a story involving the IDF.
This was enough to make Regev claim the director had “defamed” the most “moral army in the world” even though she had not yet seen the film.
Maoz, 55, does show bored young soldiers at a desert roadblock humiliating Palestinians, and worse, but the section is allegorical, and has a broader meaning — especially for Israelis, the film-maker hopes — beyond the specifics of the situation and setting.
Talking to me in Venice before taking away the festival’s second top award, the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize, the Tel Aviv-born director says he chose the IDF, knowing that it was a “sensitive topic”, because conscription means “everyone was in the Army, so the Army reflects [Israeli] society.”
He sees the roadblock, with its alternating periods of boredom, tension and panic, as a “microcosm of an anxious society with a distorted perception that comes out of a terrible past trauma.” This has helped give rise to “an endless traumatic situation,” he says.
“Part of it is maybe forced upon us, but part of it could have been avoided.” Instead of discussing it, though, Maoz suggests people live in “denial”.
“We prefer to bury the truth rather than confront it and ask ourselves penetrating questions.”
Foxtrot’s characters include different generations of Holocaust survivors and men bent out of shape by their military service. Trauma ripples through the film as it has done through Maoz’s life, practically from birth. His mother was in Auschwitz, and he says she has never let him forget it.
“I suspect that she doesn’t remember anything because she was a child,” he says with a wry smile, “but it meant we couldn’t complain about anything. If there was a maths test and I got seven [correct answers], she’d say, ‘Dreadful! I needed to survive the Holocaust for seven?’ Or if I said, ‘Mother, it’s hot,’ she’d say, ‘Do you even understand what is hot? The crematorium.’”
At school, teachers would roll up their sleeves and wave their camp tattoos in front of pupils. Maoz’s generation had to man up and shut up.
He explores the damage done by this in Foxtrot through the battle-scarred father Michael, played by Lior Ashkenazi — a man who tries to hold his pain inside, until he cannot any longer. The director understands: after serving in the 1982 Lebanon war as a tank gunner — a period recorded in his 2009 Golden Lion-winning debut feature, Lebanon — Maoz still couldn’t look to his mother for comfort. “If I’d complained that I have some problem inside me, she’d tell me, ‘You have two hands, two legs, 10 fingers, and you dare to complain that you have pain inside? Be a man!’”
But Maoz was in pain, and it took him years to come to terms with it. His life had changed forever at 6.15am on 6 June 1982 in Lebanon, when he was ordered to fire at a vehicle which turned out to be an innocent farm truck. He can still see the driver “crawling with just one hand. All his organs were on the ground and yet he was so alive,” says Maoz. “He was shouting ‘Peace! Peace! I’m not the enemy!’
“I looked at him and I remember I couldn’t connect [it] to my actions. But still there was like a loud voice in the back of my head, like this is the moment that I knew I had f***** my life.” Sadness washes over him. “I just wanted him to die. I couldn’t listen to the shouting any more.”
He returned home physically intact but disturbed by his experiences. “You can address the events until you blur them completely. You can distort them. You can explain them to yourself and even understand that you didn’t have a choice. But you won’t forget it. Your emotional memory will haunt you forever.”
Sleeplessness, nightmares and isolation spring to mind when one thinks about the symptoms of war-related trauma, but “it is not so simple”, he tells me. “From time to time you want to show everybody the opposite [strength], but inside of you, your soul is bleeding. And when you don’t have anywhere to download your pain, you keep it in, and you kick the dog [as Michael does, but Maoz says he never did] as a price for your denial, for your repression. You think that nobody sees it, but everybody sees it.”
The consequences are damaging individually and, as Foxtrot appears to suggest, for a nation bogged-down in self-harming behaviours and sinking as a result.
However, he asserts that the film isn’t the “slander” Regev has claimed. As Maoz told reporters, “If I criticise the place I live, I do it because I worry. I do it because I want to protect it. I do it from love.”
‘Foxtrot’ will screen at the London Film Festival on October 11 and 12.