Samuel Maoz on Foxtrot

Samuel Maoz's second feature, Foxtrot, is an allegorical three-act drama dealing with grief and faith in modern-day Israel. The director tells us about his new film and the controversy it's caused in his home nation

Feature by Philip Concannon | 27 Feb 2019
  • Foxtrot

Samuel Maoz will never forget his darkest hour. As a teenager, his daughter had developed an unfortunate habit of oversleeping and being late for school, and she would often ask him to call for a taxi instead of taking the bus. “Of course, this started to cost a bit of money and it seemed to me like a bad education, so one morning I got mad and told her to take the bus like everyone else,” Maoz recalls. “Maybe she'd be late but she needed to learn the hard way to wake up on time. The bus was Line 5, and half an hour after she left I heard on the radio that a terrorist blew himself up on Line 5 and dozens of people were killed.”

An hour after this news broke, Maoz’s daughter returned home unharmed – she had seen the fateful bus pulling away as she ran to the station – but the agonising period that he spent waiting for news still haunts him to this day. Unable to contact her because the phone network had collapsed under the strain, Maoz could only sit helplessly at home, fearing the worst. “That day I experienced the worst hour of my life, it was worse than the entire Lebanon war,” he admits. “Afterwards I asked myself, what can I learn from this experience? I realised I can learn nothing but I wanted to explore the gap between the things we can control and those that are beyond our control.”

Questions of fate and irony are at the heart of Foxtrot, Maoz’s first film since his acclaimed 2009 debut Lebanon. It opens with a scene inspired by Maoz’s own memories, with Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) and Dafna (Sarah Adler), an affluent Tel Aviv couple, being plunged into despair when soldiers arrive at their apartment to announce that their son has been killed in the line of duty. This sequence is disorienting and the parents’ raw grief lacerating, but there is also something grimly comical about it all, as the soldiers awkwardly attempt to impose protocol and discuss funeral arrangements with the bewildered Michael. The biggest laugh is yet to come; their son Jonathan is actually alive, having been confused with a deceased soldier with the same name.

Foxtrot's tryptych, and Israel's collective trauma

Foxtrot is constructed as a triptych, allowing Maoz to explore this family’s grief from a variety of perspectives and in three stylistically distinct ways. After the opening segment, Maoz shifts the focus to Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray), as he keeps watch at a remote roadblock, marking time in a corrugated iron box slowly sinking into the mud. Finally, the film returns to Michael and Dafna, a couple torn apart but also united by their shared pain. Foxtrot has a number of surreal and absurdist touches, but over the course of its three visually dazzling segments it takes on the shape of a classical tragedy.

“There is something complete about this emotional journey and dividing the film into these sequences helped me control it,” Maoz explains. “Each sequence reflects, with only cinematic tools, the character who leads the sequence. The first one reflects Michael, so it is a sharp sequence: gothic, symmetrical, made up of tight compositions and accurate shots. The middle sequence floats a few inches above the ground like the inner world of a dreamy artist, and the third sequence, in which Dafna is a more important figure, is simple and loose, softer and warmer."

Maoz uses this family’s experience as a microcosm of the trauma that, he argues, has kept his nation trapped in an unending loop; always destined to end up back where they started, like the steps of the foxtrot. “I think the conclusion of the film is that fate cannot change, not because it's defined, but because of the nature of the traumatised Israeli men and women, and the nature of the collective, stuck in its trauma,” Maoz says.

He explains that he sees a lot of himself in Michael, recognising that he is part of a generation living in the shadow of a great tragedy that they cannot escape. “When I went to school and I only got a seven in maths, my mother would say, 'For this I survived the Holocaust?' So when we came back from the war with two arms, two legs and ten fingers, any complaining was unacceptable. Be a man! Our parents and teachers survived the Holocaust and experienced the worst trauma in modern times, so we had to suppress and become an additional generation of victims. This continuous suppression of our emotions does not help us get out of our cycle of trauma, but we can excuse it because we are under this ‘existential danger,’ that they want to terminate us. They did once for sure, no doubt about it, but not anymore. The emotional memory of the trauma is stronger than any logic or reality.”

"Miri Regev holds a mirror up to the radical split in our society": On Israel's reaction to Foxtrot

In one of Foxtrot’s eccentric detours, Michael remembers an incident from his past, when he traded a treasured Hebrew bible – handed down by a relative who survived the Holocaust – for a dirty magazine. “For me it's a very healthy move!” Maoz insists. “These personal effects were important through the years of exile, but their job was done. Michael chooses life, he chooses normality.” But Foxtrot’s exploration of Israelis’ relationship with the past has proven to be deeply divisive at home. The film became a cause célèbre in Israel when culture minister Miri Regev repeatedly denounced it as “the result of self-flagellation and cooperation with the anti-Israel narrative.” She also admitted that she had not seen the film in full.

“I was surprised to see that before the film was released, our culture minister attacked it without seeing it and she began to press on the buttons of that trauma, with slogans like ‘Foxtrot is destroying the country,’ as if the film is a nuclear weapon that will erase us from the map,” Maoz says with a weary sigh. “She holds a mirror up to the radical split in our society. Her fans defend her without seeing it, and her opponents fill the cinemas and support the film, so the struggle is no longer only about the film itself. It's a struggle for freedom of speech and the purity of creation in art.

"The tragedy is that she did it not for any particular ideology, but just for her own political rhetoric. As long as the film continues to succeed, she can continue to shout. Every newspaper wrote many times about it and my distributor told me we saved millions on PR because she gave us such publicity, but I don't like it because I feel the film does not need that cheap publicity. We can manage without her.”

Maoz has already suggested that his next film might not take place in Israel, and he is sure that the eight-year gap between his first two features won’t be repeated. “No, life is too short for me now,” he says. “For one year after Lebanon I was travelling all over, and then I started to write something else, a black comedy. I wrote it for eight months and after eight months I found myself with four or five short films but nothing that could make a feature. I do have something now and it's about women this time. I'm done with the army, I don't want to spend my life on films that deal just with this subject. I’m glad that my next film will have no army and no men.”

Foxtrot is released 1 Mar by Curzon Artificial Eye