There are no epic battles or heroic deaths in Talya Lavie’s debut directorial film, Zero Motivation, which follows a unit of young Israeli women serving out their mandatory two-year Army service. Stuck on a remote base in the southern Israeli desert, the soldiers of Lavie’s film are selfish, horny and useless, traits used to darkly comic effect for this apolitical war movie. Lavie wisely knows that, regardless of Army experience, we’ve all been there. Everyone's been stuck in a job they hate, bored as hell.
It’s not that the film isn’t violent—there is a grisly suicide, an attempted rape, and no shortage of revenge plots. But for these clerks and secretaries, war is a faraway, almost abstract concept. They’ve undergone basic training but spend their working hours squabbling, breaking Minesweeper records, or figuring out how to weasel away to Tel Aviv. This is not lost on their commander, Rama (Shani Klein), an aspiring military careerist who looks down on frivolity in wartime.
“That’s very much the Israeli experience,” Lavie, 35, says of Rama’s attitude toward non-combatants. “We live in a war zone all the time and there are always more important things going on…Like, I [could be] upset because someone broke my heart, but other people are dying in the fields.”
War films have long been a mainstay in Israeli cinema; as Lavie points out, the rules and obstacles of obligatory military service provide “great dramatic ground” for screenwriters. Of course, the output of this cinematic tradition has been mostly male-dominated. Zero Motivation, with its compassionate portrait of majorly flawed, non-combat soldiers (who all happen to be women) is the first of its kind. After its premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, the film won the festival’s top prize, Best Narrative Feature, and nabbed Lavie the second-ever Nora Ephron Award to boot.
“In her unique and ambitious first feature, this filmmaker deftly handed such difficult themes as the military, sexism, love, ambition, and friendship,” the jury noted. “This filmmaker also pulled off the awesome feat of managing multiple characters and storylines. In what was definitely the most hilarious film we saw at the festival…the winning film is a fresh, original, and heartfelt comedy about life behind the scenes in the Israeli army.”
(“We were half-drunk when they announced the second award,” Lavie’s lead actress, Dana Ivgy, laughs.)
The film—which also won a slew of Israeli Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Ivgy—was inspired by Lavie’s own time serving in the military in the early 2000s, though she’s careful to note that it is not autobiographical. She spent weeks talking to young women currently serving in non-combat jobs to absorb stories, details, and slang to write into the screenplay, which got Lavie into the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Lab. The lab opened the door to a patchwork of grants from around the world which allowed Lavie to begin auditioning actresses. Except for the lead role: Ivgy was always going to be Zohar, the world’s most unpleasant mail secretary.
Zohar, the heart of Zero Motivation, is cold, exasperatingly petty, and a smart-ass, though she obviously loves her best friend Daffi (Nelly Tagar) and is desperate to keep her from transferring to another base. (Daffi’s only ambition is to move to Tel Aviv, where she imagines herself power-walking across boulevards in an IDF uniform and heels.) Zohar acts tough but is teased for being a virgin; she’s hapless around boys, but clumsily asks one out anyway while pointing a loaded rifle at him (following protocol for suspected intruders, naturally). By the time she wages a vicious, all-out office supply war with Daffi—it involves staple guns and perfectly executed physical comedy—Zohar has actually become endearing.
“When you read the script, you say, ‘Oh she’s a terrible person,’” Lavie says of Zohar. “But when Dana plays her, she gives her so much pain and humanity. That’s why so many people relate to her.”
Ivgy herself formed a special attachment to Zohar and says she “had a really hard time” once shooting wrapped. “It’s so nice, doing all those things you would never do and saying everything you think, just like that. It’s like therapy,” she says. “I tried to force Talya to add scenes, make a series out of it so I could do it forever.”
Letting go of Zohar’s devastating Minesweeper addiction was more than Ivgy expected, too. “It took me like three months after the film was over,” Ivgy says. “[Whatever] spare time I had, I was like, ‘It’s part of my job, I have to play this!’ Then hours go by and your brain wipes out and you close your eyes at night and see numbers.” Her eyes widen. “There’s no way to stop playing.”
Ivgy—an accomplished actress at 32 and the daughter of Moshe Ivgy, a veteran of Israeli cinema—had previously worked with Lavie on another film, a short called The Substitute, while the two were still in school. (That film grew into Zero Motivation seven years later.) Not that Ivgy and Lavie went to the same school—or even knew each other back then.
“I stalked her,” Lavie says matter-of-factly when asked how she and Ivgy first met. She recounts sending Ivgy a script, then tracking the actress down at school. Ivgy was at a theater at the time, but Lavie went to see her anyway and waited out the performance in the lobby until Ivgy came downstairs. The two ended up back at Ivgy’s apartment, where she agreed to shoot the film guerilla-style on a real army base on weekends.
Ivgy—who says she remembers none of this—never served with the Army, but says drawing inspiration for Zohar’s impish, prickly character wasn’t hard. “I have a lot of memories as a teenager that helped,” she smiles.
Lavie nods. One needs not have served with the IDF to know true boredom, after all. “Boredom is something that a person can experience anywhere,” she says. “It’s your choice.”