Talya Lavie discusses her award-winning Israeli army comedy ‘Zero Motivation'

Talya Lavie

If there is such a thing called the academic film calendar, December is when our collective focus starts shifting from seeking cinematic gems to checking the year’s prominent must-sees off our lists. Awards season gets louder, year-end lists start popping up and comparably modest releases of December face the challenge of battling with the excessive noise around. Talya Lavie’s infinitely original and wickedly funny Zero Motivation, which quietly opened at NYC’s Film Forum for a limited run on Wednesday (to expand its run in select states/theaters through early 2015), is one of those smaller releases that requires some well-deserved attention before you make your year-end lists. Winner of 6 Israeli Academy Awards (nominated for 12 in total) as well as double accolades from the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival (Best Narrative Feature and Nora Ephron Prize), Zero Motivation is as confident a debut as I’ve come across in recent years from a young writer/director, noticeably ripe with a vision. 

Set in an Israeli military base, the quick-witted Zero Motivation tells the story of a group of young female soldiers (many of them blessed with a deadpan sense of humor) tasked with mundane, paper-pushing, behind-the-scenes duties; surviving their day-to-day boredom. As Lavie dials up the tension in the office, plagued by monotony and jealousy (and even a cleverly-played ghost story), she unveils the film’s many universal themes, as everyday as friendship and love; and as complex as feminism. In the midst of a season that is (yet again) taken over by stories of distinguished males (a handful of exceptions aside), the must-see Zero Motivation thankfully emerges as an antidote.

I had the great pleasure of chatting with writer/director Talya Lavie about the film’s themes, her artistic inspirations and gender representation in film industry. Read our conversation below.

How did you land on this story? I know both women and men spend time in military in Israel, so I am wondering if anything in the movie is based on your own experiences.
The film is not autobiographical, but it is very personal. When I was writing the script, I was talking to many girls who were just released from the army, and they were soldiers at that time. In building the story and its language, I was very inspired by them; so it’s a mix. And of course, there is a lot of instinctual imagination here as well.

You touch upon so many different themes. Friendship, love, betrayal, jealousy, gender… How did you enter the film? Which layer did you first want to tackle?
I think it was the friendship. I was very intrigued by the idea of finding your identity as a young woman. I noticed that women’s friendships are very stormy love stories. Female friendship has elements of love affairs – they are very deep and interesting. And so that’s where I started, thinking, most of the time you identify yourself by who your friends are. 

What you’re saying is so true. When we take our friendships seriously, it really is like a romantic relationship.
Yes, that’s what I meant. Romantic relationship. With ups and downs and a lot of emotions. You get attached and jealous. In women’s friendships, even at young age, they think: “Oh you were my friend first, and you betrayed me with another girl.” There is nothing really romantic or sexual about it, but it’s very emotional.

You get into some gender politics in there too, especially with the character Zohar (Dana Igvy) who’s still a virgin and wants to lose her virginity. And there’s a scene where she almost gets raped.
Connecting this to your earlier question, there are a lot of themes in the script because I put inside a large scale of emotions that I had as a young woman. And you know, this girl wants to lose her virginity because to her, it’s a metaphor to enter real life as an adult. And her character in a way doesn’t want to become an adult. She wants to stay a kid and turn everything into a game. She wants to play computer games. She doesn’t want to enter the world as an adult but she knows she needs to. That’s kind of the story. She has many obstacles in her way, and I think I wanted to save her from having her first sexual experience with the wrong guy. And the character Irena (Tamara Klingon), the girl who stops him… It is hinted that she has history of violence in her own life. She is not a nice girl or friend. But in a way, she displays the friendliest act in the film.

As I’m sure you’re aware, in Hollywood or American cinema, films like Zero Motivation are not the norm. We don’t get a lot of movies around here with women’s stories. Why do you think there’s this issue here? 
I think this issue, lack of representation, is all over the world. It is very significant in Hollywood, but I think when it stops being like that in Hollywood, then it will stop in the rest of the world. So I think it all starts from there. And I think it is a problem all over the world, because there are fewer women than men in top positions. Also, I don’t think women necessarily have to make movies about women or female issues only. I think women should make films about whatever they want, and they can make films about men. Like, male directors made amazing films about female characters. 

How did you get your project funded?
It was first funded by the Israeli Film Fund. Then by a cable TV channel in Israeli called HOT. We also received some money from a fund in France. Also, Match Factory in Germany. That’s how we funded the film. It took a long time.

In recent years, there were many IDF (Israel Defense Forces) related films from Israel such as Beaufort, Waltz with Bashir, Lebanon. How do you see your film fit in that group?
IDF is a big part of our culture and society. And because of that, there are a lot of army-related films from Israel. I wanted to add this one to the mix, because I think it was important to also talk about the unimportant parts of IDF.

I noticed that you mostly steered clear of political talk in Zero Motivation. I think there is one scene where Rama (Shani Klein) mentions, “our men are dying out there.” But other than that, we don’t really hear about political unrest going on.
I think the film is political because it in a way shows Israeli society. Since IDF is a major element in our society, I tried to show this little office as the microcosm of Israeli society. And you can also see that the girls in the office are coming from different parts of the society, and they mix together there. The tension in Israeli society comes from politics. So, the tension, the violence, come from outside of the walls and enter into the room. That’s one thing.

Also, I wanted to be very true to the characters. One of the things that was most important to me was that the film had to feel authentic. Those girls in the office, they are not in front of anything. They are not involved in anything. Those political issues, they don’t come up in the story but there is also a permanent feeling of the world outside. You can see that when they’re told in the field “there’s a war outside, and you’re doing that? And you’re fighting over nothing?” That’s very much the Israeli experience. That there is something much bigger going on, and the rest of the issues are less important. That’s the way those characters live. When we were getting the film funded, people sometimes told me I should add more political elements to get European money. Every time I tried to do it, it felt very fake. And it felt like it was done to please someone else. It was not authentic.

I understand. I am really glad you stuck with your gut, because that authenticity really shows.
Thank you so much.

Some have compared your sensibilities to Lena Dunham. Wondering if you’ve seen those comparisons and what you thought. Do you follow her work?
Yes. And I even met her in Sundance Screenwriters Lab. She was there with a project; as a screenwriter to Ry Russo-Young. So I met her there. Then I went to the premiere of Tiny Furniture in Jerusalem. I think she is fantastic. I wrote this script before I knew her, but if you compare me to her, I would be very happy with it.

What are you working on next?
I am working on a script that I actually wrote when I was waiting on funds for Zero Motivation. It takes place in Brooklyn but it’s an Israeli film, about an Israeli musician trying to make it in New York City. I am still re-writing it.