Foxtrot director Samuel Maoz: ‘We don’t like to confront the hard questions’

Foxtrot director Samuel Maoz: ‘We don’t like to confront the hard questions’

The controversial film, starring Lior Ashkenazi, explores the trauma of an Israeli society left scarred by years of conflict

As a veteran of the 1982 war in Lebanon, Samuel Maoz probably never expected to be called a traitor.

But when Israel’s Culture Minister, Miri Regev, denounced his second feature, Foxtrot, over a scene in which the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) covers up the deaths of a carload of Palestinian youths, such accusations were hurled against him, as well as against the film’s lead actor, Lior Ashkenazi, on social media.

Maoz has since revealed he was also threatened with acid attacks, while Ashkenazi’s five-year-old daughter was the subject of death threats.

The film-maker was aware he was dealing with touchy subject matter.

“I knew if I had made a film about a horrible crime happening in the police, the next morning nobody would give a damn,” Maoz tells me.

“But I chose the army, because in Israel everyone does it, so the army reflects
society. And I knew that [made it] a sensitive topic.”

His award-winning first film, Lebanon, drew on his experience as a tank gunner during the first Lebanon War, and the haunting memory of killing an innocent farmer mistaken for the enemy.

“I knew this was the moment I f***ed my life,” he says. Foxtrot reflects the trauma Maoz was left with, and the trauma he believes has been transmitted from generation to generation of Israelis since the Holocaust, compounded by the country’s conflicts with her neighbours, creating an “anxious society and a distorted perception”.

Today, the country has nuclear arms and is strong enough to repel most threats.

In a recent interview, Maoz said: “You cannot compare the situation to the Holocaust, but we still continue to treat this danger [from outside] as if it were the same [existential danger].”

This is the meaning of the film’s surreal mid-section, set at a military roadblock in a muddy wasteland, which he designed as an allegory to compel his countrymen to look beyond the specifics and see the “broad picture”.

Lior Ashkenazi stars with Sarah Adler in Foxtrot

The bored young soldiers barracked in a freight container that is gradually sinking are part of an “unhealthy situation” that is “getting more and more crooked,” says Maoz.

When they kill out of fear and the evidence is covered up, “it expresses, for me, regret and denial”, he says, adding: “We prefer to bury the wound in the mud that we created rather than confront it and ask ourselves penetrating questions.”

Trauma runs through Foxtrot, and in particular through Michael (Ashkenazi) – like Maoz a second-generation Holocaust survivor and Lebanon war veteran – whose demons are laid bare after his soldier son is reported dead.

Maoz wrote the character, having wrestled with the legacy of his own wartime experience for decades. When he made Lebanon in 2009, the film had poured out of him, he says, because it came from a “need to unload, to expose the world as it is, naked, without all the hero stuff. And it was probably a need to forgive myself”.

Foxtrot, a meditation on grief and fate, was more difficult because he no longer had the same need.

Lebanon is like a punch in the stomach, it’s a shocking film. Here, I wanted to do something more complex,  more philosophical, more elegant. So it was harder.”

While his inspiration seems to be a case of mistaken identity that ensnared the family of someone from his unit in Lebanon, the film’s emotional core is the anxiety he experienced when he thought his eldest daughter had been murdered by terrorists.

She always got up late for school, he says, and as a punishment, he’d refused to pay for another taxi and insisted she went on a bus like everyone else. I told
her she needed to learn the hard way how to wake up on time,” recalls Maoz.

“The bus was Line 5. And about half an hour after she left, I hear on the radio a terrorist blew himself up on Line 5, and dozens of people were killed. I tried to call her, but the cellular operator crashed because of the unexpected load. So I experienced the worst hour of my life. It was worse than all the Lebanon war.”

Director Samuel Maoz

Luckily, she’d been late and the driver had refused to let her on. “So I asked myself, what can I learn from it,” says Maoz, “because I did something
that seemed right and logical to do?”

The answer, he realised, is nothing. “That is the tragedy. And this is, maybe,
the gap between the things we control and those beyond our control.”

This is also the philosophical quandary in which Michael finds himself.

Like the director, he makes a decision that seems correct, but has unforeseen consequences. He, and by implication Israeli society, is trapped in a pattern
that, like the eponymous foxtrot dance, always ends where it began.

“Why do we behave the way we do? That’s the big question I’m asking,” says Maoz.

Foxtrot (15) is released in Curzon cinemas from Friday

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