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Director Samuel Maoz’s wins the Silver Lion award at the 2017 Venice Film Festival

Shmulik Maoz
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Eight years after winning a Silver Lion award at the Venice Film Festival for his debut feature, Lebanon, director Samuel Maoz made his triumphant return to the Italian canal city – this time, with Foxtrot which walked away the winner of that year’s Silver Lion – the festival’s second most important award. The inspiration for Foxtrot came to Maoz from an incident that took place in the mid-1990s: his eldest daughter escaped the Tel Aviv bus route no. 5 suicide bombing attack – she was on her way to school and was due to catch the ill-fated bus but fortunately, had missed it. Maoz and his wife, Laura who was the film’s Costume and Wardrobe Designer experienced that crippling anxiety right up to the moment when their daughter walked through their front door. That very anxiety, Maoz later channelled into Foxtrot. The plot of the film is set around two parents (Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler) who are informed that their soldier son, Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray) was killed in the line of duty. The film follows the couple’s coping with the devastating news. “I’d like to thank my wife, Laura, my light, my soul,” Maoz said in his Venice acceptance speech. “Foxtrot is a type of dance. And one can dance it in any number of ways but eventually, one always goes back to the starting point.” Foxtrot’s Venice premiere was mired in quite the scandal; the architect of which was Israel’s then-Culture and Sports Minister, Miri Regev MK. Though she never actually bothered watching it herself, that did not stop Regev from arguing that the film is a smear campaign against the IDF, and that it portrays it as an army that covers up serious offences. At a press conference that was held right after the ceremony in Venice, Maoz addressed Regev’s words: “Every society should want to better itself and learn from its mistakes, for our children’s sake. Self-criticism is important, so that we don’t end up sinking in [our own] mud. I criticise my country out of concern, and I do so with love.” One of the scenes which Foxtrot critics were most affronted by was the Mercedes burial scene. The film’s second act is set in a military outpost where Jonathan is stationed. One rainy night, a Mercedes carrying four Arab youths pulls up to the military checkpoint. One of the soldiers mistakes a soft drink can for a hand grenade and opens fire. The soldiers then report back to the outpost with news of the incident. The outpost’s chiefs then send over a backhoe loader to bury the vehicle along with the passengers’ bodies inside. A senior officer instructs the soldiers to keep quiet or suffer the consequences. “Throughout the whole creative process, the Mercedes burial scene stood out as an explosive scene,” Maoz reveals. “Many people who were concerned for my safety and who’d had my best interests at heart, advised me whilst I was editing that I should cut the scene. They also threw in quite the dramatic argument, saying how ‘the narrative arc doesn’t really need it there,’ because they knew full well I would never even conceive of chucking a scene for reasons that weren’t dramatic. In a sense, they were right: that scene could have been sent packing with one click of a button. The scene before it would have melted into the next one like butter. Not one viewer would have felt as if something were missing, and the sequence would have ended with an accident; human error – which is terribly sad but does happen. ‘It’s an utterly useless scene,’ they used to tell me, ‘and it’ll fuck you and the film over, and it’s best that you just cut it!’ ‘Since when did you become such a political activist?”, one of my friends asked me. ‘You’re the dramatic kind,’ he added and ruled. And that, right there, is the first reason why I refused to cut the scene. Because let’s have a little cognitive exercise here, shall we? Let’s say we remove the scene from its military context and suppose it’s the final act in a spate of assassinations in a crime film – not one viewer would take issue with it. On the contrary. The scene would draw them further into it. What turned me on in the sequence’s dramatic scale was its double climax. I am the dramatic kind, and I do like to go higher and higher, and when I reach a dramatic summit, like the Mercedes shooting scene, I will take a breath and then take a step further, beyond the peak. You all thought this was it. Well, guess again. We have back-to-back climaxes here. ‘If this were a crime film, we would have been in favour of the scene, except the film is set in a military reality,’ they argued, and rightly so. Which brings us to the second reason why the scene made the cut. Because if in a crime film, the viewer connects with the scene whereas in a military one, it would elicit the most threatening, crude, inciteful, violent, and visceral sense of antagonism in them – then, in their reaction, they will have validated the very trauma that the film is about – Israeli society’s trauma. In that sense, that scene is a key scene which only affirms the film’s message.