In the Army Now, by Aaron Pinkston
As the conflict between Israel and Palestine has become more and more violent and politically muddled, we’ve seen a burgeoning film movement depicting the war from nearly every angle. We’ve seen romances where those from opposing factions risk everything to fall in love, dramas with family relations stuck on each side, thrillers involving spies and turncoats, and countless documentaries telling the gripping true stories. And then there is Zero Motivation. Set in a remote administrative base of the Israeli armed forces, Zero Motivation is one of the weirdest and most original comedies of the year. The film pulls from many cinematic and television influences, from the obvious M*A*S*H to more modern sitcoms like Girls and The Office. Focusing on a small group on non-combatant females, it jumps from situation to situation, covering a surprisingly large scope of issues, though incredibly nonchalantly. Like its characters, Zero Motivation is a bit aimless and meandering, but not without charm.
Zero Motivation’s structure pulls from its small-screen influences. The film is broken into three chapters that are about the length and scope of a television episode, each focusing on one character and specific situation. The first opens with the arrival of a new recruit who has supposedly been placed at the base to replace Daffi, who has been dreaming of transferring to the Tel Aviv base, where she can experience some culture in the big city. This chapter ends with a particularly dark act which shocks the tone of the film, reminding the viewer of the actual stakes in this world even as it seems so silly. The second chapter shifts focus away from the group in whole to Zohar, a rebellious young woman hoping to lose her virginity as soon as possible. The finale brings Daffi back to the administrative office after going through officer’s camp. Now as the newly appointed commander of the group, her relationship with Zohar and the other women is tested.
Israel’s mandatory service time system is basically the only way to get this assortment of characters together, and it is only with this group that a film with this tone could exist. None of the women at the base seems to have any interest in the war (though they aren’t outwardly anti-war, either) or any care for their menial administrative jobs, so they treat their duties as if they have a crummy job they can’t escape. Given the strict society, rural location and female togetherness, it also feels like a summer camp, though one where no one can wait to get back to their normal lives back home.
The film’s strongest attribute is its balance between its offbeat, situation-based humor with its serious backdrop. I wouldn’t classify Zero Motivation as a drama, but it deserves kudos for knowing the appropriate time to be a comedy and when not to be. Most broad, character based comedies would approach suicide, rape, violence and even less serious concerns like overbearing bosses or unrequited love with much less attention. Zero Motivation manages to touch on these issues without jarring its natural humor. It never sells its characters out as the butt of a joke; even in a strange narrative turn when a supporting character becomes possessed with the ghost of a fellow soldier, the film plays it seriously, not drawing any undue attention. The group’s commander is another good example of this as a character type almost always played in the broadest way possible, either as an inscrutable hard ass or inappropriate dumbass. Here, though, Rama is a stern but professional woman who is talented and career driven.
By staying true to real characters and never making jokes where they don’t belong, Zero Motivation is a rare kind of comedy. It is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but completely maintains its dry sense of humor throughout, anchored by a unique environment and strong all-female cast. It is hardly the most essential film coming from this newly focused Israel-Palestine cinema, but is definitely one of the most entertaining and different voices to stand out.