Sydney Film Festival 2018: How Israeli film FOXTROT diagrams an endless war



Dir. Samuel Maoz

The box step of the foxtrot moves the dancer so they end up in the same place they started with. Front step, together, right step, together, back step, together, left step, together and repeat. It is a simultaneous metaphor for the cyclical nature of war, the unyielding Israeli conflict, and an in-movie reference to the NATO alphabetic representation of the letter F. A soldier dances the foxtrot for his comrade as they both man a border gate along with two other soldiers. Like the dance, they are moving in the same routine and they are all bored to death. But this is not where it begins.

The film begins with a woman collapsing on the floor as she opens the door to her home. At first the camera focuses on her face and we don’t see why she’s reacting the way she does but the two Israeli soldiers in uniform who appear then make it clear that this is a message of death. Her son, one of the aforementioned group of soldiers, has been killed during his service. The way the camera looks at this scene - meticulous, attentive, unhurried - is evidence that this is a film guided by a director who understands visual storytelling. The camera faces the exact place of tension as if it’s a homing device directed towards dramatic heat.

This is a story of a grieving family and a group of stultified soldiers living through the endless Israeli conflict. From the opening scene, it leads us to believe that the story will progress in a particular way but as this three-part narrative unfolds, it comes with surprises large and small. While the subject matter sounds depressing there is intermittent liveliness throughout. There are dance interludes, absurd humour and even an animated sequence. It’s the kind of movie that keeps you paying attention from its sheer inventiveness and wit.

Like the steps of the foxtrot, this film is diagrammatic in its structure and visual language. You can trace an imaginary line or, as it turns out, a series of circles that links its thematic explorations, visual motifs and camera movements back to itself. When the family receive the news of their loved one’s death the camera draws a spiral around the room, moving as if it’s as disorientated by the news as the characters. Later, we see that the soldier’s quarters inside a shipping container is sinking on one side from the soft mud. Cinematographer Giora Bejach shoots a wide shot of this interior with the subjects leaning down on one side. Another line is drawn. Even the very ground they stand on can no longer hold itself.

The shot compositions aren’t the only elements you can draw lines with. There are visual references that circle back to itself. One of those motifs is a wandering camel. We see it first as it aimlessly walks through the border where the soldiers are and later play a key role in the plot’s development. It is both a dramatic catalyst, a punchline and, again, a metaphor for the film’s themes. If you’ve read some of my previous writing, you would know I don’t care much for metaphorical interpretations in films but the way director Samuel Maoz employs them here is so organic that it’s hard to separate them from the overall effectiveness of this brutally direct dark comedy. It exudes directorial confidence, is full of inventive formal approaches and certainly a cinematic gem worthy of attention. Even though it has the same rhythm and structure of a foxtrot, even when we end up at the same place by the end, it feels like something has changed.

This film is part of the 2018 Sydney Film Festival lineup on June 6-17.

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