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Army films, art and politics: uneasy bedfellows

By David Arkin

Israel will be represented at the forthcoming Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Film category with the movie, . Though the final shortlist will only be announced early in 2018, it’s a category that has had perennial Israeli representation through the years. Although, to date, no Israeli film has ever won this category, Foxtrot does combine the necessary ingredients to succeed: a beautiful and artistically produced film, wonderful acting, a strong political message, and a strong dose of political controversy that accompanied the reviews.

When the film is criticised and not endorsed by the local Sports and Culture minister, one may tend to be ambivalent towards its success at the Oscars. Yes, it does portray the Army negatively (and perhaps is even unfair at times) but this film isn’t left-wing propaganda. And while its defendants obviously label it as art to justify its messages, most of the time they are so subtle, that only someone living in Israel for a length of time could fully appreciate and understand them.

The Army has been regular setting for local film through the decades, which is hardly surprising given its influence in society and on Israeli psyche. There have been actions films, dramas, comedies, satires, and even films about zombies! Sometimes they are topical, like dealing with recruitment of Haredim. Many have been anti-war. Foxtrot would probably fit into the anti-war genre, though “antikibush” is probably more accurate (kibush being the Hebrew word for military occupation).

The film’s detractors will argue it fuels anti-Israel opinion, especially tarnishing the Army’s legitimacy. However, in an open and democratic society, with free-speech and where journalistic and artistic freedom are a given, the film’s core only highlights exiting bugbears of the system. In many ways, the Israeli Army is a state within a state, with its own leadership (chain of command), bureaucratic procedures (for governance and administration), and own judicial system (complete with military police, CID - criminal investigation division - and military courts). The Army is used to receiving criticism from all quarters, and has built rigorous systems to investigate thoroughly any misdemeanours in order to protect its integrity.

With this in mind, any criticisms singled out in the movie, are wellknown and familiar with the Israeli viewer. Army protocols to inform the family of fallen soldiers are depicted as mechanical and crass, the Rabbinate depicted as emotionally-void to mourners. And while the individual relative of a fallen soldier may initially get lost in the vast military apparatus, there is also a vast support network for bereaved families which isn’t represented in the film. The message is clear and long-internalised: Israeli society continues to suffer by needing to send their sons and daughters to compulsory service in the Armed Forces, especially when a parent buries their child-soldier.

More uncomfortable is how the film deals with soldiers out in the field protecting the State. The screening of Palestinians at checkpoints with an antiquated database is a thinly-veiled criticism of the system of information-collection through the Shin Bet. But there can be no easy way of rooting out the bad apples. A soldier steals from a civilian. Is theft tolerated? Of course not – it is prosecuted, even in war (the local press widely reported that soldiers were indicted for looting NIS 2,420 from an apartment in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in 2014). Are Palestinian civilians exposed to the weather elements by soldiers, and is there abuse? Yes, but with all the pressures and instantaneous reporting through digital media, it is thoroughly investigated and dealt with accordingly. The IDF’s code of ethics, Ruach Tzahal (“Spirt of the IDF”) represents the values of the army and stands as the foundation for its responsibilities to prevent this. Sometimes Ruach Tzahal isn’t enough and there are operational failures and innocents get killed. Even worse in the film, a massacre is covered up. The Sports and Culture Minister could not accept this as film-art, especially being a former Brigadier General and IDF spokesperson. But instead of trying to muzzle artists, a better response would have been to point out that this simply couldn’t happen with the IDF’s watchdog Military Advocate investigating and defending the code of ethics after every incident.

The cameo of a tattooed survivor-grandmother, juxtaposed to her grandson serving at a checkpoint, propagating the kibush, reminds the viewer that the situation is somehow tolerated and necessary to prevent future atrocities, brought on or inspired by Nazism in the past. But this image isn’t forceful. Rather, the Army Brass touting the maxim “we’re at war” as a justification after the massacre, rings loud but hollow to the audience. The abuse of Palestinian civilians is one obvious negative by-product of the kibush. However, the soldiers themselves evoke sympathy, as the squad manning the checkpoint lives in squalid conditions. They appear as mismatchedmisfits, composed of an orator/philosopher, a mute, a technician, and an artist. And while they battle on with their mission on hand, they too invoke pity for being thrown together to man a desolate outpost in order to defend the kibush.

It’s a heavy film to watch, and one wonders how many of the nuances will be understood by a foreign audience. In fact, to continue the ironies portrayed in the film, the actor playing the central character, Yonatan, the soldier around whom the plot revolves, is currently actively serving as a combat soldier in the Givati brigade. Despite the film’s fierce critics that it should not represent Israel at the Oscars, the role of the oppressor and who is oppressed isn’t straightforward and clear-cut. And this is perhaps precisely the point: everyone ends up suffering in some way due to the kibush.