It’s difficult enough for female directors to make a mark in the US, where the avenues toward a career in the entertainment industry are perhaps more clearly defined than anywhere else. In nations with film industries that are far less firmly structured, the act of merely making a film is worthy of celebration in itself, but when said films are actually very, very good, the demand for recognition and praise becomes even greater. 43-year-old writer/director Talya Lavie plies her trade in the emerging Israeli film industry, and while her work has been warmly received at film festivals around the world, she is yet to garner the credit she so richly deserves.
Talya Lavie made her first minor bow in 2006, when she debuted her terrific military-comedy short, The Substitute, at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. Eight years later, she returned to the festival with her 2014 debut feature, Zero Motivation, a rule-breaking black comedy about female soldiers who suffer through days working as secretaries on a remote army base. “Some of the ideas that ended up in Zero Motivation were conceived during The Substitute,” Lavie told FilmInk at Tribeca. “I wanted to realise these ideas in the context of a feature. Once it was finished, we applied for Tribeca and I was, of course, very much hoping to get in.”
In a savvy twist, Lavie’s three heroines in Zero Motivation aren’t heroines at all, just two insubordinate soldiers in the secretarial pool (splendidly played by Dana Ivgy and Nelly Tagar) and their flustered commanding officer (tyro Shani Klein). Lavie was inspired by her two dreary years of compulsory military service as a pencil-pushing secretary in the Israeli army. “Who’s going to make a film about the secretaries? Well, I figured that I would,” Lavie laughed to FilmInk at Tribeca. The resulting film, Zero Motivation, was deservedly selected as Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca.
Though Zero Motivation represents a major jump up the creative ladder for Talya Lavie, the director was comfortable with the added scope of a feature film. “I’m not sure that writing the short film was easier. Despite the added complexity, I felt more comfortable writing on a bigger scale, analogically to other army and war films that typically have large proportions. I was amused by the idea of giving the same epic proportions to a military film dealing with female secretaries who are not related to combat in any way. That said, I’d like to note that, while not shown in the film, there are a lot of female soldiers in combat positions or in other significant roles in the Israeli army, doing interesting and exciting stuff.”
Had all her actresses been in the military? “If not all, then at least the overwhelming majority. But this wasn’t an issue on set,” Lavie said of her film’s many sly digs at the Israeli army. “All the actors were devoted and committed to the film. We rehearsed a lot, and they were very much prepared. Moreover, the girls who had to be friends in the film really became friends before the shooting in real life, which was beneficial for the film, because friendship is hard to fake.”
Surprisingly, Lavie’s loose, freewheeling Zero Motivation was born out of one of the director’s previous, far less satisfying jobs. “When I worked as a hired screenwriter on a TV series, the people involved repeatedly told me to be careful that what I write shouldn’t be too much this or that,” the director explained. “I remember the words, ‘We should be careful not to’ being repeated too many times. When I wrote the script for my own film, I put a note on my computer saying, ‘Do not be careful!’ I wanted to keep the writing free-spirited, and I wanted to give my characters full liberty.”
Lavie’s writing of the script became even more spirited when her screenplay was accepted into The Sundance Screenwriters And Directors Lab in the US. “We had wonderful American actresses playing the roles,” the director recalls. “It was interesting and productive to explore the script in English. When I lost the local Israeli dialogue nuances, it made me deal with the true essence of the drama.”
With military service something that all young people have to officially go through in Israel (though there are many exemptions), Lavie’s film has touched a chord with viewers. “We had pre-screenings at Tribeca, and I was touched by girls in the audience who recognised their service time in the film,” the director told FilmInk. “They felt that they finally got to see a representation of themselves on screen, which was rewarding. It reminded me of a nice story that I heard. A friend told me once that he travelled to Australia for a convention, and that in one of the lectures, he saw a big map of the world hanging on a wall. We all know what the world map looks like. But on this map, Australia was right in the middle. At the beginning, he thought that it didn’t make sense. But he quickly realised that it does, and that it’s just a matter of perspective. So in a way, in this film, I put ‘Australia’ in the middle. I took the characters that we’re used to seeing on the side or in the background, and I put them at the front.”
Soon after the release of Zero Motivation, Lavie moved successfully into Israeli television, co-creating the series Who Gave You A License?, before eventually returning to the big screen in 2020 with Honeymood, a romantic comedy drama about a bride and groom (Avigail Harari and Ran Danker) who wander the streets of Jerusalem in a bizarre, Kafkaesque, After Hours-type odyssey after having a fight in their honeymoon suite. A canny and surprising meditation on male-female relationships after the female-driven Zero Motivation, Honeymood (which enjoyed a birth at the sensibly Lavie-friendly Tribeca Film Festival) is a wholly accessible sophomore effort from Talya Lavie. Once again, this talented director excels in the creation of characters, and in working with actors to bring them so effectively to life.
Returning to TV in 2021 with episodes of the Israeli TV series Sad City Girls, Talya Lavie remains a fascinating, wholly accessible voice in the emerging world of Israeli cinema, and one richly deserving of far greater international attention.
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