Manufacturing trauma — what ‘Foxtrot’ tells us about annexation and the Israeli psyche

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You look right…annexation. You look left…annexation. You can’t miss it even if you wanted to. As Israel is tearing down the Palestinian dream of statehood to pieces, many are and will be looking at the tremendous harm the Palestinians will have endured. But beyond the geo-politics of greed and oppression, lays the potential of karmic deterioration. Annexation will cause the wounds of Israel’s sins to deepen. The closed cycle of trauma, repression, and militarism will only become tighter. To better understand the complexities of this human condition, it pays sometimes to fish out reflections from the past. As the Trump and Johnson rise to power brought new meanings to Orwell’s “1984” (1949) and Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” (1935), Samuel Maoz’s latest film “Foxtrot” (2017) can shed some light on the tragic loop of misdeeds that Israel’s Jewish society has been trapped into and which the annexation will only worsen, perhaps beyond repair.

In that scorching June of 1982, twenty-year-old Samuel Maoz from Tel-Aviv found himself amongst the first troops to enter Lebanon. Although he survived the war without a physical scratch, Maoz went home with multiple scratches on his soul. He recalls feeling like an empty shell, psychologically dead as if he had never returned to his family.

It would take nearly 25 years for Maoz to face the horrors of traumatic memories and turn them into a script, which later became “Lebanon” (2008), his first film as both screenwriter and director. That film is almost entirely shot from the inside of a Centurion tank, and the war is depicted almost fully through the tank gun scope. The film is a highly stylised and dramatised visual representation of Maoz’s personal experience as a tank gunner. It can be seen as a war drama; reflection on Israel’s siege mentality; counter-narrative, or even personal therapy.

All these elements seem to have found a place in Maoz’s next film, “Foxtrot” (2017). While “Lebanon” is about the war, “Foxtrot” is about its aftereffects.

“Foxtrot” is not as claustrophobic or suspense-inducing as “Lebanon,” but the characters are just as frozen in a time-space bubble. Foxtrot is a reference to the three-step dance move that brings you back to the starting position. The film is darker than “Lebanon” and is stylised through absurdism and the seemingly curt representation of disillusionment. Like a classical Greek tragedy, and like the dance, “Foxtrot” is divided into three acts, each is confined to a single location, but are all connected. The first and third act are set inside a luxury Tel-Aviv apartment, and the second is set on an Israeli Defense Forces roadblock in the middle of nowhere.

In Act One, soldiers arrive at the apartment door of Michael and Daphna Feldmann to inform them that their son, Jonatan, has died in action. The first ten minutes of the film are overwhelmed with silence. Seeing the soldiers at the door was enough for Daphna (Sarah Adler) to know that something terrible happened to her son. She immediately passes out. The next half hour the camera follows the husband, Michael (Lior Ashkenazi), as he hops from one place to another in what seems like a trance. This gives the atmosphere a touch of airlessness and charged emotionality.

In Act Two, Maoz takes us away from the comfort of the Feldmann apartment and back in time into the absurdity of one of the IDF roadblocks where Jonatan was stationed. Alive and well. Jonatan and his fellow soldiers spend their days goofing around, checking and nonchalantly humiliating Palestinians passing through.

Act Three brings us back to the Feldmann apartment. Now, we sense that Michael and Dafna are separated. The quiet and composed Daphna is anxious and angry, preparing a birthday cake for Jonatan’s 20th birthday. Though Jonatan is no longer alive. This is the scene where Michael opens up about his feelings of guilt and the trauma that haunted him for decades.

Like “Lebanon,” “Beaufort” (2007), and “Waltz with Bashir” (2008), “Foxtrot” received a great deal of criticism. Israel’s Minister of Culture (and former IDF spokeswoman), Miri Regev attacked the film, describing it as “self-flagellation and cooperation with the anti-Israel narrative.” Regev admittedly didn’t see the film. Maoz also received several death threats.

Was the film truly challenging to Israel’s established narratives to receive such vitriol? This might be a matter of perspective.

In a cinematic light, “Foxtrot” is an allegorical film that explores the uncomfortable questions of contingency and loss. In an interview, Maoz said that the film is an attempt to push against the societal misconception of what a post-traumatic individual looks like. In “Foxtrot,” we see an ostensibly well-composed husband and father of two who, by the appearance of his residence and profession, is successful in life. This opposes the stereotypical image of the isolated, repressed posttraumatic man who wakes up sweaty and shivery in the middle of the night.

More importantly, the film is a microcosm of Israel’s Jewish society. Maoz uses the Shoah as a medium to discuss Israel’s cycle of trauma and repression. The message is that these two together create a schizophrenic society unable to reconcile with itself. “Foxtrot” shows us Israel as a country that lives in the past and anxiously and aggressively groping its way into an uncertain future. But nobody voices that. Almost everyone, because of societal expectations and imagined needs, became a master of repression. Maoz explains that as an Israeli you wouldn’t complain; after all, this country was built on the shoulders of many of those who endured the most heinous crime in modern history.

Whether Maoz intended it or not, the film points towards a crucial issue in the structural foundation of Zionism. Repression is a misdirected coping mechanism aimed at maintaining, if not creating the impression of, masculinity. The original idea of the ‘New Jew’ that Zionism brought forward was deeply about national masculinity. It is about that Jew who shook off the burden of the galut and anti-Semitism, and ditched the self-pity and victimhood to become a fighter capable of controlling his own fate.

This spirit was very clear in the way that Israel dealt with the Holocaust survivors who arrived in the country in the early 1950s. After all, it was the perceived ‘heroic endeavours’ of the Yishuv and the recently established IDF that represented the nation’s soul. Not the assumed passiveness and helplessness of those who were presumably ‘led to the gas chambers like sheep.’

When trauma is repressed, society plunges into a state of meaningless absurdism, “Foxtrot” tells us. What could be more absurd than creating security challenges (by annexing more Palestinian land and perpetuating the occupation), and then living in a state of existential fear and anxious militarism? With such meaningless exercise, society’s goals, worldview, and values become narcissistic acts of self-preservation. As this happens, the original sin of the occupation is forgotten and the only reflections that one can afford are ones only concerned with the status quo, detached from its historical or political context. The opening of Act Two is a good representation of this predicament.

If Samuel Beckett had written a feature film, chances are it would’ve resembled in its absurdity the opening of Act Two. Two soldiers, one of whom is Jonatan, are seen bored to tears guarding an IDF checkpoint in the middle of nowhere. The highlight of their day is lifting the creaky and rusty barrier for a solitary camel to pass through. The conversations among the soldiers are mundane, and their concerns are diluted with meaningless reflections. One can’t help but see it as a modernised version of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”

But these absurd engagements are exactly what Maoz intents to convey. In the beginning of Act Two we see Jonatan dancing the foxtrot with his M-16 rifle as if it’s his partner, back and forth, then back to the starting point.

It’s an indication of the inescapable loop of Israel’s existence: trauma, militarism, and by the very act of dancing, an artificial sense of normality. Because of that, there’s the message that society is slipping and deteriorating. Maoz shows us that by using the soldiers’ living container as a metaphor. The container is slowly slipping into the mud. Each day, the soldiers place a food can on its floor to see how fast it rolls down to the other side, using that as a measure to how much further into the mud it has sunk. What’s more, they all know something is wrong with their living space, but they accept it as a fact of life and choose not to do anything about it.

To Maoz, perhaps the conclusion of the film is that fate can’t be changed. Not because it’s divine, not by virtue of destiny, but because of the traumatised Jewish-Israeli collective, which despite everything keeps repeating the same pattern. Yesterday, it was the occupation, and today more occupation, but Israel’s Jewish society for the most part stands idly as their government is manufacturing more traumas and existential angst. Many know the annexation will lead to a disaster, many strongly disagree, but like the sinful bystanders who watched silently as the Jews were persecuted by Nazis, the majority choose to do nothing. It seems that for many of them it is more comfortable being trapped in a ‘too familiar’ state of repression, trauma, and victimhood, than facing the terrifying unknown of trying to change the status quo.

Samuel Maoz, 2018

Parallel to the notion of Zionist masculinity, the film also shows us, if rather reluctantly, the seemingly suppressed Palestinian masculinity. When the soldiers order a Palestinian man and his wife out of their car, we see the man completely helpless, looking on as his well-groomed wife gets messed up by the rain. Here the occupation is presented as a form of constant humiliation. When a Palestinian man can’t protect his family from a group of young soldiers is when he feels overwhelmingly humiliated. Not only does that reduce his chances to meet society’s hegemonic masculine standards, it creates an identity crisis that may lead to uncontrollable rage. In the wills of Palestinian suicide bombers, for example, the theme of humiliation (and honour) is a constant. Revenge is often presented as a remedy for the humiliated self. Palestinian violence and peaceful resistance in general can partially be understood as a revolt against humiliation, as an exercise to reinstate dignity and self-esteem.

Believe me when I say that, as Palestinians, we’re now very angry. But what makes this anger dangerous is that it comes from a place of desperation and hopelessness. Imagine the last shred of hope that’s left to us is being taken away. It’s no longer about the status of being an occupied collective. As the annexation is put into high gear, we feel that occupation is becoming an eternal fate. Now, imagine the prospect of forever humiliation and emasculation! Then, imagine the reactions that will follow.

The film provides a glimpse of hope that ‘some of them’ — the Palestinians — are sober enough to see farther than their own feet. But to a Palestinian audience, the film comes off as a half-cooked counternarrative. Maoz’s self-critique about Israel’s society, which is what mostly angered Regev, appears as a self-absorbed exercise of self-pity and lamentation. One unavoidable result of that is the marginalisation of the Other’s experience and perspective.

In one of his interviews, Maoz said that the film isn’t about the occupation or the Palestinians. It’s a film about Israeli society. Only the second statement is correct. The moment you discuss the IDF or roadblocks, the Shoah and trauma, is when you’re directly or indirectly talking about the occupation and Palestinians. What’s more, you can’t reflect on Israel’s Zionist identity without involving the Other against which much of this identity is set. In the academic discourse, this is called negative interdependency, and it’s inevitable.

The highlight of what would otherwise be deemed a ‘quiet’ film is the scene when the soldiers open fire at a civilian Palestinian car. A Mercedes carrying four wasted Palestinian youths is stopped at the checkpoint. When a beer can drops out of the car, the soldiers, believing it is a bomb, reflexively open fire, killing the four passengers immediately.

Emphasising the notion of repression and self-denial, the film shows us the army using a bulldozer to unceremoniously bury the Mercedes with the four dead passengers inside. As if to say, yes, it’s there, but we rather bury it and never have to see it again. Because being hit with the brusque version of our brutality, we will be exposed us to our worst nightmare, being the victimisers.

It has always been like that, denial and self-denial. Starting from the first Zionist surveyors who arrived in Palestine and chose to ignore the bustling Palestinian towns and hundreds of villages and then call it a ‘land without people,’ to the denial of the identity of the very subjects that Israel occupies. In the film, we hear one of the soldiers say that the enemy is ‘unknown.’ How and why? Maoz doesn’t give us an answer. It however remains a testimony to an established system of denial.

The military commander arrives the next day to tell the soldiers that what happened was part of the situation. “In war, shit happens,” he comments. I find myself wondering, what war? The word ‘conflict’ is problematic enough, and now the relationship with the occupied is called ‘war’? Once again, we’re reminded that perhaps in the Israeli context war is a mental state, and living by the sword, although no longer applicable, provides a sense of purpose. It justifies the absurdity and bizarre banality of the status quo.

The core problem in “Foxtrot” is that when political violence is framed as an allegory it turns the conflict into a transcendental, metaphysical undertaking. This allows a great deal of freedom, it makes the impossible possible. One example is the appropriation of Palestinian trauma. Maoz dedicates a very brief, but highly artistic scene to show the undignified burial of the four dead Palestinians. But, we see no bodies, no personal belongings to mark the identities of the victims, or hear about the grievance of their families.

The only scene of Palestinian death in the film is reconfigured as a metaphor for Israel’s internal and transgenerational trauma, repression, and guilt. It remains that even these negative emotions are kept undefined, their source partially unknown, and their repercussions random. It makes you wonder if the film was more of a personal therapy for Maoz than being a form of political intervention.

Disclaimer: certain crucial scenes were not discussed here to avoid spoilers.

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Haven’t watched Foxtrot, but it sounds like a typical entry in the overflowing “shooting and weeping” genre, like “Waltz with Bashir.” Personal therapy for angst of the great Israeli soul.

Very interesting article

“Not the assumed passiveness and helplessness of those who were presumably ‘led to the gas chambers like sheep.’”

Israelis have no control over the future. Violence won’t fix everything

“You think you’re in control.
Ha ha . Bless your soul.”

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