If you've ever worked within the fluorescent confines of an office space, then the sounds of blinding monotony are very familiar. Fingers furiously type away, copiers shift into gear and filing cabinets slam shut. The same banal noises play over the opening credits of Talya Lavie's riotous Zero Motivation, an Israeli deadpan comedy about a unit of female administrative soldiers stationed at an isolated desert base. With menial responsibility and no power, these women are left to question their very existence within a patriarchal military institution that neither respects nor understands them.
Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and Daffi (Nelly Tagar) are inseparable friends who lean on each other to survive the horrendously boring working conditions during their mandatory two-year service contract. A tribe of other archetypes rounds out the unit, including a few ditzy guy magnets, one insufferable Russian named Irena (Tamara Klingon) and an overly serious commanding officer (Shani Klein), who fails to inspire her conscripts in the least. For the most part, male soldiers remain off-screen, except when they admonish or attempt to seduce the women.
Split into three parts, Zero Motivation subverts its title by exploring the undercurrents of anxiety that define these characters' military lives. The first, titled "The Recruit," deals with an imposter who sneaks onto the base, looking for the man she slept with months before. The disappointment she finds tonally informs the other two segments, sending the material into darker territory with its morbid resolution. "The Virgin" grapples with Zohar's misguided quest to lose her virginity, which culminates in a dangerous series of sexual missteps. The last, "The Commander," plays on Daffi's inane desire to attain higher rank so she can live in Tel Aviv because the desert dries out her hair.
For these women, military life has stripped away the need to think critically, and, as a result, logic has become an endangered species. The consistent absurdity of their situation provides a funny and damning playground for the filmmakers to consider the contradictions placed upon gender roles in the military. Hierarchy of command suffocates all sense of iden tity and purpose, ultimately leaving each woman a confused part of a clunky and inefficient institution.
Smartly written and witty, Zero Motivation plays with the viewer's expectations in surprising ways. At first one-dimensional and sour, Zohar quickly becomes the film's most complex character, inhabiting a desert full of doubt and sadness underneath an off-putting façade. Daffi feels less fleshed out by comparison, seemingly because she doesn't contemplate any situation beyond her own. The same could also be said of Irena, who undergoes a supernatural transformation midway through the film, which is more like a gimmick than anything else.
Visual gags, physical manifestations of the frustrations haunting these women on a daily basis, are sprinkled throughout the story. Zohar takes it upon herself to shred the entire personnel log documenting the history of the base, packing all of the shredded paper into her boss' office. It's acts of rebellion like this that keep the female soldiers relevant in the filmmaker's eyes.
As a piece of feminist protest art, Zero Motivation—which screens for one week at the Ken Cinema, starting Jan. 16—slyly pokes at the inadequacies of military life, but it also makes an effort to confront the way women attack each other in order to sustain a level of dominance in a primarily male-driven world. This lends the film a surprising and informative level of balance. Again, Zohar is the perfect example of this duality; she clashes with Daffi for wanting to become an officer and later circumvents her command in order to attain revenge. While done in a silly way, her actions reflect the circular trauma that these women perpetrate against each other just to pass the time. Punch that clock.