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Filmmaker Samuel Maoz had barely unveiled his second feature in Tel Aviv when Israel’s culture minister was denouncing Foxtrot as traitorous propaganda and the director began receiving emails threatening him with violence. Minister Miri Regev had not seen the film, but she was convinced it was a misuse of Israel Film Fund money, and instead of congratulating Maoz when he won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival last September, she publicly complained that the film represented “self-flagellation and co-operation with the anti-Israel narrative.”

Six months after the controversy began, Maoz is sanguine about the threats, and points out that Regev has given the film a great deal of publicity.

“It wasn’t pleasant … but she stimulated the public debate that the film wanted to evoke, so for me that’s an achievement,” he said, speaking by phone from Tel Aviv.

A scene from the movie Foxtrot.Courtesy of Mongrel

Named for a dance step that brings you back to the place you started, Foxtrot is an allegory for the way Israeli society is trapped by its traumatic past. The film opens as military officers arrive at the Feldmanns’ apartment to tell the middle-class couple their soldier son has died in the line of duty. Later, Michael Feldmann goes to deliver the tragic news of a grandson’s death to his aging mother, a Holocaust survivor who is losing her memory: In this dark diagnosis of Israeli society, both the old generation and the new one are lost.

Foxtrot deals with the open wound or bleeding soul of Israeli society. We dance the foxtrot; each generation tries to dance it differently but we all end up at the same starting point,” Maoz said.

The film is the second in a pair inspired by his own experiences as a conscript in the Israeli army. The first, Lebanon, is set almost entirely inside a tank during the 1982 Lebanon war.

“It described my personal experience of war from a visual point of view as a gunner in a tank and from an emotional point of view as a 20-year-old child who had never been involved in any act of violence and one morning found himself killing people,” Maoz said. “I had guilty feelings. I suffered from a small kind of post trauma; nothing like the cliché of post-traumatic memories. I functioned, worked, created, I have associates, family; I’m not depressed, quite the opposite I am optimistic, but this quiet trauma knocked me out of my life for many years. … Mainly because of it, I made my film at the age of 46 rather than 30.”

It was the success of Lebanon, which won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2009, that convinced Maoz he was not alone, and that all Israeli society suffered as he did. “Our emotional memory from our past trauma, the biggest which was the Holocaust followed by our survival wars, this memory is stronger than any current reality and logic. I am not justifying our behaviour. I am diagnosing it.”

Foxtrot director Samuel Maoz.

The film he created is an allegory of that situation, stylized and imagistic: The filmmaker says he creates visually first. The startling opening scene, in which the army arrives at the Feldmann’s apartment, began with a painting that Maoz owns that is marked by a chaos of black lines forming a vortex of telescoping squares. The piece appears behind the head of Daphna Feldmann as she opens the door to the officers and instantly realizes why they are there.

The Feldmanns’ stark yet claustrophobic apartment, with its khaki colour scheme and dizzying geometric tiles, seems to personify their trauma; the next act, which takes place at the squalid desert outpost where their son checks the identity of passing travelers, is even more surreal – the red-and-white barrier is regularly raised for a crossing camel – but it is this passage that has caused such controversy in Israel. Although the army, the outpost and the travellers are never identified, Regev interpreted these scenes, which culminate in the cover-up of a military crime, as a direct attack on the Israel Defence Forces.

“I made sure to write and direct the second sequence, the story of the army, as an allegory, to add surrealistic motifs. I wanted to be quite clear there is not exactly such a roadblock, such a specific reality,” Maoz said. “For me the roadblock is a microcosm of our society.”

Apparently, the symbolism has been lost on the films’ critics.

In January, after Foxtrot had won the country’s top film award and thus automatically became Israel’s foreign-language nominee for the Oscars, Regev expressed relief that it did not make the final list of five nominees. Then, in February, the Israeli embassy in Paris boycotted a local festival of Israeli film that its own government helps fund because the organizers had refused to bow to pressure from Regev to drop Foxtrot. Moaz said that oddly self-defeating manoeuvre provided his film with a great deal of welcome attention from international media.

For the filmmaker, the politician’s hostile attitude proves his point about Israeli denial: In Foxtrot, the military literally bulldozes the evidence of its crime into the ground.

“The little step that can save us from the loop of the foxtrot must be done by the leadership,” he said, “but they usually do the opposite. They press on the buttons of our past trauma with slogans that have nothing to do with reality.”

Moaz believes it would take another Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who was spearheading the peace process when he was assassinated in 1995, to break out of the dance.

In the meantime, he said: “I am not deluding myself that one feature film can make a change, but at least people are starting to talk about issues.”

Review: Foxtrot is a sure-footed exploration of contemporary Israel

Foxtrot opens March 16 in Toronto and March 23 in Vancouver and Montreal.