Home viewing: ‘Zero Motivation’ and ‘Losing Ground’

Nelly Tagar in 'Zero Motivation'

On Tuesday, Sept. 15, TCM’s 14-week series, Women Make Film, continues with a line-up of seven films and a thematic focus on conversation, framing and tracking. Two not to miss are Zero Motivation from Israeli filmmaker Talya Lavie, and a nearly lost gem from the 1980s independent scene, Losing Ground from Kathleen Collins.

Set in a remote Israeli desert base and populated almost entirely by female soldiers ages 18 to 30, Zero Motivation follows those destined not for the front lines, but the filing cabinets. Their duties are secretarial (serving tea and coffee, providing office parties, documenting soldiers’ approved leave), and they perform these duties with an admirable level of apathy.

Divided into three sections, Zero Motivation revolves primarily around Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and Daffi (Nelly Tagar), two close friends moving in opposite directions. Daffi hates being in the desert and applies for a transfer to Tel Aviv, which requires special commander training. Zohar, on the other hand, wants to beat her Minesweeper high score.

Zero Motivation is Lavie’s debut feature. Even though it isn’t specifically about gender roles in the Israeli Army, she manages to emphasize it by photographing the male soldiers with their semi-automatic rifles slung around their bodies like dormant phalluses. The girls only get staple guns. Apparently, there isn’t much difference between a desert army base and a suburban office building.

Milestone Films

Much like Daffi, Losing Ground’s Sara (Seret Scott), a black middle-class philosophy professor, is looking for something a little more ecstatic than what’s she got. Her husband, Victor (Bill Gunn), is a painter — not to mention a philanderer — who wants to relocate to a summerhouse for the season. Sara reluctantly goes with him and finds emotional experiences well beyond the logic of her profession.

Losing Ground was Collins’ first and only feature film, one that was virtually unseen until recently. The multi-faceted Collins was a professor of film history and screenwriting at City University of New York when one of her students urged her to get into filmmaking — a version of this is woven into Losing Ground’s plot. But the movie did not receive a theatrical run, and after Collins’ death in 1988, at the age of 46, Losing Ground vanished. Then, in the 2010s, a New York City film-processing lab contacted Collins’ daughter, Nina, to see if she wanted the surviving prints of her mother’s work. Nina worked with Milestone Films to restore Losing Ground, and when the restoration debuted in 2015, the film was herald as a revelation.

Had Losing Ground played theaters in 1982, it would have been the first feature film directed by a black American woman since the 1920s. To watch it today is to discover a missing piece of history. Zero Motivation received a stateside theatrical release in 2015, but it still managed to slip through the cracks, and Lavie’s latest, Honeymood, does not yet have U.S. distribution. The story of cinema is littered with undiscovered gems, what fun it is to uncover them.

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