Tonight at O Cinema Wynwood, the director and star of Cannon Fodder, Israel's first zombie movie, will be hosting a one-off screening of their film weeks before it opens in their home country.
"We've shown it at a few festivals in Israel and there were some people who did not get the film at all," director Eitan Gafni tells us. "The were seeing it as a right-wing propaganda film. Which is okay because we really wanted every left-wing person to be pissed off and we we wanted every right-winger person to get pissed off and maybe create a debate. In this film, there's a conscious effort -- well, we tried to piss off everyone, with a smile."
The screening is a joint presentation of the Miami Jewish Film Festival and the Israeli Consulate. Given that support and that much of the budget was provided by government-affiliated film funds, charges of propaganda might not feel so far-fetched when one considers that the film deals with the Israeli army heroically fighting off mindless, subhuman hordes in the borderlands.
"There is no content control of these films," Gafni insists of the projects financed by the Israel government film funds. "It is a government institution but the heads of the funds have total freedom and have nothing to do with the government. You will find that a lot of ministers of this government and the prior -- the education and cultural ministers -- don't like Israeli films and spoke out against both Israeli films that went to the Oscars last year."
Of those two films, Gafni has not seen Five Broken Cameras, a documentary about West Bank violence, but he has seen the other nominee, The Gatekeepers, a documentary about Israel's secret internal security branch.
"It's a masterpiece," he says. "I say that as an Israeli and a filmmaker. A lot of it came from being Israeli and seeing things [in the film] that I had forgotten about or was suppressing because I couldn't deal with it. It was beautiful and it brought me to tears."
Both films are two of the most widely distributed Israeli films of recent years and directly engage the country's conflicted and controversial racial politics. Zombie films are often used as vehicles of social commentary, so it would not be surprising that Cannon Fodder -- and consider the name coming from a country in which collateral damage and civilian casualties have long been a hallmark of the long simmering tensions -- might be less interested in gore and more interested in allegory.
Gafni responds that "In our case, that was not the main goal. We went for it, knowing [that people would be looking for a hidden message], but it's already there because we're in the Middle East."
Well, that and the tagline in the movie's advertising is "There's a New Conflict in the Middle East."
"We used reality as a starting point but then we did whatever we wanted," Gafni says. "We drew from '80s action films and the bad guys were always Russians or Arabs. So we used Hezbollah as our starting point. It's reality, at least in Israel, that everyone knows who Hezbollah is and what Lebanon is. We're not scared of calling them by name."
Like most Israelis, Gafni served in his country's military.
"For three years," he confirms. "And seeing what I've seen and knowing what I know, it wouldn't surprise me what is happening on the borders."
He declined to expand on what that might entail.
"Almost everyone goes to the army," he says. "Our main guy was in the highest infantry unit there is. Roy Miller, who plays the racist Daniel, he was in the equivalent of the Navy SEALs. And while we use military slang and attitude, this is not a reality film in any way. It does not represent the border and what military does on the border. No one goes into Lebanon without a helmet, but we used cliches from action films."
Popcorn films, not politics, are where Gafni claims to source his inspiration. But given the ubiquity of zombies in American film and culture, Gafni agrees that it is a bit surprising that his is Israel's first zombie film.
"Basically," he says, "it's because we're a young country and the movie industry is about 40 years old." In other words, younger than George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Gafni considers himself part of a recent "new wave" of young Israeli filmmakers.
"We're all the same age. Thirty or a bit under, a bit over," he explains. "We're mainly people who grew up in the 1980s on a lot of Spielberg and Lucas. Commercial cinema is what we grew up on and what we want to do. There's a shift change and Cannon Fodder is a part of that."
There are growing pains, to be sure. Effects like explosions and gun smoke are very clearly added in with computers, often unconvincingly. The creature effects on the eviscerated bodies hew a little closer to a catsup-and-garden-hose aesthetic than anything truly terrifying.
"We had a very small budget," Gafni says. "According to that, I wrote the script and a lot of the scenes were written to budget limitations. I chose what angles to shoot from based on what our computer graphics could and couldn't do. We did jump over our limits at points but we still managed to pull it off."
In doing so, Gafni focused on the humans and their interactions, keeping a wide emotional gulf between the viewers and any identifiable humanity in the zombies. These are not the zombies of a George Romero film, each of whom is given his own backstory and personality. Each zombie is killed or fled almost as soon as he is introduced. Many of the zombies -- often women in traditional Muslim headscarves -- are despatched with a single bullet to the head after they've already been knocked to the ground. That this is being done by an Israeli military force that has crossed a border into another territory has some uncomfortable resonances.
Visually, this culminates with a horde of zombies chasing the heroes to a border fence. The Israelis are able to get past the fence but the grasping fingers of the starving and moaning zombies press through the chain-link. The image is one that will be immediately familiar to anyone who has seen photos of refugees stuck at the edges of a country or encampment.
"I really prefer not answering [questions about the film's politics]," Gafni says. "Everyone should interpret it in their own way."
That said, the Israel and Lebanon shown in Cannon Fodder do not resemble the images typically shown on news broadcasts. Much of the action takes place in lush forests, private suburban homes and a large industrial park.
"If there's one thing I wanted to avoid in this film, it was deserts," Gafni said. "I didn't want to show Jerusalem or anything people have seen before. The forest scenes were really shot on the Lebanese border, just to make it more authentic. There's also a scene in the beginning of the movie when you see a military base and what's in the background really is the border of Lebanon."
The dialogue is a mix of Hebrew and English with, by our rough count, only one word of Arabic spoken in the entire film.
"A cynical viewer might say that we wanted to sell it to more Americans," Gafni says. "And I am a cynical viewer. But the original intention was to make it more interesting."
Gafni recognizes that the words his characters speak will be responded to differently by American and Israeli audiences. "One speech of [racist character] Daniel's is based on a real speech by one of our best basketball coaches, one that got him fired," he explains. "But it's not just tension between Ethiopians and Russians that are a problem in Israel, like we have in the film. Very common is the tension between Jews from a western origin and those from eastern origins. It's totally rooted in the culture and it's always there. There are historical subtexts to that tension that are different in reason but similar in outcome with what you have in America between African-Americans and Caucasians."
Controversy, but not at the expense of sensitivity, then. Even though the character Daniel is an unrepentant racist, who openly calls a black character "Obama," "porch monkey" and even "Cosby," Gafni wanted to be careful about how his racist character's epithets were translated for the English subtitles.
"We debated it for weeks," he recalls of his refusal to use a far more fraught slur, even if it more accurately reflected the Hebrew "cushi." "We sent it to different translators, to Americans, to African-Americans and asked what we could use that wouldn't be truly offensive. When an Israeli guy like me knows about not using it and how bad it is in the US, then you know the meaning the word has. But there is a real tension between these characters, and we had to use a real racial slur. Cushi is a word that is very common in Israel. It's not a good word in any way and I feel uncomfortable even saying it now."
Gafni says there is only one reaction that a viewer could have that would upset him: that Daniel's racist views are Gafni's own.
"This entire character is really far fetched and as away from me as possible," he says. "I thought of the worst way I can treat an Ethiopian and the worst in me came into that character. I think a lot of the commentary from that film comes from [Daniel.] He says a lot of things people maybe think and want to say and never say because it's not PC. And that was the best way to say things about Israeli society and society in general."
However a viewer chooses to interpret the complexities of the film, it remains a curious artifact of Israel's current cultural and political climate. There are also zombies and quite a bit of black humor.
In addition to wanting to "piss off people," Gafni says his goal was to "just make a fun movie that people will enjoy. A good popcorn film."
So if you cannot make it to tonight's screening, a DVD and on demand distribution deal is in the works.
"Maybe not theatrically, but people will have an opportunity to experience the pure fun and pure genius that is Cannon Fodder," Gafni promises. "Next to Apocalypse Now, there is Cannon Fodder."
Cannon Fodder screens tonight at 7:30 p.m. at O Cinema Wynwood, 90 NW 29th Street, Miami. Visit o-cinema.org or call 305-571-9970. Tickets cost $12 or $10 for O Cinema members. More info at cannonfoddermovie.com.
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