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Collective trauma haunts the characters in Samuel Maoz's remarkable film.

The first thing we see in Samuel Maoz's Foxtrot is a nameplate with Hebrew letters spelling out "The Feldmanns". Pull back to the door. We hear a knock; the door is opened by a woman on the brink of middle age wearing a dressing gown; her eyes flutter and there is a thud as she hits the floor below frame.

In Israel, actor Lior Ashkenazi says, everyone knows exactly what has happened; in a country with compulsory national service, that morning knock is like a national code. This woman's child must be dead. "In Israel, everybody knows somebody in this position," he says. "It surrounds you: the grief."

A young Israeli soldier kills time in Foxtrot.

Maoz's film is not about bereavement, however; that is just its starting point. His broader subject is Israeli society, shot through a sickness Maoz feels in himself and that he traces to the legacy of the Holocaust. An army medic sedates Dafna Feldmann (Sarah Adler) where she falls, which means her husband Michael (Ashkenazi) is left to deal with the death of their son Jonathan on his own. What is he supposed to do? He can't speak. He doesn't cry. He just kicks the dog. It turns out that he kicks the dog often, relying on the fact that like him, the dog won't talk. Michael fought his own war in Lebanon. Of course he did: there is always a war on. Everyone carries the same burden.

"Usually there is this stereotype of men who suffer from post-traumatic stress: someone who has nightmares, he is probably lonely, he is poor," Maoz says. "This is not right – I mean, there are cases like that but in Israel, it is the ordinary men of my generation." Michael is an architect; the Feldmanns' apartment is a svelte grey series of patterns and porthole windows. He has done well. Like Maoz, he is the child of a Holocaust survivor.

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Lior Ashkenazi plays a grieving father in Foxtrot.

"If I brought to my mother a mathematics test and the mark was seven, she said, 'for this I needed to survive the Holocaust, for seven?"' Maoz says. "So you understood from this that you couldn't complain. If you came back from the war with two arms, two legs and 10 fingers, you couldn't say that you feel bad inside. It would be 'come on, be a man!'"

Maoz was part of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, an experience that devastated him and eventually formed the basis for his much-lauded first film, Lebanon, which was set entirely inside an Israeli tank.

Foxtrot draws on stories people told him after seeing that film. "I was overwhelmed by the stories other Israelis with PTSD have told me. I realised I was not alone. There are endless variations of my story and the kind of pain and guilt it germinates. Everyone, from the richest to the poorest, must send their children into the army; anyone can face that loss," Maoz told an interviewer on National Public Radio in New York.

Uniquely in our time, this also means Israel's artistic community shares this terrible experience. "That is going to be very rich material to explore creatively and very critically what happens," Maoz says.

Director Samuel Maoz explores Israeli society in his second feature film.

The first half-hour of Foxtrot is Michael's story; we see him fighting off comforting hands and gaping in astonishment at the duty officers who suggest ways to cheer up the funeral. Next we are transported to the previous day on the checkpoint near the Lebanese border where Jonathan was stationed. Four young conscripts bunk down in extraordinary squalor in a dirt-streaked shipping container that is daily sinking further into the mud. They lift the barrier for a lone camel passing through; one soldier dances, Jerome Robbins-style, with his gun in the middle of the empty road and a jazz score comes from nowhere.

There is a surreal sense of being out of time or inside Waiting for Godot until calamity strikes: one of their number panics and shoots an entire car of young Palestinians. The solution presents itself: bury the car, including the bodies, in the susurrating mud. The last drawing in Jonathan's notebook is of a bulldozer hoisting the car into the air, a big metal superhero come to the rescue.

Foxtrot has been hugely controversial in Israel, despite bringing home a Silver Lion from the Venice Film Festival and sweeping the local Ophir awards. The right-wing Culture Minister Miri Regev condemned it before she had seen it as "a weapon of propaganda in the hands of our enemies" and the fantastic scene of the car burial as "a horrendous lie". Maoz was branded a traitor; he and Ashkenazi duly received death threats. Maoz looks exasperated.

"The burial of the Mercedes for me expresses repression, denial, that we prefer to bury the truth in the mud that we created rather than confront it and ask ourselves penetrating questions," he says. "You don't have to be a genius to understand that there is not such a specific roadblock, not such a specific reality."

Meanwhile, left-wing columnist Gideon Levy lumped the film with the so-called "shoot and cry" narratives, in which the sensitivities of Israeli soldiers were used to obscure the fact of Palestinian deaths and dispossession. In Foxtrot, everything was beautified; even the checkpoint looked like something "out of an old-time Italian movie". It was all very well to describe his film in which the conflict became the locus for questions about fate, chance and the ability of any person to control his or her fate, but the Occupation didn't lend itself to being a metaphor for anything else.

"He shouldn't play dumb and claim that this is an artistic and imaginary film, without context or obligation to reality and truth," Levy wrote in the Haaretz newspaper. "The moment he chose the Occupation as the arena for his film, he turned it into a political and current events film."

Maoz's response was to say that the film isn't about the Occupation, the Palestinians or a documentary about real checkpoints. Anyway, Foxtrot is all about politics in the sense that it addresses the psychological state of the nation. It isn't only individuals who must bear the historic weight of the Holocaust.

"Today, Israel is a technological superpower with the strongest army in the Middle East and nuclear weapons," Maoz said in an interview with the Times of Israel. "Yet its leaders still exploit the notion of an existential threat – a small country surrounded by enemies." The roadblock is a microcosm of that small country, "a pathetic and anxious society with the distorted perception that comes out of a terrible past trauma".

Israelis often joke that if you get two of them in a room, there will be an argument. Maoz is affronted at the suggestion that he is a traitor – "the fact that I fought in bloody battles and paid a heavy price for my part in the first Lebanon war has no public value any more" – and says the idea of beauty, let alone that his film is too beautiful, makes no sense to him.

"Foxtrot reflects my inner world, and I chose the cinematic style best suited for my needs. I used bird's-eye-view shots not because they are more visually stunning, but because they serve the idea that we do not control our faith."

The arguments don't upset him, however. "I think they testify to the film's strength: the fact that it germinated an ongoing debate means I achieved my goal as a filmmaker."

Foxtrot opens on June 21.

Stephanie Bunbury

Stephanie Bunbury joined Fairfax after studying fine arts and film at university, but soon discovered her inner backpacker and obeyed that call. She has spent the past two decades flitting between Europe and Australia, writing about film, culture high and low and the arts.

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