Lebanon is a savage film shot from inside a tank. What you see is what its Israeli director Samuel Maoz saw - and wishes he hadn't
Published: 9 May 2010, Sunday Times
You can't really dress up the question "What's it like to kill a man?". Samuel Maoz, a phlegmatic Israeli who fought in the 1982 Lebanon war, would prefer it unadorned. He was a 20-year-old conscript, a rookie gunner in a creaking Patton battle tank. On day one of the conflict, across the border, he was positioned on a path through a banana grove. The order was simple: ward off any incoming vehicle with a couple of warning shots. If it refused to stop, loose off "a shell to the engine block".
As an unidentified BMW hove towards his unit, Maoz lost his nerve, his trigger finger paralysed. "They were young people, teenagers, without uniforms, fear in their eyes. I thought to myself, 'They are not soldiers', so I couldn't do it." But the car disgorged Arab gunmen, and a firefight ensued with the Israeli paratroopers his tank had been escorting. A soldier was killed. "They shouted, 'Who is the gunner? Who is the coward that killed our friend?'" The trooper's bloodied corpse was lowered into the turret - "Like you and me now, even closer" - until it could be airlifted away.
So, when the next vehicle approached, Maoz closed his eyes and blew it to smithereens. It turned out to be an innocent farm truck, its elderly driver left writhing in the dirt. "It was a total mess." A soldier put the man out of his misery. Nobody blamed Maoz. "But I just felt - I don't know how to describe it - a shout or a scream in the back of my head, like I knew I had f***ed my life."
At 48, the balding, gaunt, cigarette-chugging Maoz is not your typical first-time film-maker. His self-penned and self-directed drama about his experiences, Lebanon, confounded expectations to bag the Golden Lion, the best film prize at last year's Venice film festival. Inevitably came the howls of the left. At the subsequent Toronto knees-up, protesters led by Jane Fonda and including Ken Loach objected to the festival's sidebar programme celebrating films from Tel Aviv, given Israel's recent incursion into Gaza.
In the early 1980s, there was no place for what would nowadays be called post-traumatic stress disorder
"It's utterly ridiculous, because the first step if you want to change things is to talk," Maoz shrugs, his English heavily accented. In his native country, criticism came from the other end of the political spectrum, with conservatives scornful of the film's perceived antiwar stance. "When the audience is young, the reactions are positive," he says. "When the audience is old, the reactions are more negative. It's better than the opposite."
In the early 1980s, there was no place for what would nowadays be called post-traumatic stress disorder. "The old generation - our parents, our teachers - many of them came out of the German camps. I remember my teacher, with the number on her arm, shouting hysterically in class that we had to fight for our country.
So to come back from war with two hands, two legs, 10 fingers, without burns, and to start to complain that you have a problem inside you, it was almost unforgivable." Like other veterans, Maoz kept his demons within. On discharge, he went to film school, then worked in the art world, creating installations.
In 2006 came the second Lebanon war. Its 24/7 multimedia presentation sickened him. "Like the best reality show, selling broadcasts on the blood of the soldiers. When I sat in front of the television and saw our kids start to die, I told myself, 'If I can find a way to create a respected film, maybe it can actually save lives here.'" As a by-product, writing Lebanon became hugely cathartic. "The best treatment. It was a need to... I don't know if 'forgive myself' is the right expression, but maybe a way to find some understanding."
Critics have raved about the film; it has won numerous gongs, including the Satyajit Ray Award. Certainly, it is a powerful piece, its unique selling point being that it was shot almost entirely inside the cramped, pressure-cooker rotunda of the tank's turret, its nervous four-man crew shin deep in oil, water, sweat and indecision. To increase the claustrophobia, perspective on the outside action is restricted to mere glimpses through the cross hairs of the tank's gun sights. "In war, you don't want to see the whole picture. You need to see just your picture, because you are fighting just for your life." Featuring Yoav Donat as Maoz (using his Hebrew nickname, Shmulik), the story follows the bickering crew as the tank gets lost in enemy territory, reliant on the gangsterish Christian Phalangists to navigate them to safety.
As an entry into the war-film genre, it subverts the traditional notion of the tank as the invincible beast. With its tin-can ambience, too, the film has been compared to the submarine epic Das Boot, albeit a budget exercise, shot for about $1m on an industrial estate in the Israeli capital, using a second world war rust bucket - of similar vintage to the tank he had driven that day - as the set. Like Das Boot's director, Wolfgang Petersen, Maoz put his actors through the wringer, locking them in the turret for hours on end, in up to 45C heat, and whacking on the hull with iron pipes to effect spontaneous discombobulation. "When you are dealing with an extreme situation, words are weak; the only way to express [fear] is through the eyes," he deadpans. One can't help but notice that a large bit of the production money came from Germany, the North Rhine-Westphalia film foundation, a curious bedfellow. "You know, before I am Jewish, I am a film director," he grins. "Money is money."
There has been some criticism of Lebanon's mawkish "war is hell" imagery - a dying donkey is filmed in close-up, a tear trickling from its eye; a captured Syrian rocketeer is a saucer-eyed innocent compared with the sadistic Phalangist commander, who seems straining at his cargo pants to bugger the enemy. Lebanese critics have dismissed the exercise as a piece of propaganda, focusing purely on the Israeli casualties. (In the opening gunfight, all the Arabs are killed.) "This is my story," Maoz retorts. "It doesn't mean things are more or less important. I'm not a journalist who needs to give an objective report. I am a film director. As long as my message is positive, as long as I want to bring peace..."
Apocalypse Now is Maoz's favourite war film - the only movie to really capture the insanity, he says
Dramatically, Maoz has also chosen to make his crew reluctant warriors, peaceniks quaking at the orders given, like the voice of God, over the radio. Had he not thought of presenting the crew as a mix of types? "Why? Because of American films?" he prickles. One of the original crewmen, Hertzel, has since become a rabbi. There must have been differing sensibilities. "Before the war, he was a kind of playboy," Maoz says. "Suddenly, he couldn't survive any kind of relationship with girls. He was like a lone wolf. Until he became a religious man, he was miserable." Maoz deliberately avoided character back stories, he explains. What he wrote is what he saw. "These soldiers are normal. They are not weak. It's not normal to be a killer. Suddenly, they feel death touching them."
Of all the conflicts that have blighted the Middle East, it is the 1982 Lebanon war that seems of chief fascination to Israeli film-makers. There are the politics: a 45-day ground offensive that resulted in years of entanglement. Then comes its military execution, a sort of twilight, old-school endeavour. Recently have come the films Beaufort and Waltz with Bashir, the latter probing the infamous refugee-camp atrocities at Sabra and Shatila.
"This is the nightmare of the Israelis, the Lebanon war," Maoz says. "All the other wars were defensive - alarms, masking tape on the windows. The Six Day war, the Yom Kippur war, kept to game rules: on the right, one army, on the left, another, and a piece of land to fight over. In Lebanon, those rules simply didn't exist. The enemy were wearing jeans. That's what makes this war chaotic. In Beirut, I just remember craziness in everybody's eyes, menace in the air. In a way, this is our Vietnam."
He talks about his downtime in the Lebanese capital - the drink, the drugs, the girls - which makes Saigon sound like Butlins. There are further parallels. In the film, Maoz's tank carries illegal phosphorous shells, redesignated for United Nations ears as "flaming smoke". "The Americans," he adds, "call it napalm."
Apocalypse Now is Maoz's favourite war film - the only movie to really capture the insanity, he says. Otherwise, he doesn't much care for them. "There are few masterpieces. They want to supply entertainment. Blood is sexy." Can the horror ever truly be captured? "No," he asserts.
For Maoz, the offers have been pouring in, all thanks to a film that has, in every sense, enabled him to get it out of his system. During the shoot, he found himself limping "like an injured dog", forced to bed with a painful swelling in his foot. The next morning, after a fevered night, out popped three pieces of shrapnel, expelled from his person after a quarter of a century. He laughs: "Now I'm not bleeping any more in airports."
Lebanon opens on Friday