- 12 May 10
Set almost entirely in a tank, Samuel Moaz’ powerful new film, Lebanon, takes an uncompromising look at Israeli military operations in Beirut. words Tara Brady
Samuel Moaz was a 20-year-old conscript when he found himself in Lebanon, part of a four-man tank crew during the 1982 conflict. His experiences during that time have continued to haunt him, although six years later, having found success in the documentary sector, he found that he was unable to commit those experiences to paper.
"I sat down in 1988," he tells me. "But after one-and-a-half pages I had the smell of war, the smell of burning flesh in my nose. I had to stop. For the film to function, I needed a director that could take the pain, take the memories and process them in an almost cold, mathematical way. I was not ready. I spent so many years in the dark; the trauma of the place haunted me. Once someone asked me what is this trauma – this shell-shock – do you have nightmares? I wish it was as simple as having nightmares. I didn't do much in that time."
Like Beaufort and Waltz with Bashir, it took renewed conflict with Lebanon to shake Mr. Moaz from his post traumatic stress.
"During the second Lebanon war, suddenly I turn on the TV and see a new generation going into Lebanon again. That is the point when I understood that the film is not just about me dealing with my problems by making the film as therapy – I realised that if I do a really effective film it could actually save lives. I sat down and wrote the script in four weeks. It took me 20 years to process that war but less than a month to write it out."
To correspond to his own confusion and terror as a young soldier, Lebanon is set almost entirely within a tank. As the film opens the crew's mission to a hostile village is backed by a paratrooper regiment though mostly the tank's four occupants are very much alone and in the dark, both literally and figuratively.
"The movie is just about the first day of the war, because my memories of that day are less disjointed than what came later," the director recalls. "I was in one of the first tanks that entered Beirut. The war had been going on at this time and people in Israel were dissatisfied so someone came up with an ingenious idea – let's send three tanks to infiltrate Beirut, place them opposite the palace and the media can arrive in the morning and take pictures. The Phalangists (Christian militants) led us, a group of paratroopers, and three tanks. We had to maintain a certain distance between the tanks. At some point they gave us the wrong direction and we were abandoned in the industrial area of Beirut. The Phalangists sent us directly into an area where the Syrians parked their tanks. There were 11 Syrian tanks there and to this day I don't know how I came out of there alive."
The film has, unsurprisingly, sparked controversy in its homeland and abroad. Some commentators in Israel have "raised concerns that the film will deter young men from volunteering for the army", while the anti-Israeli camp are dissatisfied that the film holds back from denouncing all Zionist interests. Mr. Moaz, insists, however, that Lebanon is less about the war than about his war.
"I remember being young and being placed in impossible situations," he says. "Before I have only killed a cockroach and suddenly I have to kill people. War is based on the assumption that you will be able to kill people – and kill them confidently - otherwise it doesn't work. It won't take the chance that you will kill people because of an ideal, or because someone gave you an order. Because you need to be a bit of a psychopath in order to kill another human being. So it relies on your survival instincts in combat. You suddenly realise that if you hesitate for a second, you will lose a paratrooper. You are responsible for that death."
The film's stark honesty has won legions of admirers. Late last year, Mr. Moaz took home the Gilden Lion for Best Film at the 66th Venice International Film Festival.
"The politics often get in the way," says the director. "But the politics are mostly irrelevant. This is a film that is very universal about a soldier's experiences and also very subjective."
What has been more important to him, the positive reception or the catharsis of getting his story out there?
"It's funny," he says. "But the therapeutic value of the film was unexpected for me. I spent years not thinking about it so facing those fears and feeling relieved afterwards came as a total surprise. It was the best therapy I could have had."
"Though awards are good, too."