Film review of Lebanon

November 25, 2010

(This film review of Lebanon appeared in the Australian Jewish News on November 25, 2010.)  (In Hebrew, with English subtitles.)

Directed and written by Samuel Maoz

Starring Yoav Donat, Itay Tiran, Oshri Cohen, Michael Moshonov and Zohar Strauss

From its opening shot in a field of waving sunflowers, the Israeli film Lebanon marks itself as different and demanding attention.  This first feature by Tel Aviv-born director Samuel Maoz tells the story of an Israeli tank crew during an incursion into Lebanon during the 1982 Lebanese war.  We have seen great and harrowing films about Lebanon before, notably Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort (2007) and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008), however Maoz brings an entirely new perspective to war films: this entire film is shot within and from the perspective of the tank crew.  In other words, this film takes place only within a tank, giving it certain similarity to the recent American film Buried (a man buried in a coffin in Iraq), possibly starting a trend which might be called the “new wave” of “claustrophobic film-making”.

This is film-making from straight from the heart and the stomach.  As a twenty year-old, Maoz spent part of the 1982 Lebanon War in a tank, and this clearly is his story.  He introduces his film thus:

On June 6, 1982, at 6:15 AM, I killed a man for the first time in my life. I did not do so    by choice, nor was I ordered to do so.  I reacted in an instinctive act of self defense, an act with no emotional or intellectual motivation, only the basic survival instinct that takes no human factors into account, an instinct that forces itself on a person facing a tangible threat of death. On June 6, 1982, I was 20 years old.

Twenty-five years later, Samuel Maoz wrote the first draft of the script of Lebanon, which he describes as “straight from my gut”, with “no intellectual cognition …. I wrote what I felt.”

The idea of the film is breath-taking – a whole war seen primarily through the faces and viewpoints of the four tank operators:  Shmulik the gunner (Yoav Donat) – who watches much of the action outside framed through his scope, Assi the commander (Itay Tiran), Herzl the loader (Oshri Cohen) and Yigal the driver (Michael Moshonov).  They have occasional visitors who literally pop in the tank’s top hatch, mostly the paratroop commander Jamil (Zohar Strauss), who assures them that it will be a “cakewalk” (it isn’t), a dead paratrooper’s body (an “angel” in the soldiers’ lingo) and a Syrian prisoner.  Why are the Syrians there?  The soldiers have no idea.  In fact, they barely know who they are fighting and why.  All they want to do is survive.

Shmulik, terrified in his first actual shooting, is responsible for firing the tank’s powerful weapons and near the beginning of the film he “chokes”, with disastrous results.  Is Shmulik director Maoz’s character stand-in?  We are not certain, but it’s my guess he is.

This is war, brutal, harrowing, deeply disturbing, full of death and destruction.  The impact on Lebanese civilians is seen both in close-up and at a remove through the scope (the cinematography by Giora Bejach is stunning).  The implications are clear: the village they have entered has been decimated, and innocents have been slaughtered, some by “terrorists” and some inadvertently by the Israelis themselves.

What holds Lebanon back from making a greater emotional impact on the viewer is that we simply do not learn enough about the actual characters to care sufficiently about them; the script gives us no “back story”, no parents, lovers, girlfriends or immediate past as a context to know why they are feeling how they do.  This, of course, may be part of the point:  war exists in its own universe, separate from any other.  But it does mean that while Lebanon the film will leave you shaken and shocked, these characters will not remain with you long enough.

If there were any uncertainty as to whether Israeli film-making had entered a golden age, Lebanon erases that doubt.  The result is a visceral experience, not for the faint-hearted or the weak.  It is a truly accomplished film, fully deserving of its “Golden Lion” award at last year’s Venice Film Festival and its ten nominations at the Israel film awards (where it won four).

Here is a trailer of the film Lebanon, with unofficial, but still effective, English subtitles: