Through a Gunsight, Darkly

For Filmmaker Samuel Maoz, War is Like a ‘Knife in the Soul’

Face to Face: ‘Lebanon’ coveys the heat of battle without relying on special effects.
Face to Face: ‘Lebanon’ coveys the heat of battle without relying on special effects.

By Jordana Horn

Published August 11, 2010, issue of August 20, 2010.
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Israeli director Samuel Maoz has accomplished something truly remarkable with his first feature film, “Lebanon,” which opened in the United States on August 6. Without resorting to Computer-Generated Imagery or 3-D, Maoz has created a profound, visceral world of war that puts special effects to shame.

“Lebanon,” which last year became the first Israeli film to win the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival, relies on emotional scene setting rather than technology to engage its viewers. Much of the film takes place within the confines of an Israeli tank called “Rhino” — a crucible of heat, temper and fear — as the four young soldiers within it, accompanied by a corpse, traverse deadly territory during the 1982 Lebanon War.

Critics saw the intense, claustrophobic film on the festival circuit last year and wrote about it then. The tank, Dan Friedman wrote in the Forward, “becomes a nightmare beast that, despite its name, its seeming sentience and the increasingly organic bilge in its belly, never comes to life.”

The soldiers are locked in a small, ovenlike space that seems like a surefire setting for madness and violence. The world outside is a world away, driven home by the fact that much of the film is viewed through the tank’s gun sight, with the attendant blind spots and its movement’s death-rattle-like creaks and groans.

The film vividly captures a sense of the heart-pounding fear and cognitive dissonance of war, and is the emotional complement to the highly stylized intellectual examination of the same war that takes place in “Waltz With Bashir.” Many critics, both in Israel and abroad, have labeled “Lebanon” anti-war, but that may be most attributable to the film’s accuracy — that is, just how well it conveys what it is like to make life-or-death decisions in a small, overheated space where one’s own life is constantly at risk. No one can see this film and not come away with a deeply felt sense of terror and sadness. Regardless of actual battlefield deaths, Maoz implicitly contends, war is the murder of every young soldier’s innocence.

“When you are 20 years old, you’ve never been involved in any kind of violence before. You’re thrown into something that you just can’t deal with,” Maoz said in an interview with the Forward, remembering his own experience as a gunner in Lebanon in 1982.

“They create a formula that forces you to kill. You’re put in a life-threatening situation, and you will kill because your survival instinct is the most basic,” Maoz said. “You will kill, but your emotional memory has been stuck. It’s like a knife in your soul.”

Maoz recalled a time when, in the editing room during the making of “Lebanon,” he was told that this was a film women would not sit through and that he should make it less gory and violent. Maoz presciently refused.

“This film is pressing the motherhood instinct in viewers,” Maoz said, in an attempt to explain why audiences remain transfixed in their seats. His experiences as a father and working in an advertising agency gave him the confidence to make an assertion: “Watching this film, you can’t possibly avoid thinking of your own children.”

Moreover, he said, it is those parental buttons that need to be pushed in order to create empathy. “You can’t change people’s opinions by talking logically,” Maoz said. “Feeling is understanding.”

“Lebanon” has met with great success internationally, despite anti-Israel agitation and boycotts at film festivals — including one at the Toronto International Film Festival last year.

“The fact that we won in Venice took all the air out of the boycott’s sails,” Maoz said. “Boycotts are a bad solution to problems. All they do is shut people’s mouths, when what you need to effect change is to talk.”

With the film having received international acclaim, Maoz has had to travel all over the world in its wake. While he doesn’t like being away from his daughter, Maoz doesn’t mind being away from his homeland.

“It’s not that I don’t love my country,” Maoz said as we sat in the lobby of his New York hotel. “I’m not a political person. I love my family, friends, the beach, the language. It’s not that I hate my country, but I want to be as far as I can be from my memories. And when I’m there, I’m closer to my memories.”

Maoz’s personal experience of war left him relatively unharmed physically, but traumatized emotionally. After the war in Lebanon, he said, for 27 years he found himself unable to shed a tear. “I didn’t have tears — I felt that I lost them,” he said. “Maybe this is what happens, I thought. Maybe it’s my punishment.”

After seeing his film at the Venice International Film Festival, Maoz watched the audience clap in an ecstatic standing ovation for 20 minutes, and suddenly his life changed.

“In front of me, I saw 2,000 people with tears: young, old, everyone wanting to hug me — and after 15 minutes, my tears came to my eyes again,” he said, not without emotion. “For me, this was the big prize — to have my tears back.”

Jordana Horn, the New York correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, is a lawyer and a writer at work on her first novel.

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