Bestowed with the top honor at the Venice Film Festival, Lebanon is a powerful, gut-wrenching, claustrophobic, timeless antiwar film from Israel by writer/director Samuel Maoz. The story, set entirely in a tank on the first day of the first Lebanon war in 1982 shows how the four young men experience the horrors of war. While the setting is specific, the story is universal and could easily be the backdrop for any country, and any war. Based on Moaz’s own experiences, Lebanon gives a singular vision and point of view on how he experienced the war – an experience that is engraved in the filmmaker and will surely be will surely be ingrained in future patrons of film. [This interview was conducted as part of the 53rd SFIFF].
Yama Rahimi: Can you tell me how this project came about?
Samuel Maoz: Well it’s my own personal story. I was the gunner, Shmulik which is the nickname for Samuel in Hebrew. So it was a need for me to unload and to expose the war as it is — without the heroic stuff and cliches. I don’t know if the expression to forgive myself is correct, but I wanted to understand. I feel a responsibility towards my destiny because I survived it.
Rahimi: I think it’s a powerful film because you put the audience in the tank and let them experience the war from a first hand POV. Was there any hesitation to have the entire film set in a tank?
Maoz: Yes. I told myself at the beginning that I needed a simple and basic plot, something that you can tell on eight or ten lines. Basically to have a ground to stand on and even the event which was real and much worse had to be toned down to tell the story of what’s going on in the tank and the minds of the soldiers during the war. I was asking myself how can I tell the story to deliver it without talking about it. To understand it less through the head than through the stomach and the heart. To achieve that you need to create a strong emotional experience. So I told myself the only way you can do it, to actually take the audience into the tank, so that they totally identify with the characters so they see what they see and know what they know. I knew that the only way for the audience to understand it is to feel it, so feeling is understanding. I wanted you to see the gunner in front you and when the victims look, they look at the audience. That’s the only way to smell and taste the war. That’s why the film has minimal dialogue less than 30% and more 70% without a word because when you are dealing with such an extreme situation with dilemmas and conflicts, you can’t use words. The only way is through the eyes and body language. It was an experiment that I was lucky that it paid off. It was more than luck because we worked very hard. (laughs)
Rahimi: Well the conflict you are depicting has affected people on both sides for generations. Do you think there will be peace someday?
Maoz: I can see from the reaction to the film in Israel. If you analyze the reactions, you can see that as much as the audiences are young, the reactions are positive. As much as the audiences are old, the reactions are less positive and more negative which refers to the past and the young to the future. I see it that way that my parents generation came from Europe from the German camps and they see it like they don’t have any other choice but to fight. They really believe that someone wants to terminate them, so they have nothing to loose but to fight against all the chances and they won. Our generation was stuck in the middle, and the new, Internet generation had their war with the best army and weapons regarding the technology and equipment, they lost. Why? Because they don’t have the same motivations. So the older generation doesn’t want this film because they are afraid that mothers won’t send their sons to war anymore. They still believe that everyone wants to terminate us. They have their good reasons to believe that. If someone came from the concentration camps, I can believe that they believe that but we had a normal childhood. When were 18, we didn’t believe that someone wanted to terminate us. All that was in our heads was the Tel Aviv beaches and girls. The new generation is totally free of this thinking and because of that, they think peace will come. I don’t think peace will come because of idealistic reasons, — but because of egoistic reasons.
Rahimi: Peace is peace. I agree. There’s a strong support for it from the Israeli cinema which has been outstanding with films such as Waltz with Bashir, Lemon Tree, Beaufort and your film.
Maoz: The reaction has been great every where we have been, all over Europe and here in the US. People have compared it to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with their soldiers and their sons. At the New York Film Festival, six people came to me and said how the film touched them and reminded them of their experiences in the Vietnam war. The people from Sony said this is about Lebanon and different from Vietnam but they said the experience was the same, the conflict and dilemma. It’s something that remains with you the rest of your life.
Rahimi: It’s also about the damage and the toll it war has on the individual. Even though the war finishes for some, they are haunted by it for the rest of their lives.
Maoz: Even during the making of the film, I was reminded how lucky I’m to be able to unload something that I have been holding for 25 years. Even that I was able to do the opposite, I still don’t feel clean or clear of it. I can accept myself and learn to live with it but it’s still the first thought in the morning and last at night. When you are taking a life, it’s not a small issue. It’s not like a broke a glass or lost my house. It’s not something you can say what’s gone is gone.
Rahimi: It seems to me that we as human beings still haven’t learned from 4000 years or more of wars.
Maoz: In the end it’s the cruel trick of war. The army can prepare you that you are in good shape to fight and operate the weapons but nothing can prepare you for the emotional experience. If the war is…for example, a beast, the war needs death in order to survive. So the soldiers are ordered to kill but it’s not normal to kill, so you need to be psycho to do it or to be able to do it. The trick of war is primitively simple, not to take a soldier but a human being and put him in a real life danger situation. What I say now seems theoretical but when you are actually in that situation, you feel it with every cell of your body. It’s this process it takes the first 24 or 48 hours for the metamorphosis to take place when our survival instincts takes control. It’s like a heavy drug, it’s physical. At first you loose your taste, then your sight, then you realize you haven’t slept for 24 hours. Then you don’t think about those moral or ethical codes that applies in normal life. In the war you are in such an extreme situation that everything in normal life does not applies anymore. You can’t live with the codes of normal life. Of course you can but you won’t survive for more than few hours.
Then you kill because you want to survive and become like an animal that somebody tries to hunt. Somebody measured the instincts and our strongest instinct is our survival instinct, more than our visual which is controlled through blinking. Once we went into a small town, they said 50% of the balconies are the shooters and the other 50% is the civilians. So they say you can’t survive if you go from balcony to balcony because you won’t survive past the third one if you look at them one by one. So what’s your options at the end and be moral? I’m not talking about shooting at kids on the streets which is murder. That’s why I set the film during the first day of the war because it’s the most difficult day when the dilemmas and conflicts come. After two or three days you are on your surviving instincts there’s no more dilemma or conflict that controls your judgment. You are just surviving the moment with all your body and mind without thinking what happens later or tomorrow.
Rahimi: It’s our animal instinct.
Maoz: Yes, our most basic instinct. In the tank your view is limited which is why the war doesn’t allow you to look at the big picture.
Rahimi: Even though the film is from the point of view of the soldiers in the tank, you still feel for the victims. As I have learned from my interviews from Israeli and Palestinians, it seems they are united in their vision and solidarity for each other than the governments. Have you experienced that as well?
Maoz: I could write you of Palestinians, Iranians, Syrians and Lebanese people that I met at the festivals. We could have signed on many peace agreements.
Rahimi: Which is a shame that the governments have the power where the people can live together peacefully.
Maoz: It’s the point of view of the governments that’s the problem because they think that war is the only solution. If they start from the point where they don’t think war is any solution at all, which will be starting point, we can start to achieve something. If they start with war, then there’s nowhere else to go. Take the Lebanon war for example, it started as an operation that was supposed to last 40 days but ended after 18 years. So as I said before, if the war is a beast, you can’t control it once you release it.
Rahimi: What were the challenges of shooting the film with the young cast?
Maoz: First I knew I could do the traditional rehearsals because there wasn’t much of dialogue to begin with. Words were my enemy, so it was a very tough two months preparation without a word which was to get them to experience inside the tank. So I talked about the experience then I locked them each separately in a dark containers for few hours. Instead of telling them about the claustrophobic experience, I let them experience it. In the container your body save energy but after two hours you are in a hypnotic state of mind. Then I started to knock on the containers with iron pipes to simulate a sudden attack on the tank and to jump from 0 to 100% of awareness. Then came another two hours where they were expecting another attack that didn’t came. So after five hours when they came out and I look at them, I knew I didn’t have to tell them anything. Because I was going for feelings and the actors had to deliver that feeling. I had to create warlike situation that was similar. The shooting was tough because it was a very physical experience because of the heat, sweat, dust and oil. It was something they had to feel which you can’t act. Since the audience would experience it through the visual language.
Rahimi: What films or filmmakers inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Maoz: It was a stupid western when I was 4 or 5 years old. I had an uncle who used to take me to the movies 3 or 4 movies a week, so I was raised on American westerns. So in one film there was a shot of train that approached the camera and passed it. I was amazed at that. When I had my bar mitzvah, I asked my father to buy me an 8mm camera which he did. The day after I was on the train tracks and tried to copy that shot. I saw the train smashing the camera into pieces. That was my first lesson in cinema but it didn’t break me so I worked and bought another camera. Next time, I put other objects and experimented. I did a lot of shorts until I was 18 but the war cut short my career.
Sony Pictures Classics releases Lebanon in theaters August 6th.