Samuel Maoz, like so many young men of his generation living in Israel in the early 1980s, had his life turned upside down by the 1982 Lebanon War. He stayed quiet on the subject for over two decades, but the advent of the Second Lebanon War in 2006 inspired him to take up a camera and document his feelings. The resulting film, Lebanon, is a startlingly visceral and torrid tale depicting the breakdown of morality and humanity on the battlefield, all filmed within the confines of one Israeli tank. The film has become a universal hit with critics and festivals, and picked up the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2009.
FtF: Ok, we don’t have long so I’ll jump straight in. Why did you feel you had to get this film made? Was it for a sense of personal catharsis or because you wanted to comment on Israeli society?
SM: Firstly, for me it was a kind of need. It was a need to unload and to expose the war as it was, without all the heroic stuff and the rest of the rubbish, but it was mainly a need – not necessarily to forgive myself – but to find some understanding. I had a responsibility, and in a way my responsibility was inevitable, a part of my destiny. You can see in the ‘banana grove’ sequence [where a timid gunman fails to kill a Lebanese suicide bomber who then proceeds to kill many Israeli troops] that if you pull or do not pull the trigger, it is the same; you are a kind of executor. But in the end there is a huge difference between knowing that you didn’t have a choice to the fact that you feel guilty. But still it wasn’t enough for me, and I can explain why, if I may?
SM: They used to call us, in Israel, the ‘Lebanon generation’. We were in a very weird situation: many of our parents and teachers came from Europe, from the German camps, and they were totally unstable. I can remember my schoolteacher, with a number on her arm, shouting hysterically at us that we needed to fight for our country and die for it if necessary because everybody wants to terminate us. Maybe she had her own reasons for feeling this way, but we were normal boys, born in Israel, and all that was in our heads was the Tel Aviv beach and girls. But we were brainwashed so, at the beginning of the 80s to come back from war with your two hands, two legs, ten fingers, without any burn marks on your face, and to start complaining that you “feel bad inside” was almost unforgivable. They told us, “say thank you that you are alive, we were in the camps!” In the end the turning point for me was during the 2006 Lebanon War, because suddenly I found myself sitting in front of the television watching the news reports and I realised that I hadn’t spoken for 25 years, and now our kids are dealing with the same Lebanon again. When it is just a concern for you, you can pass it; but when it is touching your children, that is something else entirely. That is the red line. I now had a totally different motivation: I am not complaining any more, the feeling is no longer about me and my problems and my needs and memories and pain. Suddenly I realised that if I can find a way to create an effective feeling, maybe I can actually save lives here and there.
FtF: So this isn’t an overtly political film? You are trying to change things using an emotional, rather than a political, story?
SM: Well yes, I chose not to do a political film because to do a political film from Lebanon, or any anti-War film, is to do a politically correct film. If you want to change something – and when I made Lebanon I wasn’t thinking about Venice or the Golden Lion – if you want to change people’s opinions and try to do this by talking to their heads in a political way, usually you will achieve the opposite, their opinions will become more extreme, because nobody wants to hear that they are bad. So you try to talk to people in another way, through the stomach and the heart. If you are a mother you wont care if the soldier is Jewish or Arabic, right or wrong, but you will care if they are a child because it could be your child. I would prefer to change one mother’s opinion than satisfy one hundred intellectual journalists sitting around Europe. And in the end this is the real meaning of politics: to change something and not just say nice slogans.
FtF: Could you talk a bit about how the film was received in Israel?
SM: Well the reaction was very interesting. When the audience was younger, the reaction was more positive, and when the audience was older the reaction was less positive. Obviously this is preferable to the opposite, because the youth are the future and the older generations are the past. And I really can understand it: the older generation had their wars [1948 and 1967] because they felt they had no choice and they really believed that everybody wanted to terminate them so they had a lot of motivation and they won against all odds. When we had our war [the 1982 Lebanon War] it was ‘so so’, we were stuck in the middle. But when this young, global ‘iPhone’ generation had their war [the 2006 Lebanon War], with the best military equipment and technology, they lost, because they don’t have the motivation anymore. So you can understand why the older generations feel that this is not the time for a film like this because maybe mothers wont send their children to the army. And the younger generations want to search for a normal life. They have seen people like themselves in London and Paris, they are connected to the world, so they wonder why Western youngsters can have normality but not them? But certainly in the end the reaction was more positive than negative, and I suppose winning the Golden Lion at Venice helped it because it gave a certain respect to Israeli cinema and gave us an important prize so it helped the film to be accepted.
FtF: What are your feelings towards the likes of Ken Loach and Bridget Fonda trying to boycott Israeli films at the Toronto Festival?
SM: Well firstly, we arrived in Toronto one day after receiving the Golden Lion so that perhaps spoiled their party because suddenly an Israeli film came with such an important prize. If you want my opinion, it is silly because the first step if you want to change something is to talk about it; and if you shut my mouth, nothing will happen. In the end, Israeli directors are rarely from the ‘Right’ side of the political map so it is stupid I guess.
FtF: What inspired you to film entirely within the tank? Was it a purely aesthetic decision?
SM: Well I knew that the issue was not the plot, and even the events that really happened are just the symptoms. The real issue is the burning soul, what is going on inside the soldiers’ souls. And I remember asking myself, how can I show what is going on inside these soldiers’ souls? It felt almost like a student project. But then I realised that the only way to explain it or understand it is not with the head, but as I mentioned earlier, with the stomach and the heart, to ‘feel’ it. And in order to achieve such an emotional understanding you must create a very strong experience. So I told myself, I will put you inside the tank, in such a way that you totally identify with the characters. You see only what they see, you know only what they know. I tried to ensure that the viewer wouldn’t feel like an objective audience member watching the plot unfolding in front of them; I wanted them to feel it, to see the cross hairs in front of them and see the victims staring straight into their eyes, because this is the only way to understand it. It was a totally conceptual reason. And of course I wanted to stick to my truth, because if I put the truth in front of your eyes it must be the total truth. And my truth was inside the tank, if I showed anything outside the tank I would have had to create fiction.
FtF: If you had gone outside the tank you would immediately have had to make an editorial decision about which elements of war to show and which to leave out, whereas within the tank you could show everything?
SM: Well this is the beauty of cinema. By the end of the film you feel like you have really been inside the tank, but technically if you look at shot after shot, there is not even one shot where you see the whole interior of a tank. You see maybe five or six pieces of iron and a few liquids. So in the end there is no tank, I am giving you twenty percent of the tank and all the rest is imagination. In the cinema, 1 + 1 is much more than 2. It is more than the shots; it is the spirit.
Lebanon is released in UK this Friday (May 14th), and you can read our review, part of our 2009 London Film Festival Round-Up, here.