Samuel Maoz won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival on Saturday. He explains to Kaleem Aftab why his film, Lebanon, based on his experiences in the Israeli army, eschews politics for a brutal and claustrophobic recreation of the realities of war When Samuel Maoz stepped up to pick up the coveted Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival on Saturday for his debut film, Lebanon, he said, "I dedicate this award to all those thousands of people all over the world who came back from the war, like me, safe and sound. Apparently they are fine. They walk, get married and have children. But inside them, the memories will remain stuck in their souls."
This sentiment was not just aimed at the Israeli soldiers, who like him were fighting in Lebanon in 1982, but to any soldiers anywhere. His view of war is clear to see in his remarkable film. I must admit that I watched the first 20 minutes through my fingers, such was the brutality of the images and the difficult conditions depicted. Like Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir, Lebanon is based on the experience of the director, who was conscripted into the Israeli army and stationed in Lebanon in the days following the assassination of President Bashir Gemayel.
Maoz uses actors rather then animation, fictionalising the names of the protagonists and choosing to allow the audience to know only what the soldiers in his stranded tank battalion knew as they moved through a Lebanese neighbourhood, mercilessly killing anyone they saw as a threat. This is not a film for the faint-hearted, and the only mitigating circumstances that Maoz offers is that he was among some very scared soldiers.
The movie feels very claustrophobic, with most of the action occurring inside a tank. Our view of the outside world is only through the perspective of the viewfinder. With its circular border and target lines, the outside world looks like something out of a computer game, although the graphic nature of the violence is all too real, especially in the torrid moment when a woman realises that her five-year-old daughter has been killed.
I met Maoz a couple of days before he won the top prize. The surroundings of the beautiful garden of the exclusive Hotel Excelsior on the Lido beachfront could not have been further from the action depicted on screen. Despite clearly being tired, the director managed to offer lucid responses to my questions as he puffed away on a cigarette. On his desire to revisit the clearly traumatic time he had in Lebanon in 1982 he says: "It was a need. It was a need to unload, a need to expose war as it is, naked without all the heroic stuff. It was probably a need to forgive myself as well. I have a responsibility and my responsibility was inevitably part of my destiny."
The opening of the film is an attempt to show the impossible situation the soldiers felt that they were in at the time. "If you see the film," says Maoz, "the first sequence shows that I'm in a no-way-out situation and I'm a murderer anyway. If I do not pull the trigger then my friends start to die, if I pull the trigger then someone else dies. So I didn't have a choice but I was there, and that for itself was enough to feel responsible. This is a personal responsibility that I'm dealing with and I suppose I always will."
The decision to provide no information on the war itself only adds to this sense of confusion. Maoz makes a strong defence of this decision not to include politics or show any political reasoning in the movie. "Do you know why?" he asks rhetorically. "It's because every anti-war film has this basic target and ambition, which, even pathetic as it sounds, is to stop the war, especially in my country. I realised that I can't change people's opinion [on war] by making a political comment, because if someone had some political convictions, he won't change it because of a film that tries to convince him of something else, so I chose to attack from another angle."
He explained his thought process further, adding: "You have to press on the emotional button and on the instinct of the viewer. For example, we had a few test screenings in Israel and we chose people not from the left side of the political map because this is our audience and we wanted to see the other side. The result was very surprising. For example, the first woman who came to me told me that until today it was just her and her opinions and after she saw the film she started to think of her own child and her sister's older son who is supposed to go into the army in one year. Now she is thinking again about what the right priority should be and whether it is right to go into the army. For me it was something very good. I opened her mind and this is one woman and changes need to happen, even if it is just a little bit at a time."
The director explains why he felt the 1982 war in particular is inspiring Israeli directors to make anti-war films. "First of all Lebanon is different from any other war before it. For example in the Six Day War of Yom Kippur, the war kept its game rules, if I can say that. You have on the one side one army and on the other side another army and each side kept its own colour uniform so that you could tell the difference between them and there was a piece of land separating them. It is not a better situation at all, but at least it's clearer, there is a basic orientation. In Lebanon the rules simply didn't exist, the war took place inside the neighbourhoods. The so-called enemy was wearing jeans so you couldn't see the difference between soldier and civilian. The general direction was north and that north turned very quickly 360 degrees and that is what makes this war chaotic and psychological. In the end what I remember is the menace in the air."
Then when Israeli missiles targeted Lebanon again in 2006, Maoz felt that he had no choice but to start telling his story: "I felt bad of course [about the invasion] and that was the time that I started to write Lebanon." Worried that the lessons had not been learnt from the 1982 invasion, he sees these films as an effort to make sure that they are heeded now. His film is an attempt to make people feel less gung-ho about sending young soldiers to war.
In terms of the aesthetic of the film, Maoz explains why he kept all of the action inside the tank: "The film is not the plot. The story is an emotional story and I realised that I can't make this kind of story work in a classic cinematic structure because I didn't want the audience to just understand my film, I want them to feel it." When I question whether this resulted in him making the film more brutal, the response is a categorical no. "The war in my movie is still less than the reality of the war itself," he explains. "Of course, maybe there is a little bit more intensity because of the nature of film, but on the floor of the editing room I left a few things that my friends and my colleagues told me to put out because I crossed some red lines and they felt the audience couldn't see things like this."
No doubt, even the slightest tinge of regret he may have felt about editing out some of these more brutal scenes evaporated when his name was pulled out of the envelope on Saturday night.