Israeli filmmaker revisits his army stint with ‘Lebanon’


What strikes you most listening to Samuel Maoz, the soldier-turned-director of the Israeli war film “ Lebanon,” is how many traumatic battlefield stories he didn’t include in his movie.

There’s the one about his friend who reluctantly signed the release for his son to join a combat unit, only to see the boy return from Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon a disfigured burn victim. Or the time in 1982 that the director’s tank was surrounded deep in Lebanon territory by a dozen enemy tanks — he could hear Syrian soldiers pounding on the hatch and remembers thinking, “This is really the end” — before a fighter jet appeared out of nowhere and rescued him.

As it is, the story Maoz tells in his new movie is gut-wrenching enough. A largely autobiographical feature about a young tank gunner thrust into Israel’s 1982 northern-front war against Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization, “Lebanon” is gripping, gritty fare, a culturally specific exploration that’s also an emotionally charged condemnation of war.

“I realized very early on that I wanted to talk through the heart, not the head,” the Tel Aviv-based director said on a recent trip to Los Angeles. “If you’re a mother or father with a child in a war, everything else — who’s a Jew and who’s an Arab, who’s right and who’s wrong — doesn’t really matter.”

The winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and a hit at scores of others — where the film has informally been dubbed the Israeli “Hurt Locker” or, alternately, the live-action “ Waltz With Bashir” — “Lebanon” opens in Los Angeles on Friday, four years to the day after a cease-fire was signed ending Israel’s second war in Lebanon.

Peppered with neo-realistic dialogue and the visceral sights and sounds of the battlefield, “Lebanon” tells the story of the sensitive tank gunner Shmulik (a diminutive of the director’s own name), attacking and under attack. The character grapples with headstrong fellow soldiers, his own anxieties, the war outside and a threat quite literally from within (a Syrian prisoner brought into the vehicle).

Maoz makes the conceptually adventurous (and budgetarily conscious) move of setting nearly the entire film within the tank; the outside world is viewed through the gunner’s cross- hairs, keeping the viewer as confusedly in the dark as the soldiers themselves. The film tracks only a few days of Maoz’s sortie (he fought in Lebanon for six weeks) yet remains deeply powerful. As the tank is shelled and eventually stranded in enemy territory, Maoz builds toward an ending as melancholy as any war-film climax in recent memory.

But if “Lebanon” conjures a swell of emotions in filmgoers, its director had to wait several decades for his own feelings to quiet down. Maoz tried writing the script for “Lebanon” in 1988, just after he finished film school, but found himself running up against his own memories. “After two pages, I literally started to smell burning flesh. I had to back off,” Maoz, leaning forward in jeans and skater sneakers, says in the incongruous confines of a Beverly Hills hotel.

It was the start of the war against Hezbollah in 2006 that motivated Maoz to try again. He saw his friend’s son come back disfigured and realized that history was repeating itself. (It’s an event he believes also motivated Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir,” which tackles similar themes but used the distancing technique of animation.) So Maoz began writing, and he realized that the smell was gone, and that he could now treat the men in the film as characters, not extensions of himself. That tensions again flared up on the Israel-Lebanon border last week as soldiers from both sides exchanged lethal fire underscored the timeliness of his impulse.

But making the film, it turned out, still wasn’t a straightforward process. For one thing, the Israeli army wasn’t cooperating, which meant Maoz had to locate his own tank. He found an abandoned vehicle in the country’s northern region that, through a filing error, didn’t seem to belong to anyone.

The actors also were challenged in daunting ways. Yoav Donat, the relative newcomer who plays Shmulik, had to channel the brutality of war even as the man who actually experienced it stood next to him. “He would use a tactic where he would yell at us all the painful things our characters should be feeling as we were shooting it,” Donat recalls. “And by the end of a scene everyone on the set was nearly in tears because we realized he wasn’t just directing us — he was yelling what he himself had been feeling for so long.”

That personal urgency ripples through many moments of “Lebanon.” But unlike many of the creators of modern war movies (the filmmakers behind “The Hurt Locker” come to mind), Maoz, who had art-directed numerous television programs but never before directed a scripted feature, says his intent is to convey a broader message. “I prefer to move something in one citizen’s opinion than to please all the intellectual journalists expecting me to say the right slogans,” says the 48-year-old. Maoz can evince a wry, slightly snarky worldview, and he can also be defiant when he needs to be. He adds: “Politics — real politics, not politically correct politics — is changing something, not just saying something.”

The director’s exact political message, beyond a general antiwar tilt, isn’t entirely clear from the film, and he offers few specifics in the interview. But as he’s the first to point out: In a culture in which the military is such a well-established fact, even the simple act of peeking behind the curtain can be subversive.

“Among my parents’ generation, they say it’s not the right time to show a movie like this in Israel because mothers won’t send their sons to the army,” he says. “But it’s time to stop hiding behind taboos.” (That the film broke taboos may explain why, although it inspired spirited debate among Israel’s robust media culture, it did not achieve particular box-office success there.)

For all the personal ghosts he exorcised, Maoz says he feels like film can never fully relate the experience of war or its aftermath. But he says that, at least for now, he may be done trying. “I think I may be ready for a comedy,” he says. “OK, maybe a black comedy. It has to be a little dark.”