Friday, August 20, 2010

Welcome to the Machine: Samuel Maoz's Lebanon

The Israeli anti-war film, Lebanon, which just opened today in Toronto, could just have easily have been called Tank. Based on director Samuel Maoz’s experience as a 20-year-old gunner in the Israeli army tank division, Lebanon (which was the first Israeli film to win the Leone d’Oro at the 66th Venice International Film Festival) depicts the 1982 conflict but not from a broadly observant perspective; instead, we experience the war through the eyes of four Israeli soldiers within the tank: the driver in the tank’s hull, the commander in the turret, the loader and the gunner. Lebanon is obviously made by a director trying to do justice to his memory of the conflict (as Ari Folman also did with his Waltz with Bashir), but Lebanon becomes gripping in a more mechanical, relentless way because our perspective ends up as limited as that of the soldiers.

The aim of the war, from an Israeli perspective, was to remove a P.L.O. enclave within Lebanon. But instead the war became remembered for the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christians in the refugee camps of Shatila and Sabra. Since Israeli forces did nothing to halt the murders, the war became a failure of morals (something that is more clearly examined in the 2008 Waltz with Bashir). Maoz’s approach though is to give us a grunt’s eye view of the early days of the conflict where we witness their actions – as they do – through the crosshairs of the viewing scope. Besides illuminating their fears and trauma, we also see glimpses of bodies, dying animals, a hysterical woman crying because her young daughter has been killed, all accompanied by the grinding sound of their vehicle. Lebanon is about men who are assigned roles but can’t function within them. The gunner (Yoav Donat) can’t shoot when he’s ordered to; and the tank commander barks orders mechanically, but ultimately panics under the emotional weight of the stress. As the men crack up, they also show compassion for a Syrian prisoner who desperately needs to piss. The war is essentially reduced to showing how conflict becomes a test of the character of men. (In that sense, Lebanon resembles an art house film directed by Sam Fuller.)

While it might seem apt to say that movies like The Hurt Locker (2008) do exactly the same thing, The Hurt Locker actually does more. It takes us outside the subjective view of the soldier dismantling bombs so that we understand how he became addicted to his job. In Lebanon, Moaz single-mindedly concentrates on the men’s reactions to their assignments. (The only time the movie relents is in a welcoming contemplative moment when one soldier remembers a sexual encounter from his youth on the day his father died.) Maoz’s technique is also hardly anything new having been used before in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), as well as Wolfgang Peterson’s Das Boot (1981), and its narrow perspective is equally claustrophobic here. Lebanon might have been a much more powerful experience (rather than merely gripping) if he’d shown us more of what the soldiers couldn’t see. In Casualties of War (1989), for instance, Brian De Palma zeroed in on the foxholes of Vietnam so that we saw how the soldiers experienced them as anthills. But he then opened up our perspective so that we could see how when being deprived of a larger view, soldiers are at the mercy of forces they can’t foresee.

Many Israeli historians have described the Lebanese war as Israel’s Vietnam and it appears that Moaz has followed the same pattern that some American filmmakers did on the Vietnam experience. That is, rather than confronting the political complexities of the conflict, he narrows it down to tests of courage and fear (the appeal of boy’s adventure stories is often the inspiration for combat pictures). No doubt there will be more movies on the 1982 war in Lebanon (along with Waltz with Bashir, a more highly imaginative rendering of the conflict, there is also Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort, which adapts a novel by former soldier and journalist Ron Leshem about the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000) and Lebanon is hardly a negligible offering. But its dogged attempts to show us how war is hell becomes ultimately numbing and obvious. Lebanon’s aims might be humanistic, but the outcome delivers a bad case of cabin fever.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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