While the Lebanon War of 1981 remains very much in the mind of most Israelis over a certain age, it’s not something really talked about a lot in American schools, which is why it’s quite inspiring how the past few years have seen a number of Israeli filmmakers using the medium to tell personal stories about their involvement in the war. It started a few years back with Ari Folman’s Oscar-nominated Waltz with Bashir, which used dream-like animation to explore horrifying war memories long buried in soldiers’ minds.
Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon is only similar in that it’s also a personal story about the Lebanon War based on Maoz’s own experiences during the first 24 hours of the war. In this case, it’s a movie told entirely from the perspective of a group of soldiers assigned to drive a tank through a town just as the war begins, only for the mission to go completely wrong leaving them worried they may not survive their first day. Like the recent doc Restrepo, Maoz’s film fully captures every aspect of the soldier’s experiences while at war, pulling the viewer into the claustrophobic experience of being inside a tank where, similar to the soldiers, you don’t always know what is going on or what will happen next.
Having gotten a lot of attention at last year’s Venice Film Festival where it won three awards, we were quite impressed when we saw it at last year’s New York Film Festival, enough to want to sit down and talk with Maoz about his experiences, both in the war and in making the film.
ComingSoon.net: I know you were in the war yourself and you were driving a tank… Samuel Maoz: This is exactly my personal story. I was a gunner in a tank. You know, “Schmuely,” the name of the gunner, is the nickname of “Samuel” in Hebrew. Just in Israel, there’s no other connection, but it’s like “Sam” in English. This is my true personal story.
CS: Having happened roughly 28 years ago, have you always known you wanted to tell this story or make a movie about it or was this something more recent that you said, “Now’s the time to tell this story”? Maoz: No, it’s a bit complicated, but I will try to do it shortly, the answer. For me, the making of “Lebanon” was… of course, generally, it was a need to unload, a need to expose the war as I see it without all the heroic stuff, but it was mainly a need to… I don’t know if to say “forgive myself” is the right expression, but maybe to find some understanding, because I feel responsibility. Now my responsibility was a part of my destiny. You can see in the first war sequence, the banana grove sequence, that if you’re pulling or not pulling the trigger, it’s the same. You’re kind of an executor. Death will come because of you anyway, so okay, it was a no way out situation but in the end, there is a huge difference between understanding you didn’t have a choice to the fact that you feel responsible, that you feel guilty. Still, I didn’t speak (about it). It may be regarding to my generation; they used to call us in Israel, the “Lebanon generation.” We were in a very complicated situation in the beginning of the ’80s. Our parents, our teachers, many of them came from Europe, part of them came from the German camps. I remember my teacher with a number on their arm shouting in the class that we must fight for our country, we must die for it if necessary, but you know we were normal kids that were born in Israel and didn’t think that everybody wanted to terminate us. We just thought about the Tel Aviv beach and girls, but on the other hand, we were brainwashed, so in the beginning of the ’80s, to come back from war with your two hands, two legs, ten fingers, without any burn marks on your skin, and to start to complain that you feel bad inside was almost unforgivable. They used to tell us, “Say ‘Thank you’ that you’re alive! We survived the camps!” In the end, my trigger, let’s say, was the second Lebanon War in 2006, because suddenly, I saw that I hadn’t spoke and now our kids are dealing with the same Lebanon again. A very good friend of mine, his kid died there, and like everything in life, when it’s regarding you, you can skip it, but when it’s touching your children, this is totally something else. I remember that I felt in that time that if I were to find a way to create an effective film with it, I thought maybe I could save lives here and there. So that’s in the end the main reason why I waited 25 years. Of course, there are more small reasons like I was too much into it, and I didn’t want to do the film like someone who was there but more as a film director. Let’s say that this was the main reason.
CS: It’s a good reason. This movie takes place in the early days when the war was just starting. Maoz: Yes, on the first day.
CS: What we see is that it doesn’t seem like anybody knew what they were in for and they were just kind of thrown into the deep end… Maoz: No clue. I mean, they told us a very limited operation for 40 kilometers, and you know, there’s a huge difference between serving in the army to being in a war. The army can prepare you for war in a way that you know how to use guns, to activate war machines and maybe to be in good shape, but nothing can prepare you and nobody needs to prepare you. This is the trick of the war itself. That’s why I chose the first day, because this is before the metamorphosis, because in the end, war can rely on you as a soldier killing out of some idea or because you’re following orders, because soldiers are normal people, and normal people can’t feel because it’s not normal to (kill) – you have to be psycho. The primitive trick is take a soldier, take a human being, put him in a real life dangerous situation. Now saying it here in New York, maybe sounds theoretical but when you feel it, you feel it in every cell of your body, and it’s a kind of process that I can talk about, but in the end of this process, you are starting to kill, because when you have fallen into a war, you are falling into such an extreme situation, where all the basic rules of life are not there anymore, and if you continue to think with the logic of normal life, you will find yourself very fast… dead. So in the end of that 24 hours, our most basic instinct, our survival instinct, takes control and this is very physical. This is like a heavy drug. You are not you anymore and you are starting to kill. And then, in the rest of the war, it’s less interesting, because you’re not a human being anymore. You’re like any man that someone is trying to hunt. You don’t have for example plans, like you know you have an interview with me now and then, I don’t know, you’re eating lunch. You don’t have plans and you don’t think about tomorrow, this evening, like an animal. Also animals don’t have plans for tomorrow. You are surviving and when you are fighting, you are not fighting for your country, not for your friends, not for your children (if you have any), you are fighting for your life.
CS: Was it hard getting financing for this movie or was it easier, being so close to the 2nd Lebanon War, to get interest in making a movie about the previous war? How hard was it getting money to make the movie? Maoz: It wasn’t hard, but because it was my first feature film, and usually people put money not on ideas or on scripts, usually they put money on names, but the script, I guess, was good, so I had in the end many investors but everyone (put in) a little, put in the change.
CS: Most of your crew on this film probably had been through the war themselves, though most of the younger actors weren’t even born back then. You talk about people who were in the war don’t want to talk about it, so how has the younger generation been able to stay informed? When the younger actors came in, were they able to understand the experience? Maoz: I knew that starting to talk about it was useless. I mean, I can talk about it, they can say they understood, but they won’t. So I did something else. I’ll give you an example. The first step was to let them understand what it is to be locked inside a tank for so much time. I mean, the claustrophobic experience, the darkness. Instead of talking about it, I took every one of them, locked each one of them separately in a very small, dark and hot container for a few hours. After two hours in such extreme conditions, the body starts to save energy and you’re almost floating, and then we knocked on the container wall with iron pipes. It’s very similar to a sudden attack on the tank, and it’s to jump from 0 to 100, and then came another two hours that you’re expecting the next time I will knock. This is a totally different feeling.
CS: So it’s almost like method directing. Maoz: (laughs) After four or five hours when the actor came out of the container, I needed to just look at his eyes to understand that I don’t need to speak, that words would spoil it. But this is the idea of the film. The feeling is not based on plot or text. There is less than 30% text in “Lebanon”–70% is without words–because I knew that the only way to deliver it is not through the head but more through the stomach, through the heart, to create an emotional understanding. This is the only way to deliver it to (anyone) that didn’t experience war. You don’t need to explain, you need to put him as much as you can inside this experience. That’s why I shoot it inside the tank.
CS: So you did actually shoot inside a tank. When you make a movie like this, you can easily use trickery – put the actors in a dark corner and use the right lighting to make it look like the inside of a tank. But you actually put everyone into a small space and shot in that space. Maoz: This is maybe the beauty of cinema, because after the film, you feel like you were inside the tank but if you analyze it, shot after shot, you won’t find even one shot where you see the whole tank, so it’s all close-ups and things in the foreground and the background. I guess I can give you 20-25% and if it’s working, so then the rest is in your imagination. One plus one doesn’t have to be two if the film is working.
CS: There are two very different sections of the movie: There’s inside the tank, which could really have been done as a play; just four or five guys on a stage talking and reacting. Maoz: It’s totally set inside a studio…
CS: Right, but when you go outside the tank, you have all these horrifying images of war. Did you generally try to shoot all that stuff first? Maoz: Yes, because the war influenced the tank. The war doesn’t give a damn what happens inside the tank, so then for example, if I tell my gunner, now there is a woman searching for her child. Instead of explaining to him the situation, I just did a very rough edit and when he looks through his viewfinder, he saw a small monitor that showed him the scene (we shot earlier) so he can react exactly to the scene itself. You don’t need to imagine things, you just need to see it and to feel it.
CS: How much of the stuff in the tank was shot in real time? I assume you shot all of it in order, but were you able to do long takes or did you have to stop to set up different shots making it hard to do anything in real time? Maoz: Of course, to shoot inside one location, it’s a bit risky because you know that in the editing process, if something doesn’t work, you don’t have… four flats, one hospital, two cars, two bards, it’s not modular. You can’t play with it. But there are benefits, because for example, I can shoot it from the beginning till the end. It’s good for the actors, it’s good for me not to jump between the scenes. In the end, we shot the outside scenes ten days, because they are much more complicated, and the tank itself 22 days, and in the end, it was 33 days all over.
CS: Were all of the actors playing the soldiers in the tank, were they all experienced actors? Maoz: No, the gunner, this was his first role.
CS: How did you find them and choose them and know they could be these characters in this situation? I mean, besides putting them in a small box and seeing how they react. Maoz: As I said before, because the film is not based on text, so I knew that I needed to believe the emotional information through their eyes, so when an actor came to an audition, I created an extreme close-up of his eyes and the first thing was to taste his eyes to see if I could read his feelings, if I can read his reaction, from his eyes. I didn’t tell him that’s what I was going to do. I gave him some text, I challenged him with things that I told him, but I searched for the eyes.
CS: It’s really amazing because this is such a personal story about something you experienced… Maoz: In the end, if you want to talk about what’s going on inside the soldier’s soul, this is the only window that you can see the soul through, the eyes, no?
CS: Absolutely. Did you end up storyboarding or drawing a lot of the stuff that you wanted to film and do a lot of preparation to make this work? Maoz: No, no, there was like a book of 600 pages on how to shoot it from the foreground to the background to the lens to the light to the smoke, the liquid. But in the end, as much as you’re ready, before the shooting process on the set itself, you can set yourself free. Of course, you have a basic ground under your feet so you can fly, and in the end, the best things maybe didn’t come from this (book), but this is the only way to achieve it.
CS: I have to say that your DP did an amazing job. The look of the movie and how he captured those very specific visuals was amazing. Maoz: Yes, but his tough mission was the outside scenes, because inside the tank, he was the DoP of “Lebanon” but outside the tank, it was a combination between the hydraulic movement of the turret to the shaking hands of the gunner, and it was like working against his instincts. There is no starting or ending point. If you want to get to a place, you need to pass him and go back and then go back. You need to have late reactions.
CS: Did you also play the sounds of the turret and the zoom inside the tank so they could have the full experience? Maoz: Not all the time, but when I felt that it was necessary, I used (an in-ear headphone) because you cannot use the sound. It’s like an injection of sounds to the ears.
CS: Those sounds are very effective to the experience. I’m not sure I noticed the first time there was music at the beginning, then after a while, it’s gone, and then it’s all about the sounds of the tank and the war around them. Maoz: But the sound is not just what you hear, it’s what you don’t hear.
CS: Have you thought at all about what you want to do next? Do you have other stories from this period you want to explore or was this really the definitive story about your Lebanon War experiences? Maoz: You’re talking about my next project.
CS: Exactly. Maoz: Now I feel I’m ready for a black comedy.
CS: That takes place in a big open space? Maoz: Yes, but I learned from “Lebanon” that in the end the limits are kind of a blessing, because when you don’t have space to move right or move left, the only way is to dig deep.
CS: What were your thoughts on “Waltz with Bashir,” which came out a year before this and will be seen as a precursor. Maoz: We made it together. (He means “at the same time.”) I just (ran out) of money before the editing process so I needed to raise more money. That’s why I went out one year after “Waltz with Bashir.” This is a great film and I like it a lot, and I think that we are sharing the same experience, and every one of us has his own way of unload it, to express it. But if you ask what I’m thinking about it, whether it’s good or not good…?
CS: Not necessarily. I was just curious what you thought about the direction they took for expressing the same feelings in a different way. Maoz: One year before there was also another film called “Before” so personally, I felt a bit unlucky because I thought to myself, “After two films… in 2007, a film about Lebanon, in 2008, a film about Lebanon…” But in the end, I was lucky.
CS: In 1981, I was (AGE RETRACTED) and while I knew about the Lebanon War, I didn’t really know a lot. Having these two movies come out so close after one another really helps those who weren’t around really understand what it was like being on the frontlines. Maoz: In the end, it’s not the what, it’s the how. If you think about a movie that you like, it’s not because of the story, it’s how they deliver it, how they deal with it. But I told myself that even the Americans they did many great Vietnam films year after year.
CS: Even Iraq War movies, there were something like ten films before they made “The Hurt Locker” and that was the first one where everyone really connected with it.
Lebanon opens in New York on Friday and then in Los Angeles on August 13.