Lebanon Samuel Maoz (2009 Isr, Fr, Ger, Leb) Raymond Anslem, Oshri Cohen, Ashraf Barhorn
Viewed Tyneside Cinema, Northern Lights Film Festival, ticket price £7.00
What I had heard about Samuel Maoz’s (SM) film Lebanon (Leb), was that it was all shot from within a tank that took part in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). The idea held out the prospect of a statement about war, in which the tank as a setting, with the armoured isolation of its crew from the outside world, could engage with its audience as one of the forces at play in the movie. There was the prospect of a film that might explore ideas.
Leb is not so purist that it all the action takes place within the confines of the tank; and tanks have always seemed to me to be like steel coffins. But most of the action is located either within the steel hull or viewed through the cross sights of its cannon. Some war movies, All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory use the theme of war to deepen thought and emotion in relation to armed conflict. Leb fails in this respect. We have an interior situation in Rhino (radio code name for the tank) which is ultimately just a pretext for individualised stories, individuation that is a standard Hollywood device for humanising ‘our side’. By featuring the crew’s subjectivities SM moves the film out of the hard death dealing carapace of Rhino softening the interior with sentimentality. Recoiling from the implicit hard implacable the idea of ‘ tank’, the film takes on the business of reconciling oppositions: the hard and the soft. Good men bring death. War as a story of sentimental enterprise.
The action, outside the tank, mostly seen through the cross hairs of the gun sight, comprises mostly of the ‘face’ of war. With its formulaic parade of burnt mangled corpses, smashed people and buildings, and mutilated bodies, Leb is just another Spielberg type war film relying for its effect on image fetishism and faux realism. In its own way a sort of pornography of simulated effect, but which is often used by film makers as a justification for their work with the claim to be bringing the “true” uncensored horror of it war to the audience. The tyranny of the action-image. As if we didn’t know that war is terrible; as if our eyes might consume these images in any different manner from which they consume an ice cream advert. Our perception of the image is guided by desire. In looking at simulated realism, we are dealing with sign language.
The other issue that interested me in relation to Leb, is that ingrained in the production of any war film is a political point of view, an ideological understanding and statement about what is happening in the conflict. How would this be expressed in Leb? Would it take the form of an outright justification of Israel’s action and position; or would Leb take a more oblique more nuanced less direct but no less propagandist line, as for instance in Ari Fisher’s Waltz with Bashir?
Ari Fisher’s film represented the Phalangist massacres of Palestinians in the Shatra and Chatilla camps as taking place over one night. It is a matter of historical UN record they took place over 2 nights, thus irrevocably implicating the IDF as complicit in the killings of thousands of innocents. One key concern of Israeli propaganda in relation to the ’82 Lebanon war is to suggest a critical gap between the acts and intentions of the IDF (representing Israeli policy), and their Christian allies, the Phalangists. In simplistic form IDF are presented as good and honourable; the Phalangists unavoidable allies, but pretty bad people. It is interesting that this is exactly the line taken by SM in Leb. The second half of the movie revolves about the captured Syrian prisoner Rhino is forced to take on board. This soldier’s presence is discovered by a couple of Phalangists who first try to take him. Failing this, one of them has a long unpleasant, one way conversation in Arabic about what he is going to do to the unfortunate man when Rhino gets to its rendez-vous point. This is vicious stuff which the Israeli crew, not speaking Arabic, don’t understand. As the shackled Syrian does not speak Hebrew , the crew’s non understanding is convenient as they are exonerated from responsibility. As director/writer SM does not permit the Syrian to use basic communication of his fear of the threats made to him and his penis by the Palangist. The viewer is left with the message: bad Phalangists, they bad men, and the Phalange are the villains the evil force in Leb. The oblique delivery of this message is of course in perfect tune with Israeli propaganda in relation to the ’82 Lebanon war: the Israelis represented the forces of moderation and fairness. Unfortunately their approach was sullied by the savagery of their unavoidable allies, the Phalange. At a propaganda level, Leb toes the Israeli line, and the film is part of a long term strategy by Israel to control the definition of its wars with its neighbours.
The opening shot of the film, a still shot held for a considerable time of the field of ripe sunflowers suggested a film that might be rich in associations, but the body of the film didn’t develop into anything beyond standard Hollywood fare. Though interestingly the last shot of the film shows the same field, but now occupied by the stranded Rhino. My mind again drifts to the association of Van Gogh and his last picture before his suicide.p