Lebanon: Interview with Director Samuel Maoz

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The First Lebanon War, June, 6 1982. A lone Israeli tank is dispatched to search a hostile town that has already been bombarded by the Israeli Air Force. What seems to be a simple mission gradually spins out of control.
Killing for the first time
On June 6, 1982, at 6:15 AM, I killed a man for the first time in my life. I was 20 years old. I did not do so by choice, nor was I ordered to do so. I reacted in self-defense, with no emotional or intellectual motivation, only the basic survival instinct that takes no human factors into account, an instinct which forces itself on a person facing a tangible threat of death.
Smell of Human Flesh
Twenty-five years after that miserable morning that opened the Lebanon War, I wrote the script for the film. I had some previous experience with the content, but whenever I began writing, the smell of charred human flesh returned to my nostrils and I could not continue. I knew that the smell would evoke indistinct scenes that I had buried deep within my mind. After years of trauma and violent anger attacks, I learned to identify the ominous moment and escape it in time. Better to live in denial than not to live at all.
Post-Battle Trauma
The year of 2006 was particularly difficult. Five years had passed since my last project and I felt burned out. I produced a few a short commercials and promotional films, but other than that, nothing. I suffered financial pressure, passivity and a maddening lack of responsibility. Once, someone asked me: “What about post-battle trauma? Do you experience nightmares when you remember the war?” I wish it were as simple as that, I thought to myself.
Taking Chances
When a person feels he has nothing to lose, he takes chances. That’s how I felt in early 2007 when I started to write the script for LEBANON. I had hit rock bottom and decided to go all the way. This time, I would not run away from the smell, but would let it take me to the blurry scenes. I would put them in focus, dive right in and cope with it all! Suddenly, I felt uplifted, with a weird sense of euphoria. I’m not lost yet! I’ve still got fighting spirit! I went to bed early, got up in the morning and started to write. I was careful. I didn’t tackle the topic directly but rather wrote around it. I waited for the smell but it did not arrive. I found myself willing it to come back, but it was not there any more. The scenes were gone as well. All that remained was a dim progression of difficult and particularly distant events. After about a week, I realized that I had become emotionally detached. I was no longer the boy of my memory. I felt pain for him, but it was a dull pain, the pain of a scriptwriter attached to a character. It did not matter to me whether I had been cured or was simply breaking a world record for denial. I was flooded with adrenalin and I had spit out the first draft within three weeks.
Electric Shock
This brief writing experience was like an electric shock for me, a shock that aroused me from a long hibernation and reset all my switches. New blood flowed through my veins. I was focused. I also felt sorry about the time I had lost, but did not allow it to trouble me. I devoted myself entirely to a project that rehabilitated me in return. A brilliant business deal that I’m proud of to this day – because what I gained was myself.
Straight from the Gut
I wrote LEBANON straight from my gut. No intellectual cognition charted my path. My memory of the events themselves had become dim and blurred. Scripting convention, such as introductions, character backgrounds and dramatic structure did not concern me. What remained fresh and bleeding was the emotional memory. I wrote what I felt.
I wanted to talk about emotional wounds, to tell the story of a slaughtered soul, a story that was not to be found in the body of the plot but derived from deep within it. How the hell could I put that on film? I realized I would have to shatter some basic principles and bend several rigid cinematic fixtures, creating a total experience instead of building a plot. The decision to make an experiential movie gave rise to the cinematic concept. My basic principle called for the presentation of a personal, subjective point of view. The audience would not watch the plot unfolding before it but experience it together with the actors. Viewers would not be given any additional information, but would remain stuck with the cast inside the tank, having the same limited view of the war and hearing it only as the actors heard it. We would try to make sure that they could smell it and taste it as well, using the visuals and sound track not only to tell a story but also to impart an experience. I realized that I would have to create a total experience to achieve complete emotional comprehension.
Flames, Blood, Gunfire
We began shooting the complex war scenes: flames, blood, gunfire, and explosions. I wanted to accelerate from zero to a hundred, to flood the crew with my adrenalin! Everything proceeded according to plan. The first day of shooting, spirits were high and self-confidence abundant. The only thing that troubled me was a dull pain in my left foot. By the end of the second day, my foot swelled up. I remember telling myself that I must be out of shape after all those lost years. But by the end of the third day, I could hardly walk. I limped from place to place as the pain sliced through my flesh. A doctor who came to the set told me I had an aggressive infection. I took a double dose of a powerful antibiotic and fell asleep, still in pain, but totally knocked out.
Twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep. The pain was gone. I stole a glance at my foot and saw it was bleeding slightly but was no longer swollen. Alongside it were five small pieces of shrapnel, the last testimony to the Lebanon War that my body suddenly decided to eject after 24 years. A fitting conclusion for my intentional self-healing.
Who Will Play Me?
How could I take a young Tel Aviv actor and get him to internalize so extreme a trauma? I realized that I had to adhere to the experiential principle. The actor would only understand and internalize what he could feel.   I began with the basics: Instead of explaining to the actor that it is stifling and hot inside the tank, I locked him into a dark and blazing hot container. Instead of describing the extreme panic that breaks out when a tank is fired on from all directions, we struck the walls of the container with iron bars. He remained boiling inside for hours, waiting tensely for the next shock – artillery fire! Rocking back and forth! And then more nerve-wracking quiet. When he came out, sweating and exhausted, we felt no need to speak. Words would only ruin the experience. There were two types of scenes to be filmed – internal tank scenes and external battle scenes. The tank scenes were shot in the studio and the battle scenes at two locations: a banana plantation and an abandoned industrial zone. I decided to begin with the battle scenes, a battle that Shmuel, the gunner, sees through the crosshairs of his gun sight. I did so because a tank has no effect on the course of war but rather responds to its unforeseen whims. We had to film the incident as it occurred, before any response ensued. The paratroopers were part of a close-knit unit that had been demobilized three months earlier. The location looked like a bombed-out urban area; black smoke in the foreground turned it into a battlefield. We spent eight days in a heat wave of blood and fire, experiencing intense physical hardship, with a film crew on a high.
Tank as Monstrous Insect
We completed filming the external scenes without leaving Tel Aviv. We constructed a set representing the inside of the tank. From the outside, it looked like a monstrous insect from an old-fashioned horror movie, standing in the center of the studio. I placed my monitor opposite it. We looked at one another tensely and silently and I felt like Clint Eastwood before the fateful shootout. The average shot in this film needed about 4-5 crewmembers: a cameraman, assistant cameraman, recorder, boom-man and grip. For a tank shot, I needed many more: Four to rock the contraption, two to turn the turret, one to spread smoke, one to drip fluids, one to blink lights.
On the last day, we had an especially complicated shot. The entire crew was involved in it and the actor was the only person on the set who was free to man the clapper. But the strongest and most emotional moments were the ones in which the actors stopped acting, I stopped directing, the set was enveloped in a sacred silence and everyone was riveted to blinking monitors.