Minutes into Samuel Maoz’s autobiographical debut Lebanon, the lid of an Israeli tank swings shut. We see the 1982 invasion of Lebanon as its crew do, physical and moral vision squeezed down to the threatening images glimpsed through a narrow view-finder. Enemy rockets and civilian deaths shake them. When 19-year-old gunner Shmulik fails to fire, fellow soldiers are killed. When he does fire, it’s worse.
Shmulik’s experiences were those of Maoz, now a tall, intense 47-year-old. Lack of opportunity in the tiny local film industry, and the smell of burning flesh that accompanied remembering the war, delayed his debut. Watching Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon on TV finally forced him to write. But the painful incomprehension when a woman asks him about his 'representation of the Arab' after a screening before LWLies meet Maoz shows Lebanon comes from a more visceral place than political positions.
LWLies: We wondered when you were thinking about Lebanon if there were any anti-war films that seemed real or convincing to you?
Maoz: Of course, you write books from books. But not necessarily war movies. Of course, Apocalypse Now was one of the films, but everybody will say Apocalypse Now because it’s one of the best.
Had you seen Apocalypse Now before you went to war?
No, afterwards. And I thought to myself, 'You catch the chaos, you catch the madness of the war.' I love The Deer Hunter, I love Apocalypse Now. But for me, when I started to write, I used to see, Hiroshima mon Amour, or Last Year in Marienbad, or Chris Marker. There is no connection, but it’s feelings that, when I see them it’s like a metamorphosis and I’m ready to write. It’s like they are close feelings that put me on the right track to write.
Does it feel healing to you, as well as transforming, to see a really good film, or experience a really good bit of art?
Always. It’s something that amidst the world…fuck, I knew this word…okay, it’s not the word, but it turns you on…It gets your senses going...
Yes, you feel the passion again, you believe in your way again. Because for me to take the language, and to make a film with the cinematic language is something that I’m not interested in. For me, the interesting process is to test the language, to check it, to twist it, restore it to do experiments. To try to not just use it, but play with it. I know that I’m going on the edge, but I tell myself, 'If it won’t be a success, it will be a very respectable crash!' A very artistic crash, maybe!
Would you like to start your next film now if you could? I would have started it yesterday if possible! But it’s interesting, just as an example – in your room you can go from side to side, you can lie on the floor, but when you are inside a tank, when you can’t move left or right, you don’t have any choice than to go forward. But now after Venice the choice is so big, and the opportunities. So it’s confusing now. I've learned that the limits are a kind of blessing. You need to think. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that often you see with known directors, after about three films…
They get a bit lazy? Fat... Soft?Yeah.
So first of all the subject, the story, is breathing inside you, and then you’ve got the map of how it’s all going to be done?
Yeah, and it’s important to me that everyone is part of it. I remember before Lebanon we had a production meeting that lasted five days, because every shot, we worked out between us before. And also all the crew feel that they have a mission, that they are important, that they are not technicians. That’s really important.
With the crew, particularly the actors, did you try to explain to them what they were portraying? How you felt doing what they were doing? Or did you trust the script?
No, for me the actors are the most important thing. If the actors are bad, then there is no chance for the film. For Lebanon, I put them in a certain state of mind. I know, for example, I can explain to an actor about the claustrophobic experience [in the tank], the heavy heat and the darkness, and I can use very beautiful words, and he can say he understands, but he might not. So I need to put them in a certain state of mind. So for example, in the beginning of the process, each actor was left alone in a small, dark and very hot container for a few hours. And instead of explaining, I let him go through it. After a few hours, we knocked on the container with iron pipes. This is very close to a sudden attack. So after the actors go out, you don’t need to speak. Words will spoil it. And now, they have something to take into the shoot.
You gave them your own memories?Yes. Because a war situation is so extreme, that they don’t have one word they can take. And because the film is an experiential feeling, the story is very simple, there is almost no plot – 'Go here, go there, see a child, see a woman, go out', that’s the end of the story. When you want to tell a story of the living soul it’s difficult to get across, because it’s understanding on an emotional level – there’s no logical understanding. If you feel, then you will understand. And I didn’t want the audience to think during the film. After the film, they can go home and think about it.
How did you survive your experience as a soldier, mentally and emotionally? Because obviously you had no real preparation for what was happening to you, and you were a very young man. How did you get through it?
During the war, after two days you start functioning on an instinctive survival level. That’s the trick of the war. Death feeds war: you need to kill in order not to die. War can’t rely on you killing out of some ideals, or because you are following orders, because a soldier is a normal person and a normal person cannot kill. You need to be psycho. Even if there is someone saying telling you, 'Kill him or you’ll get punishment', you won’t do it because you are a normal person. So the war creates a very basic formula that forces you to kill. Take a soldier, put him in a dangerous situation and he will start to kill, because survival instincts kick in…You know I read that this instinct is stronger than blinking. You can’t tell yourself that now because of some ethical clause, I will stop blinking. You can’t function against your instincts. So during the war, you are like an animal that someone is trying to harm. The first two days are the difficult days. I read it in some kind of research that in all the wars, most of the soldiers that die do so in the first or second day, and that's because you are thinking. For example, in Lebanon the order was, 'Every movement in a balcony, shoot at the balcony.' So it could be someone with a missile, and it could be a family. From time to time, someone with a missile will send a girl to run in front of him. So if you are thinking twice, boom, you are dead.
It’s a conflict that you can’t afford to think about, because you’d just be killed...
And in the banana grove, the first sequence, you can see that this is a normal healthy person. If I pulling the trigger, I’m a killer. I’m the executioner. I’m 20 years old and I’m the hangman. And nobody asked me if I want to do it, if I can do it. So in the war itself, it’s easier, because when your survival instinct takes control, you don’t feel any more. You even lose your sense of taste, because you need to eat without saying 'I like it', 'I don’t like it'. On the other hand it’s enough to sleep one hour a night. You are constantly focused. The difficulty is after the war,where suddenly you find that you are back home in the streets of Tel Aviv and no one is trying to hurt you any more. Your survival instincts start to pack away. You feel something in the back of your head, some kind of information that you don’t want to deal with.
So part of you still felt hunted – you still had those animal instincts for a while?
For a while. And it’s good – you feel good, you feel protected. But the instinct has nothing to do with you any more. This is when you start to crash: when suddenly you begin to fully comprehend the fact that you've killed people. I remember that I thought to myself, 'It wasn’t me there. It was someone else.' That’s the feeling, that it wasn’t me… It’s very difficult. But you learn to live with it in the end. Because there is no other choice.
If this is either an outrageous or stupid question... but just tell us – it made us think, in World War Two, when the Nazi officers were all saying, 'Well, we were just following orders', and everyone…
Listen, I will tell you. I have a responsibility. That’s the problem. I feel guilty. Okay, it was my responsibility, maybe I wasn’t able to bear it and say that it was a part of my destiny, that I fell into a no way out situation... There was the instant that my finger pulled the trigger, and I feel responsible and I feel guilty for that, and I will feel guilty until the end of my life. It’s easier now, because I can explain the complex situation in my way to people who don’t have any idea about what it was like, so maybe I can have some kind of empathy from them. So I guess it’s a kind of release. I must tell you that from the end of the war until Venice [film festival] last year, I didn’t have tears in my eyes. Not at all. I thought that maybe I’d lost it and this is what happens to people who have experienced war first hand as a punishment. No tears at all. Totally dry for 25 years. Then in Venice, after the official screening, people stood up and for 20 minutes I saw in front of me young people and old people looking at me, and I had tears in my eyes. Suddenly, after 25 years, I felt the tears again. Believe me, this was a huge deal, to have my tears back.
Was it because you’d finally been able to tell your story?
I didn’t talk about it for 25 years.
But to finally say it…
If for example, I met you four or five years ago, we could have a conversation and I would never mention it.
Do you feel you want to talk about it a lot now?
I’ve already talked about it. Listen, it was the best treatment that I could ask for. But it was a by-product. I didn’t do the film for that. It was something that I earned along the way. I didn’t plan to have it. It suddenly happened, because I started talking about it.