This is the third highly celebrated Israeli film set during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon to have appeared in recent years. It follows Beaufort (2007) and Waltz With Bashir (2008) and in 2009 it won the Golden Lion at Venice, the biggest prize so far for the ‘new’ Israeli Cinema.
This seemed to me to be the ‘hardest’ of the three, the most focused on ‘war really is shit’ and the least compromised by Israeli ideologies. It’s unfortunate then that a) I had to watch it during another week when the Israeli Defence Forces have killed Palestinians and aid volunteers on a Turkish ship in international waters and b) that it found itself at the centre of the boycott of the Toronto International Film Festival’s ‘Tel Aviv focus’ in 2009 (a boycott which I would have supported). Lebanon should be judged on its own merits even if the overall Israeli government policy should be condemned.
The film is unique in that apart from the opening and closing shots, the narrative is presented as either taking place inside a tank or as viewed through the tank driver’s or commander’s eyepiece. This intensely claustrophobic location is an important element in the story. Writer-director Samuel (Shmulik) Maoz was himself the gunner in a tank like this during the invasion and it has taken him more than 25 years to tell his story. Waltz With Bashir was made on a similar basis, but compared to Lebanon seems almost lightweight. I’m sure it isn’t, but in cinematic terms that’s how the comparison feels to me.
The plot outline of Lebanon is very simple. A tank with its crew of four – three who know each other and a new guy – is ordered to advance into Lebanon and join a small group of paratroopers. The paras officer is in overall charge and he leads the combined group into a village which has been bombed by the IDF (the ironically named Israeli ‘Defence’ Forces). But something has gone wrong in the planning and instead of a few Lebanese villagers, the group meets fierce resistance from Syrian soldiers. Can the Israelis extricate themselves – with the help of a couple of Phalangists (Lebanese Christians allied to the Israelis) as guides?
What follows is hard to watch but never less than engrossing. Conditions in the tank are awful but are made worse by the conscripts’ lack of discipline and professionalism. These films generally get criticised for their portrayal of young Israelis under pressure and the absence of any detailed representation of the Arab ‘other’ they are fighting. I don’t think that charge stands against Lebanon. We feel for both the solders inside the tank and those killed or made homeless by its actions. The ‘view from the tank’ becomes a powerful device on at least two occasions – the first when an elderly Arab man stares defiantly straight at the camera in close-up while next to him his companion at a café table lies with his head in a pool of blood and the second when a woman staggers out of a building and comes up to the soldiers. I confess at this point that I wondered if she was suddenly going to plant a bomb on the tank. The film teeters on the edge of a Hollywood-style narrative and a realist humanist representation. The latter wins out and the finest moments are those when the confines of the tank force actions of humanity onto the soldiers – such as helping a shackled prisoner to pee in a can. I’m reminded of my favourite piece of writing about war when, in Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell writes about seeing an enemy soldier running along his trench lines. Orwell knows that he should shoot him but when he sees that the man is trying to hold up his trousers and is clearly suffering from the runs, he asks himself “How can you shoot someone with their trousers round their ankles?”
Lebanon has had some mixed reviews. On IMDB, war movie fans and ex-soldiers complain that the film isn’t realistic in the depiction of the procedures the tank crew follow or don’t follow – which rather misses the point. This a representation of a nightmare. It isn’t about ‘winning’, it explains nothing about why the tank is there, it doesn’t set out to critique policies or politicians or military commanders. It uses a restricted cast and location to tell us something about the nightmare. What I think I will remember, as much as the stifling physical confines of the tank, are the noises – the hydraulics of the turret turning, the viewfinder changing its zoom setting, the roar of the engine and the explosions and screams outside, the orders barked over the radio and the occasional use of music. All of these should, I think, be experienced in the cinema. I suspect much will be lost on a TV set.