Samuel Maoz Talks about «Lebanon»

By Shlomo Porath

«I spent many years in the dark; the trauma of Lebanon haunted me. Once someone asked me what is this trauma – this shell-shock – do you have nightmares? I wish it was as simple as having nightmares. I didn’t do much in that time,» said filmmaker Samuel Maoz, whose first feature film, Lebanon, was more than 25 years in the making. Shlomo Porat spoke to Maoz just before the film made its world premiere September 8th, in the 66th Venice Film Festival, with Toronto International Film Festival as the next stop in a long list of festivals that includes: New York Film Festival, London Film Festival, Pusan International Film Festival, Vancouver International Film Festival and the Cologne Kunst Film Biennale.

On being the third in a series of Israeli films relating to the war in Lebanon (Beaufort (2007) and Waltz with Bashir (2008):

Samuel Maoz: It’s my bad luck that it seems as though mine is the third film to come out on the topic, but I began making it before Beaufort came out. But I didn’t have enough money. I had money from the Israeli Film Fund and I had to either make the movie or return the money. I understood that if I start making it, I’ll take the train to a point where it can’t be stopped because too much money has already been invested in the movie. So I decided that I’ll do it, but without making any compromises. Even if I can only shoot part of the movie, I’ll shoot as much as I can.

It was important to me to begin with the outside shots because actually there wasn’t a set; there was the outdoor and the tank. I wanted to go from zero to 100 – in terms of the actors and crew to get them into a kind of drive. I was afraid that in the tank the whole thing would be drier in terms of the shooting. Outdoors it’s more of a party.

Shlomo Porat: I spoke to Ariel Roshko (the production designer) and he said that you filmed it in Tel Aviv, and had to hide the Azrieli Towers so they wouldn’t appear in the shots.

SM: We didn’t leave Tel Aviv. We shot in the shuk (the outdoor market) and near Igal Alon Street in an abandoned warehouse. The farthest we travelled was to the studio in Neve Ilan (Gimel Gimel Studios).

SP: How much studio time as compared to outdoor?

SM: 8 outdoor days and 20 studio days.

SP: How did you shoot it? Did you have different models or moving walls where you could change the angles each time?

SM: It [the tank] was modular, but it was made from the real thing. I was invited to Rotterdam with the script and participated in a panel and presented the film. The movie is the tank itself but it also needs to go up and down and turn; it needs to be very dynamic. Someone from Cinecittà Studios said, «Listen we have a hydraulic platform, they use it in Hollywood and on helicopters, but it will be good for your needs. Because I love your script I’ll give you a special price – $250,000 including an operator. I said ok. In the end Ariel Roshko bought a cart for 1,200 NIS.

Usually, in a normal situation, three or four people work on a shot: camera, assistant, grip. In this movie we had one shot – it was a crazy fast ride – where 14 people did the shot. Itai Tiran [Assi in the film] worked the clap, Oshri Cohen [Herzl in the film] when he was out of the frame would throw in shells and boxes, one person made smoke, another dripped oil. You talk about the way it looks…its very labor intensive.

I believe that the more prepared you are when you come to shoot; your ability to improvise grows. Of course its different for each individual, I’m talking about myself. I prepare. I prepared a 500 page notebook describing how this movie was going to be shot, detailed from which lens we would use to every drop of oil. That’s the beauty of it because when you arrive so prepared, you have no problem going wild when you begin work. The most beautiful things came not from what I had planned but from what I improvised, but I know that I couldn’t have arrived at that place…I need to go to Haifa through Beer Sheva.

Writing the script was a very visual process. Hebrew can be a very poor language. You have «Beautiful» [yafe] «Amazing» [madhim] and «Enchanting» [maksim] and that’s about it. English has a much larger vocabulary. I use images when I write. For example, he had a smile like a poker player who is holding 4 aces. It’s a very specific smile, rather than say he had a mischievous smile or something like that. It helps the actors as well.

I would go to locations –you know when you write a script and you find a location, it’s not exactly what you saw in your imagination. What you imagined would be a perfect amorphous reality. I used some photos that I found on the internet of bombed Beirut.
I would go to locations and take pictures from every possible angle then work with them on photoshop and write about them.

SP: You had investors on the film from Germany and France. Did they try to impose any kind of agenda on the film?

SM: On the contrary. I participated in the pitching session in Jerusalem two years ago. It was very emotional and it was very strong. People clapped and said it was a great pitch when I finished speaking. Michel Reilhac (from Arte France) seemed unconvinced – he said, «It’s a strong story, but your pitching was so emotional. You seemed to be too much into it, I’m afraid it will turn into one of those movies where it’s me and my experience and losing proportions.» I told him that I am coming to it [the film] after 25 years based on a decision that I am not going to do this project until the moment when I can do it as a director who is making a movie and looking at the actors as portraying a character, which implies disconnecting emotionally. So he said, «Perhaps you think that you have already disconnected emotionally, but in your pitching it didn’t look that way and I wish you good luck.» That was the end of the conversation and he didn’t take the movie.

Then I was invited to that panel in Rotterdam with the script and at that point Reilhac said, «Now I’ll read the script.» A week later I received a phone call from him and ever since then he’s been very supportive of the movie and has been behind us all the way.

SP: The movie is bookended by an evocative image. Was this image something concrete that you saw or was it an image that came to you while writing?

SM: If you’re asking me whether there was a particular field of sunflowers in Lebanon – no. It was mostly based on an intuitive feeling. That shot was a picnic, it’s unbelievable. I went with Giora [the cinematographer] and Arik [the editor] came to help us. We met at 9:00 in the morning and drove to Beit Jubrin. Giora who is a kibbutznik and drives to the kibbutz every day had been telling us ‘the sunflowers are starting to bend their heads, now is the time’ because when they are completely bowed down you don’t really have a sunflower anymore, and I wanted them half-way, like that.

We drove there with a camera and shot them in three or four compositions and there was a wind. Once we had the wind we were happy and by 11:00 we were already drinking coffee at Arik’s house in the moshav.

SP: Was the tank in the shot real, or added digitially?

SM: The tank was planted in the frame. The production company suggested I talk to the IDF speaker about a tank, I said there’s no point. When I came to the IDF speaker they practically threw me down the stairs. There was such a scene there…the speaker is a woman; she sat there without saying a word. Standing next to her was the lieutenant who said, «All right, let’s begin: the movie contains 11 incidents of «talking back» to a commander, even refusing to obey an order. I will begin to read them in order of severity: «on my dick you and your orders.»[a literal translation of Hebrew slang used in the film]
Then there was the kiss of death – soldiers looking at a naked woman! [there was a poster of a woman in the tank] But on the panel of her computer she had a large sticker of Oshri Cohen [who plays the rebellious soldier Herzl in the film]. They didn’t give me anything.

In terms of guns, there are companies that supply movies and I could manage but I didn’t have a tank. And then I found a tank. One day an art person arrives and says I found a tank in the Golan Heights.

SP: Was it the right model? The one you needed?

SM: No, but don’t tell anyone. It was a commando production. We set out in two vehicles and set up opposite the tank. Quickly set up a green screen behind the tank, an actor went in, we shot. We used it later for the scene in the field of sunflowers. For the set, they simply found somewhere else a tank that had been bombed.

SP: Oh, so it really was a bombed out tank. Didn’t they [IDF] have a problem…one of the first scenes you see Jamil with the…I don’t know whether I should call it a coup de grace?

SM: Actually, this interests me as a test case, because as far as I am concerned, what I intended is that it not be a political movie.

SP: I agree, it does not come off as a political movie.

SM: Because if you ask why does he [Jamil] shoot in that scene. Some people will say it’s an execution – just like that, without batting an eye, and some will say – it’s out of compassion. But if you ask me: why does he shoot him – it’s because he is shouting now and he is making noise and Jamil is responding to the situation and something has gone wrong, a mistake has been made. You need to solve it and move on.

SP: So he doesn’t even think on that level at that moment.

SM: Of course. Listen …I’ll let you ask your own questions but I can tell you about the trauma of war, what it means to kill people…how you act in that situation the metamorphosis that you undergo from a boy to …for me the movie is about the emotional wound.

SP: I was not a combat soldier but I felt that in that one scene you showed all the humanity that exists in the inhumanity of war. You showed all the problems – the immediate problems, the human problems. It amazed me. That’s what drew me into the movie.

SM: After all, you can say – there were pressures on you, you were actually a pawn in someone’s chess game. But when you are a link, the last link in the chain of death, the moment arrives when it’s your fingers and that is the moment, nothing can help you here, that is the moment when you take responsibility. And it haunts you, that moment; it’s a fraction of a second. It’s not like confronting a dilemma where you can say – all right, I understand the dilemma I’ll get back to you tomorrow and let you know what I decide. You hesitate for a second and a paratrooper is killed.

I knew that first scene needs to be simple; I can’t become too complicated, in terms of narrative it needs to be simple, like a mathematical equation. I thought about it a lot, every nuance. I’ll give you an example, even the moment when he sees the truck, there is this moment when he makes a gesture with his hand – so there is this moment where if someone didn’t understand yet, when you know that he also is responsible for what happens now because there was this moment when he could have understood that this is actually a civilian, that maybe it doesn’t look exactly like the moment before.

SP: Weren’t you afraid to make such a minimalist narrative?

SM: What you’re saying is strange to me. It’s not that I wasn’t afraid of it, it’s even more extreme than that …as far as I am concerned there wasn’t any other way to make this movie. Now when I think of it – it’s like making a movie in a living room, making an entire movie in the living room of an apartment. Still, a person can get up, walk from one place to another, stand on his head, and lay on the floor. Here – the actor can’t move. I was very aware that I don’t have a long shot. That is why I invented new definitions: from the torso up is my long shot, the face is my medium and this is my close up.

The movie is just about the first day of the war, but I was in one of the first tanks that entered Beirut. There was this story, the war had been going on and people in Israel were dissatisfied and saying what is happening so someone had an ingenious idea, a great trick – let’s infiltrate three tanks to Beirut, place them opposite the palace, the media will all arrive in the morning and take pictures. We’ll gain five days and they’ll wait for us in the western quarter. And the Phalangists led us, a group of paratroopers, and three tanks. We had to maintain a certain distance between the tanks. At some point they gave us the wrong direction and we were abandoned in the industrial area of Beirut. There the Phalangists sent us directly into an area where the Syrians parked their tanks.

There were 11 Syrian tanks there and to this day I don’t know how I came out of there alive. There was an amazing scene, I went in there and I guess the Syrians were asleep; they weren’t on guard because no one expected Zahal to enter the industrial zone of Beirut, so they woke up surprised and started shooting at us from all directions. They tried to climb on the tank and we drove forward and crashed into tanks. Then we heard the voice of a pilot on the radio who said «I am an F15 pilot. I’m above you. As soon as you are out of the parking area let me know that you are out.»

Our commander said, «I don’t know what to do.» The pilot said, «I can’t tell you what to do, the best is just drive forward, full gas. We drove forward between two tanks and pushed them somehow aside and at some point we started to drive and drive until we heard his voice again and he said are you out and we said yes, and he bombed everything.

The funny thing is that when we were looking for locations for the movie I made on the Batsheva Dance Company, Giora [Bejach] was the cinematographer there too, and we were talking about Lebanon and Giora said, «Listen, the strangest thing happened to me in Lebanon. I was an intelligence officer in the air force and one day a tank with four idiots in it drove into a Syrian tank parking lot and I had to send out a plane and he was about to bomb the place and I said you can’t there’s a tank there. Then he made radio contact …how things are connected, suddenly he’s filming my movie.

SP: It’s an amazing story.

SM: Always. [wanted to tell the story] But every time I tried to write it …the first thing that would come back to me is the smell. For some reason the memory of the smell is stronger than the visual memory. And then I already knew that after the smell, would come all the images…how can I tell you, after years of passivity and explosive bursts of rage then you learn to identify the dangerous moment and get away in time and not get into it. So I left it. And one day when I was really depressed, I didn’t know how I’d get out of it, and then I thought: if that’s my situation then I have nothing to lose, and I can go there without fear. I’m waiting, muscles tense, and I wait for the smell, one, two days and it doesn’t come. And the images don’t come. And I am making an effort to bring them back.

I can remember, but I begin to understand that the person I am writing about is no longer me. I felt euphoric, like a trembling missile, and it came pouring out. Then I became very practical and went into the site of the Israeli Film Fund and saw that the deadline for applications was in three weeks. I had no day or night, didn’t eat or sleep. Once I wrote about 8 pages, 7 ½ in one day.

SP: Did you intend to write only about the first day?

SM: It’s interesting …A few years ago I read about an American study that answered so many of my questions –why my memories of the first day are so strong and my memories of the other days are so disjointed, or why I feel that the boy who was there was not me– It’s a simple study. It’s statistical, but its essence is psychological. What it says is the chances of a soldier dying on the first day of the war are the highest; it goes down by 50% the next day. By the third day he only has a ten percent chance of dying and after the fourth day, if he dies it’s because a bomb landed on his head, something that could not have been avoided. Why does this happen?

War needs you, it is based on the assumption, not the assumption – the complete confidence that you will be able to kill people – otherwise it doesn’t work. It won’t take the chance that you will kill people because of an ideal, or because someone gave you an order. Its sounds easy, but if I tell you now take this person on the other side and kill them—no punishment, nothing, its fine – it could be someone you hate – you won’t kill him. Because you need to be a bit of a psychopath in order to kill another human being.

War is based on our human instinct for survival. A palpable danger of death is something that you feel in every cell in your body. At first when you enter that reality, a reality that is so extreme compared to what you are familiar with in which the most violent action up to that point had been to kill a cockroach. You are in total shock – your reactions are slow, you respond slowly. I remember that I stood outside just as we went in, in the morning and suddenly there was a small noise and I didn’t understand and I looked, I looked down I saw the backpack starting to move and I saw shaving cream flying. I remember looking at it and it took me a moment to understand that they must be shooting at me. I was lucky.
You need to decide – they tell you, every movement or sound from a balcony – you fire. Now, in some of the instances someone is aiming a missile at you and in some of the instances it’s a family on the balcony, and sometimes the person who is aiming a missile at you holds a little girl in front of him so that you will think that it is a family. If you hesitate for a moment, someone shoots you – you’re dead, the story’s over. Or someone else is dead.

The instinct to survive, passion, and violence – those are our basic instincts. Your sense of taste begins to disappear; you eat anything that is available. Your hearing and vision become more acute, you can sleep just three hours a night and you are not tired. Every moral system is neutralized. I can compare it to a kind of drug. After the third or fourth day you no longer care. It’s the body’s defense mechanism for the soul. The boy who was there was not me.

It makes me laugh when people ask whether Zahal is a moral army. The option to be moral in a war does not exist. It exists, but the formula is very simple: If you want to protect your soldiers, you cannot be moral. If you choose to act morally, more of your soldiers will die. The movie is called Lebanon, but it is relevant to any war. That is why the name of the movie is a mistake. I know. [laughter]

SP: I didn’t say that. Are you content with the movie?

SM: I have to say that I am. And that’s the greatest gift of all. This movie is like chamber music, it’s a chamber music piece.

SP: Yes, but it’s universal.

SM: The closer you are to the actor and the person and go inward…your ability, the less you extend your reach, the more you purify yourself I realized that I need to insist here – you’ll see the war the way they do, you’ll hear it the way they do I exaggerated a bit – not in the events, but in the intensity. But I had to.

SP: you talk about the movie as if you just went out and made it with a few of your friends, but it looks amazing.

SM: I did make it with a few of my friends.

SP: Any ideas for future projects?

SM: I want to make up for the time that was lost. I still have a lot of truth within me to express. Lebanon is our [Israel’s] Vietnam, not the Yom Kippur War. We train for tanks against tanks. There, you are suddenly in the middle of a city and your enemy is wearing jeans.

The interview was translated and edited by Ayelet Dekel

11 September 2009

Samuel Maoz Talks about «Lebanon»

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