World Cinema: Lebanon (2009)

Lebanon, 2009.

Written & Directed by Samuel Maoz.
Starring Yoav Donat, Zohar Shtrauss, Oshri Cohen.

Lebanon poster

It’s 1982, and the First Lebanon War has just begun. New gunner Shmulik (Yoav Donat) is assigned to a tank team led by Assi (Itay Tiran) along with Hertzel (Oshri Cohen) the shell loader and Yigal (Michael Moshonov) the driver. We follow them as they are despatched to clear a town after a bombing.

There are only two external shots in this film, bookending the feature at the start and end, both shots being of a field of wilting sunflowers on a clear day. Tranquil, picturesque scenes, perhaps to contrast with the horrific images of war sandwiched between.

Almost the entirety of the film takes place within the tank Shmulik and the rest of his team command. The inside is cramped, filthy, hot and waterlogged, with steam or smoke rising from the driver’s chair when the engine is stopped and started. A pool of stagnant water in the bottom has extinguished cigarettes floating in it. The characters are exhausted, both mentally and physically, with both tank conditions to deal with and explosions and gunfire rattling off its metal shell. By setting almost all of the film inside the tank, we truly feel the claustrophobia of the characters.

The only external shots from the tank are through the cross hairs of the gunner, so namely, we only see Shmulik’s POV. This has several contextual layers, as we have ourselves as the viewers of the violence, standing in for Shmulik. Outside characters stare into the camera, into the gun turret, and it looks like they are staring right at us or Shmulik, not the cold, faceless front of the tank. The crosshairs add an element of automatic aggression, that whatever we are looking at, be it an innocent civilian or a potential enemy, with just a pull of a trigger could be obliterated. In certain scenes, (the first time Shmulik fires the cannon, the women who has lost her child) characters look into the turret, at us, with questioning or even accusatory stares, engaging the viewer completely. You literally feel like a member of the tank crew, trapped inside and fighting for survival.

The innocence of the young soldiers is always on display, in that they are quickly being corrupted and infected by the horrors of war. Shmulik fails to fire the tank cannon when ordered, leading to a fellow soldier being killed and when he finally does he causes the death of a chicken farmer, who is shown brutally severed from his arms and legs, screaming in pain. Gamil grants the civilian a mercy death, before staring into the turret / at Shmulik. Shmulik exclaims, “I’ve only ever shot barrels before”, illustrating just how unprepared the soldiers are. After the dead soldier is deposited in the tank with them while awaiting a helicopter, Shmulik looks at his hands, covered in the dead soldier’s blood – a very literal metaphor, but also one that poses one of the key questions of the film (and of war itself), that of responsibility. Shmulik does cause death and injury when he fires the gun, but he is following orders. Later on he questions tank captain Assi, “You have a trigger don’t you?”. He even suggests that he line up the shot and Assi be the one who pulls the trigger, transferring the ultimate responsibility to the one actual giving the order.

The tank itself is referred to almost as a living entity, spluttering away when started, belching smoke and steam and whining as the turret is moved. After sustaining a bazooka hit, the tank starts to ooze oil and fluid, dripping down the metal walls and dials, giving the impression that it is actually bleeding. Driver Yigal states that it is ‘dead’ when he cannot get it to start and the dials are not reading.

From a technical viewpoint, the film is simply superb. The cinematography is excellent, switching between tank turret POV, with the crosshairs centre screen and realistically jerky movements of the turret as it moves adding real authenticity. The shots inside the tank feature tight camera work and face close-ups, and truly succeed in transferring the claustrophobia of the tank.

The sound design itself is worthy of awards, with bullets ricocheting off the metal shell, explosions deafening and shouts echoing. We hear more of the outside environment than we actually see, especially impressive when you consider that the inside was in fact a set, yet the outside seems utterly tangible. The sound for the tank is also very impressive, with an electrical whine every time the turret moves and the loud chugging of the engine providing absolute realism.

It took writer and director Samuel Maoz twenty-five years to turn his own experiences as a gunner in a tank crew into this feature, with Shmulik’s character a virtual stand in for Samuel. He’s stated that “…it was probably a need, not to forgive myself necessarily, but… I was involved in the war and that in itself is enough for me to feel guilty to an extent.” The film was not so much made as a ‘cleansing process’ for the director (as one would assume), but more as a responsibility to tell the story.

The realism of the film-making, coupled with the knowledge that not only were these real events but actually experiences of the director, make Lebanon one of the most powerful war films in recent memory. By focusing on these four characters and the ethical and personal crises they face, the film provides an objective but deeply personal image of war. It manages to do this not by glamorising the events or converting them into entertainment, but simply by telling the story through the eyes of four frightened, humane characters.

Roger Holland

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