Monday, 23 August 2010

LEBANON DVD reviewed

Lebanon is an emotionally intense film. It is about war, it is not a war film. It is a slap on the face, a tableaux about what war is like on both sides of the guns drawn from the guts. It produced conflicting emotions in me when I was watching it. If that was the intention of its director, Samuel Maoz, he certainly succeeded.

Director/writer: Samuel Maoz
Cast: Reymond Amsalem, Ashraf Barhom, Oshri Cohen, Yoav Donat, Guy Kapulnik, Michael Moshonov, Zohar Shtrauss, Dudu Tassa, Itay Tiran
Israel/France/Lebanon/Germany 2009 93 mins

Lebanon begins with a wide angle shot of a field covered with withering sunflowers, which are soon disturbed by a strong gust of wind, an indication of what is to come. The final scene depicts the same field, this time the sunflowers being disturbed by the presence of a tank.

One of the first impressions I had was to notice that this tank was a wreck, even before going into battle, as we watch the reflection of a soldier getting into it down the hatch on a mix of water, machine oil and rubbish laying at the bottom of the turret. This adds credibility to those military strategists who have argued that wars are not won by the most competent army, but by the least incompetent one.

The film follows the life of a tank crew for a few intense and claustrophobic hours in June 1982, at the beginning of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, four young men trapped in this oil stained urine smelling steel coffin that some people call a tank. We are not spared any of the brutalities of that conflict nor the savage damage inflicted not only on the hapless civilians and so-called terrorists we see through the cross wire of the tank guns, but also on the inexperienced young conscripts. The senseless destruction of a town, the wanton killing of civilians, women, children, old people with primordial hatred in their eyes, caught in the cross fire, people who only wanted to carry on with their lives, as we all do. We see how in a matter of hours gunners who had shot only blanks before are confronted with life and death decisions, the results of those decisions are not pretty. Not pretty at all: simply and plainly, they are war crimes. We also see the euphemisms employed by the Israeli army to circumvent international legislation, so phosphorous shells are called Flaming Smoke because Israel complies with international law.

The film is constructed as an interplay between what we see from the cross wire of the guns - like if we were in a video game, the stark and bloody reality beyond the confines of the tank turret, and extreme close ups of the faces of the young soldiers, their raw and conflicting emotions erupting to the surface. We practically can smell the sweat and raw despair of both the conscripts and the blood of their hapless victims. Technological warfare is no longer so clinical, as the military tries to make us believe. The reality is that the blood of a child killed by a blast of that tank would have stained the lives of its crew for ever.

To have put four young and inexperienced conscripts, complete strangers, poorly trained, and expect them to perform like a well oiled team in the madness, chaos and brutality of armed conflict was plain stupidity, the tank commander being barely able to establish any sign of authority and military discipline to his subordinates. Add to this volatile mix the fact that the tank was already a wreck before it was commissioned into this mission; it was a miracle that it managed to stumble to safety with the loss of just one member of its crew after a frantic run to end up on that field of withered sunflowers. Jalim, the commander of the platoon of paratroopers to which the tank had been assigned, leads his men into an area controlled by a Syrian army unit either by having faulty intelligence, or having misread it. This war is no longer a walk in the park, as he claimed at the beginning of the operation.

If the whole of the IDF have conducted their wars as depicted in this film, then the whole of the IDF, soldiers and officers, should be indicted of war crimes. Yet, the counter argument is that when young and inexperienced reservists and conscripts are put into situations such as this, where their options are severely curtailed if they want to get out alive, where their ways out are shrouded in darkness, they cannot behave in any other manner that they way they did, war crimes or not. The buck has entirely been passed onto the hands of the political classes, and it should stay there.

I will take this occasion to rebuke all those reviewers who criticized it for not expanding onto the wider landscape of the endless conflicts that have afflicted the Middle East. First of all, to have done so would have resulted in an extremely long and practically unwatchable film, its central and powerful narrative would have been diluted. Secondly, and more important, Lebanon fixes its gaze on the inner mechanisms and psychology of war, not on dry theorizing, by focusing on the daily lives of a bunch of complete strangers which constitutes the crew of an Israeli tank during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, one of the many endless wars that the Israeli political classes have embarked in their quest for a Greater Israel, a concept that is now as much a myth as El Dorado was in the 16th century. Wars carried out regardless of the blood spilled by their own soldiers, without counting the huge civilian body count on the other side, whichever it may be. The consequences? An ever expanding circle of fire, an endlessly enemy making machine which has made not only Israel more insecure, but also the West.

The disc also contains an optional commentary by the director and scriptwriter of the film, Samuel Maoz, a rather short but useful historical background of the conflict, and statements from Samuel Maoz, producers, photographer and actors of Lebanon. There is also the option of getting a free digital copy of the film to be watched in any portable device. The usual set up choices are also present.

Lebanon is an extraordinary psychologically gripping drama which defies the conventions of cinema making by developing story and character building in unbearable second by unbearable second. The camera follows the faces of the protagonists with a powerful chiaroscuro, highlighting the raw emotions of the actors who, by the end, had stopped acting to become the intensity of those feelings of despair and impotence, to the counterpoint of the sparse musical score. A film that kept me on the edge of my seat muttering to myself throughout its duration like a madman, a work of redemption for its director and writer, Samuel Maoz. Not recommended for those people of faint heart.

Images and trailer © Metrodome Distribution.

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