Former soldier-turned director Samuel Maoz talks about the process of writing and making his semi-autobiographical movie about the Lebanon War.
In Lebanon, Shmulik (Yoav Donat) is a gunner suddenly thrust into a tank with several strangers to fight in Israel's first war with Lebanon. There's a motto on a plaque inside the tank that reads, "Tanks are made of iron. Men are made of steel." As the movie progresses, the young soldiers show that, of course, men are made not of steel, but of flesh and blood. The viewer sees most of the movie through Shmulik's viewfinder; as we look through the periscope with him, we see his struggle to shoot or not to shoot, and the ensuing guilt that sets in either way.
Writer/director Samuel Maoz had to dig deep into his memories of his experience as a gunner in Israel's first war with Lebanon for his first feature, which won the 2009 Venice International Film Festival's Golden Lion. Shmulik is, of course, a nickname for Shmuel; that is, Samuel himself. Here he talks to Tribeca about being part of "the Lebanon generation" and how a type of healing was only a welcome by-product of making this award-winning movie.
Samuel Maoz, 1982
Tribeca: What were your reactions when you heard that you had to go to war?
Samuel Maoz: I didn't have a clue what a war is, and then one day I was there. Nothing can prepare you for war. The army can prepare you for war in the way that you know how to use a gun, to [drive] war machines, to be in good shape, but mentally, nothing could prepare me… The trick of the war is, let's say, primitively simple. Take a soldier—take a human being—put him in a real-life dangerous situation. Now when I'm saying it here in this [hotel] suite, maybe it sounds theoretical, but when you feel it, you feel it in every cell of your body, and then it's a kind of process, a kind of metamorphosis or something.
At the end of this process, you are your most basic instinct. Our survival instinct starts to take control, and… you are not you any more. You are not thinking any more about all those ethical or moral codes that you [were] raised on or grew [up] with, because you are falling into a war. You are falling into such an extreme situation where all the basic rules of life are not there any more, and if you continue to think with the logic of normal life, you won't survive.
So the difficult time in the end is not the war itself, because in the war itself, after one day, you became a solider of the war. You are not fighting for your country or for your family or for your children. You are fighting for your life. This is the trick of the war. Hard times are after the war… What you think you are, what you become, and what you will never be again.
Tribeca: It took you quite some time to write about this, understandably, and then when you did, you wrote it very quickly. What prompted this breakthrough?
Samuel Maoz: They used to call us in Israel "the Lebanon Generation." We were, in a way, in the middle: our parents, our teachers, many of them came from Europe, [and] some of them came from the German [concentration] camps. I can remember my teacher with the number on her arm shouting in the class that we must kill for our country—we must die for it, if necessary. But we were normal kids who were born and lived in Israel. We didn't think that everybody wanted to terminate us; we just thought about the Tel Aviv beach and about girls. But in a way, we were brainwashed, so in the beginning of the '80s to come back from war with your two hands, two legs, ten fingers, without any burning marks on your skin, and to start complaining that you have problems inside of you, it was almost unforgivable. They used to tell us, "Say thank you that you're alive. We were in the camps."
So in the end, my trigger was the second Lebanon War—in 2006, I mean—because suddenly I saw that I never spoke up, and now our kids are dealing with the same Lebanon again. And like everything in life, when it's regarding you, you can skip it, but when it's touching your children, this is totally something else. And at that time, I thought to myself that if I will find a way to [make] a film, it could maybe actually save lives. That was my motivation in the end. And when I started to do it, I did it very fast.
Tribeca: Is it difficult to watch the movie and also talk to people again and again about this? Does it bring back everything?
Samuel Maoz: The process itself was a kind of release, if that's what you are asking… The hard time was to keep it locked inside me, but it's important for me to say that it wasn't the reason [why I made the movie]. The reasons were others. Of course, it was the best treatment that I could buy for myself, but it was a by-product, something I earned on the way. I didn't plan to earn it. Suddenly I found myself earning it. And it's not like you were sick and now you took some kind of medicine and now you are [healed]. Of course, I am better, but—how to say it gently—when the soul is bleeding, there is in the end nothing that can stop the bleeding. This is still the first thought in the morning and the last thought before you are falling asleep. But of course I can accept myself, I can feel complete with myself. I feel lucky that I found a way to unload it because there are many others that can't find the way to do it. And I can smile now. You know, you can smile also with the pain. But to answer the question, the process itself in the end was something good for me. A kind of cure.
Tribeca: I read about the way you prepared your actors for their roles. Can you describe it? Were they at all traumatized, in a way, as well?
Samuel Maoz: The first step, for example, was to explain to them what it is to be inside a tank—such a small, claustrophobic, dark, and hot place. So I took every one of them and locked them in a very small, dark, and hot container for a few hours, and after two hours in such extreme conditions, the body starts to save energy and you are almost floating. And then we knocked on the container walls with iron pipes. It's very similar to a sudden attack on a tank. You go from zero to 100. Then came another two hours when they were waiting for the next time we'd knock. It was totally another state of mind.
After four or five hours like this, when the actor came out from the container and I looked at his eyes, I understood that I didn't have to say anything, because words would spoil it. The actor [whose character] cannot shoot and because of him in the end, an Israeli solider died because he didn't shoot—I sent him to sit with parents that lost their children… They are actors, so for them it was a great experience, and I think that maybe they were a bit traumatized, as you said, but in the end they took with themselves the errand from the project. They are better actors now.