Samuel Maoz talks about his personal film currently showing in Irish cinemas…
Lebanon is a personal film about survival against a palpable threat of death, a situation in which the conflict between basic instincts and human conscious claims its victims.
Director Samuel Maoz brought the Golden Lion winning film to Dublin for the recent Jameson Dublin Film Festival. Brogen Hayes caught up with him to discuss his unique style of film making.
What inspired you to make Lebanon?
SM: First of all it was a need. Generally it was a need to unload, to expose the war without all the heroic stuff and all the rest of the clichés, but it was mainly a need to… I don’t know if to say forgive myself is the right expression, but maybe to find some understanding because I have a responsibility. My responsibility was inevitable… Part of my destiny. You can see in the banana grove sequence [in the film], that if you are pulling… or not pulling the trigger you are a kind of executor. OK, so it was a no way out situation but in the end I can’t escape from the fact that I was the last one on the ‘death link’. Still there is a huge difference between understanding that you didn’t have a choice to the fact that you feel guilty. The key point was during 2006 when I sat in front of the television and I saw the second Lebanon war and suddenly I saw that the new generation, our children – I have girls, so I am lucky in a way – but the new generation still dealing with Lebanon, then I realised that making the film is not just about me and my memories and my pain and my problems and needs. I thought to myself that if I found the way to do an effective film it can actually save lives, and suddenly I feel that I have a mission. It’s maybe a bit pathetic to say, but that’s what I felt. That was, in the end, the motivation to do it.
The film is set almost entirely within a tank. Why did you decide to do this?
SM: Because, let’s say, two main reasons. The first one is… I took a decision in this that I am going to deal with the truth in a way that I am going to put the truth in front of your eyes and I knew that it must be the total truth so you will feel it. When the truth is in front of your eyes you cannot resist it. The condition is that it must be really the truth. My truth was from inside the tank, outside the tank I needed to create fiction. This wasn’t the main reason, the main reason was… I understood very fast that my story is not the plot itself. I mean, the plot is something very basic that you can tell in nine or 10 sentences. Even the events are the symptoms, not the issue itself. The issue is the bleeding soul or what’s going on in the soldier’s soul. I remember asking myself ‘how can I tell this kind of story? What is going on inside the soldier’s soul?’ This is almost a student project, it’s so abstract. Then I realised that the only way to understand it is not through the head, but more through the stomach and through the heart, and to achieve such an emotional understanding I needed to create a very strong experience, in the way that I will take you, I will put you inside the tank, you will totally identify with the characters. I mean, you see only what they see, you know only what they know. My idea was that I will try, as much as I can, that you won’t be an objective audience watching a plot running in front of you, I want you to feel it. In this case, feeling is understanding. So if you are sitting in the gunner chair, if you have the cross [crosshair] in front of your eyes, if the victims are looking in your eyes, in a way, you are there. Of course you know that you are safe, but I needed to do, as much as I can, to do something that you will maybe taste it or smell it or feel it.
How did you create such a claustrophobic atmosphere?
SM: First of all, inside the tank you don’t have long shots. So I took a decision that the medium will be the long shot, the medium will be the close up and I needed to create a new close up. For me this is not just the close up itself, this is a close up of war, it’s not just a close up of people. In the end it’s very technical, you need to work in not a very wide or open lens, you need to create a foreground to get the feeling that you are locked between two levels. Of course, the set itself was very small. It was like an orange that had eight parts and every part you can disconnect from the set very fast and it’s on a small track. The claustrophobic experience, in the end, is not just the space itself, its also the sound design. There are very low drones that you don’t hear. It’s like when you are sitting in your home and suddenly the motor of the refrigerator stops working and then you realise that it was making noise before. This is a sound that you can feel just when it is turned off. Very low sound that creates a tense atmosphere.
How did the actors prepare for this confinement?
SM: When I prepared them for the process of the shooting, I didn’t prepare them in a traditional way. For example, the first step was to let them understand what it is to be inside the tank. Instead of talking to them – because I could talk to them and use nice words and they would say that they understand, but they won’t – I just took all of them and closed them inside a very small, dark and hot container for a few hours. After a few hours when you are on a very low energy because it is very hot, suddenly we knocked on the container with iron pipes – it’s very similar to a sudden attack on the tank and this is from zero to 100 after three hours of nothing inside the container. Then after another two hours when you are in another mood, now you are expecting the next noise that will never come. After 5 or 6 hours, when they came out of the container I looked at their eyes and I saw the claustrophobic experience in their eyes and I felt that I didn’t need to talk because words will spoil it. If you are dealing with feelings and the actors need to deliver those feelings they must feel something.
It’s a very personal film, which of the characters can you see most of yourself in?
SM: My character is the gunner. In Israel my nickname, for Samuel, is Shmulik. Like you have Sam. From when I was a kid, everyone called me Shmulik, nobody called me Samuel. It’s just in the last four months people start to call me Mr. Samuel [laughs]. So it was like something that was inside me, like everybody knows that Shmulik is me, and now it was a mistake because people outside Israel can’t make the connection between Samuel and Shmulik, it’s like two different names for them. So I try not to hide behind a name but in the end it’s like I am [laughs]. But I am not!
How useful is a film festival, like the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, to a film like yours?
SM: I guess now, because of the huge distribution all over the world, the fact that the film will be on screens in Britain, every festival can promote it. I learned that Lebanon is not Avatar, it’s not a cinematic hit, but everywhere it has been shown the second week was bigger and the third was bigger, so people are talking and I guess they are talking positive! So it’s important to a film like this to have festivals, because many of the people that come to festivals are cinema lovers and if they love something they will spread the word.
Has winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival changed your career?
SM: Totally. [laughs] This is the magic. One work, one success. I was lucky because in the end its those people you need. Now, Hollywood are calling, but I am still confused because on the other hand I want to continue to do my work in my style and I now can raise good money for it and I can even arrange for myself a good salary, not like in Lebanon. Still I am a bit drunk! I am listening and I am writing my ideas and I will see where I will go, the good thing is that the options are open for me now and I am hungry and I am full of passion. I hope to be here, maybe not next festival, but the one after. Dublin is such a beautiful city!