The opening scene of Lebanon greets you with a field of sunflowers. The heads are a little heavy and drooped on this particular day of the 6th June 1982, the first day of the Lebanon war, but you may make the most of the view, because it’s the last natural, unspoiled image you’ll see on the screen for the next ninety minutes, the only view in the film that isn’t seen from the cramped environment and limited perspective of an Israeli tank.
The film’s director, Samuel Maoz, was twenty years old in June 1982, a gunner in a tank crew for the Armoured Corps of the Israel Defense Force at the time the army went into the Lebanon. You can tell immediately that the film is realistic and based on first-hand experience because you can almost feel that experience first-hand yourself, the camera never leaving the tank in which four men live in very close quarters, unable to leave the tank under any pretext, and we presume, for much of the duration of the war.
If you think living conditions inside are going to be somewhat unpleasant however, you should see what goes on outside. And you do, usually through the crosshairs of the tanks weapon system, witnessing the devastation, the death, the mutilated bodies, the blood and the smoke, the constant danger of approaching vehicles bearing down on you and the random fire that can come at you from any direction. But that’s just “a walk in the park”, the pathway has already been softened and the way made clear by an earlier aerial bombardment. The worst is yet to come – the real fear and terror of the experience of being held within a tin-can, venturing into the unknown behind enemy lines, a target for anyone with a missile launcher, with no idea of where you are or what is going on outside.
Although there are some questions about the methods and techniques used by the director – taking the experience entirely out of any kind of wider context, the overemphasis and frequent snap zooms allowed to dwell on the horror and mutilation, the sense of forced irony in several of the set-ups – there’s no doubt that the approach is authentic and an effective way to give an outsider an approximation of what the experience must have been like to be an IDF soldier venturing into the Lebanon.
That experience has been recounted recently in several strong and inventive films from Israel – Beaufort and Waltz with Bashir – but while Lebanon is certainly equal to both films in its intensity, in its sense of horror at the ravages and senselessness of war, it’s perhaps less concerned with the rights and wrongs of the action, with the details of the offensive, the historical and political background leading towards it or any consideration of the aftermath. Those are facts are well-known however and can be found and debated over elsewhere – they are not the concern of this film. Lebanon is unapologetically a soldier’s film. The very young men inside the IDF tank are bewildered by the conflicting orders given that seem to make no rational sense, and go into the Lebanon certainly expecting resistance from the Lebanese, but what are Syrians doing there, who are these Phalangists and, more importantly, whose side are they on?
In those circumstances, and considering the limiting perspective that the film goes to great pains to establish, it’s certainly the correct position for this film to take. It’s also a highly effective one that exploits well the power of the theatrical experience, the viewer similarly immersed in a dark and – considering that this is not a blockbuster by any means – a necessarily small and intimate theatre (albeit hopefully one that is rather more comfortable than the one shared by Assi, Hertzel, Yigal and Shmulik), but also exploiting other aspects of the cinematic medium – its unwavering, unblinking gaze never letting you escape from what it has to show, allowing the experience and the senselessness of it all speak for itself.