Samuel Maoz on his Venice prizewinner, 'Lebanon'

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The 'Lebanon' director talks of an Israeli new wave and why he sealed his actors in metal tanks

Israeli director Samuel Maoz (left) won Venice’s Golden Lion for his debut feature, ‘Lebanon’, which tells the story of the first day of the Lebanon War in 1982 from the claustrophobic perspective of four young soldiers stuck in a tank.

There has been a wave of recent successful Israeli films about wartime experiences, with ‘Waltz with Bashir’,  ‘Beaufort’ and your film. Why now?
‘I can only talk from my perspective. First, it’s important to understand that for me making this film was a need. I needed to – I’m not sure ‘forgive myself’ is right – but maybe I needed to find some understanding.

‘My generation – including Ari Folman, who made “Waltz with Bashir”, and Joseph Cedar, who made “Beaufort” – they used to call us “The Lebanon Generation”. We were normal boys who were born and lived in Israel. All we cared about were the girls in Tel Aviv. But then we were brainwashed, so to come back from war at the beginning of the ’80s with two hands, two legs, ten fingers, without any burns on your face, to complain that you felt bad inside – and then make a movie about it! – was almost unforgivable.’

Did the Lebanon conflict of 2006 give you a new chance to air your grievances?
‘That was an interesting point in time because I noticed that I hadn’t spoken about the war for 25 years, and suddenly our kids were having to deal with the same thing. It suddenly felt about me and my needs, my memories and pain. I felt that I could do something and maybe it could save a life or two.’

Your film won the top prize at Venice, but was rejected from Cannes and Berlin. Did you ever find out why?
‘Yes, the Berlin Film Festival told me it was too close to the war in Gaza, and it would not have been very politically correct to select it. In Cannes, they told me that  the big deal the previous year was Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir”. It didn’t win, but it was a big talking point, and Thierry Frémaux, the organiser, didn’t want it to look like he was repeating himself. In the end, I’m happy it went to Venice. When I won, the Berlin organisers were the first to send me a congratulatory text message – two minutes after the announcement.’

Did you always envisage ‘Lebanon’ as a film, not a book perhaps?
‘Yes. If I’m writing a book then I’m complaining and I wanted this to be more pro-active.’

How did you prepare the actors? Did you have long discussions with them about your experiences?
‘No, no, because I can explain and explain and they will say they understand – but they won’t really. At the beginning of the process, I wanted to give them the impression of what it was like to be inside a tank. So I took each one of them, put them separately in a small, dark and very hot container for a few hours. After two hours, you can still bear it, but the body starts to conserve energy and you start to float in a kind of hypnotic state. Then, suddenly, we would strike the container wall with iron pipes, and their adrenaline levels would jump from zero to a hundred. Then for the next five hours, they’re waiting for us to hit the container again, but we never do. When they came out, you looked into their eyes and you knew they had it.
When you are dealing with feelings, you need your actors to feel something for themselves.’

Do you think the actors will ever want to work with you again?
‘They’re actors! They loved it! In fact, many agents of other big actors called me up afterwards asking me why we didn’t chose to put their clients in a big container.’

Read our review of 'Lebanon

Author: Interview: David Jenkins



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