Samuel Maoz on ‘Lebanon’

It took 26 years for 48-year-old Samuel Maoz to open his internal file on Lebanon. He was 20 years old when the war broke out in 1982 and he was assigned as a gunner on a tank. Images, emotions, pain and guilt have been haunting him for more than two decades. Three times he attempted to write a script but failed. He couldn’t even cry. But he did shed tears in Venice last year, as he held the Golden Lion for his film «Lebanon» and watched a deeply moved audience applaud him and his film for about 20 minutes. «Israelis are the hardest audience in the world,» said Maoz at a short meeting during the Thessaloniki Film Festival last year, where he was a guest. «This is due to several things. To begin with, they feel that if you earn a festival award you’re on the left side of the political map. They, therefore, define the movie as a ‘left-leaning’ and exclude it.» «They don’t want to see a soldier committing a crime. It doesn’t suit the kind of image they have. On the other hand, there are those who believe that the time has come for us to talk about issues that concern us. All this is petty politics – although this is not a political film. Because in political films there have to be good and bad guys. This is not the case for ‘Lebanon. ‘ Of course, I can’t compare the mother who loses her child in the war [the movie’s opening scene] to a soldier’s moral dilemma but, in the end, they are all victims of war. The message, I believe, is universal.» A tall, slim man, Maoz is very precise when expressing himself. He is not afraid of words or exposure. «Of course I feel guilty. And responsible. I was there. Even if people say to me, ‘It wasn’t your decision, but the government’s. ‘ In the scene that unfolds at the banana plantation, you can see that if I don’t pull the trigger, I’m a murderer because someone is going to die because of me. If I do, that makes me a soldier and an executioner. You don’t think of the battlefield. The situations are complex and there is no way out.» You describe personal experiences in the film. You have killed. Of course I killed. If I hadn’t done it, there wouldn’t be a problem. Twenty-four hours before I landed on the banana plantation, which was at the very beginning of the war, I was at a party with a girl I was in love with at high school. We got talking and ended up at the beach in Tel Aviv at dawn. At that point, I thought to myself, «This is the beginning of great happiness.» Twenty-four hours later I was inside a tank, with orders not to stop in front of any vehicle. When I saw the civilian car, I didn’t shoot. I didn’t want to shoot civilians. But they took out their guns and started shooting. The others were screaming: «What are you doing? Why aren’t you shooting back?» Suddenly I saw a corpse right next to me, a face facing me. I felt death on my skin. Then I heard people say, «What did you do, you coward?» I got out of the tank and I killed for the first time. I was screaming, but it was as if the voice was coming from someone else. Later on, it felt like a buzz in the head, a nondescript noise. I knew right there and then that I had f***ed up my life. That was the first time. After that, you start changing, transforming. So in a way, you’re not afraid anymore. Was that your defense mechanism? No. It’s the most basic human instinct: survival. But you could go through your entire life without using it. After the war, I read an article comparing the effect of this instinct with those of hard drugs. In the end, you’re left with a blurred memory, as if you’re coming out of a bad dream. You don’t remember exactly what has happened. It’s a thin line that separates life and death. A very thin line. You feel death touching you. You feel the danger on every single part of your body. I can’t really explain this. What was the benefit of reliving the past in order to write the script? It was the best thing I could do for myself. It was all that I gained along the way. A lot of people get stuck in their memories. There is nothing they can do. It took you 26 years though. That is because I didn’t want to make a film as someone who was simply there, but as a filmmaker. I had tried writing the script three times in the past. But I had to detach myself emotionally. It was a very complex issue, I had to take my memories and process them with a sober look.

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