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The Israeli 'Hurt Locker,' from the inside out

August 9, 2010 |  7:00 am


We were taken with "Lebanon," Samuel Maoz's Golden Lion-winning feature about the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which opened in Los Angeles this weekend. In an article in Sunday's Times, we had the chance to explore Maoz's story: how as a tank gunner he saw things he couldn't imagine ever seeing, let alone living, and then suppressed the memories for more than two decades.

Foreign audiences crave films depicting the raw and unfiltered; it's a kind of experiential screen experience that the nightly news, and certainly the studio system, rarely captures. But like all film exports -- and especially that substratum of war-film exports -- the reaction inside the country doing the fighting is likely to be a lot more conflicted than the reception outside it. It's easy for Americans to unreservedly embrace "Lebanon," just as it might be easy for, say, Scandinavians to digest "The Hurt Locker." For those who fought the war, the truths depicted hit a lot closer to home.

With this mind, we asked one of The Times' correspondents in the Middle East, Batsheva Sobelman, to offer some insight on the native reaction to the film. Here is what she writes.

--Steven Zeitchik


"Lebanon." A single word, the title of a new film and, maybe, a code for something shared by Israelis, countless numbers of whom fought in Lebanon between 1982 and 2000, with sporadic bouts before and after. To them, the word spells a world of contradiction: between a beautiful landscape and the ugliness of war, between purpose and futility, between military strength and human weakness, between the power of memory and the desire to forget.

Born of political sin, the Lebanon war was controversial in Israel nearly from the start. Israeli troops came for 48 hours and stayed for nearly 20 years. Israel pulled its troops out of Lebanon 10 years ago, but it's hard to get Lebanon out of Israel.

Over the last 15 years, nearly a dozen movies have treated different aspects of Israel's Lebanon conundrum, generally shifting from collective to the individual. The first one, 'Ricochets," was partially financed by the army itself and, with its one-dimensional depiction of an Israeli officer in the throes of a moral quandary, it showed. "Lebanon" is the latest attempt to exorcise residual demons -- and its raw subjectivity is a long way away from the early prototype.

Despite the international acclaim, the film met with a more reserved reaction at home. “Lebanon” won the Israeli Film and Television Academy awards in four different categories but sold only about 55,000 tickets, according to box-office estimates. Maybe it was eclipsed by higher-profile Oscar nominees; maybe it simply had the misfortune of being the third film about Lebanon in three years. Or maybe there’s a limit to how much reality people can handle in a country where the news cycle turns so viciously. In a place where the odds are high that any man between the ages of 25 and 60 has experienced Lebanon as a soldier, responses along the lines of “I’ve seen the original, I don’t need to see the movie” are not uncommon.

Israeli film has matured in recent years. Noting a series of recent movies about Lebanon (the list also includes the Oscar nominees "Beaufort" and "Waltz with Bashir"), film scholar Amy Kronish has said that these films illustrate a move within Israeli society "from the heroism of the earlier periods to a new understanding of the complexity and futility of war." Or as the poet Eliaz Cohen wrote, "Everyone has his own Lebanon."

It was more than 25 years before Maoz could bring himself to share with the public his personal experience in a collective trauma, the claustrophobic setting inside a tank a metaphor for his own memories trapped within him. Decades after he experienced it, Israel is still waltzing with Lebanon, one movie at a time.

-- Batsheva Sobelman

Photo: A scene from "Lebanon." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics


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