Cinematic therapy for Israeli soldiers

A scene from Lebanon

The award-winning 2009 film Lebanon, directed by Samuel Maoz and set entirely inside an Israeli tank, is based on the director’s participation as a tank gunner in the 1982 Israeli invasion of that country. During his stint of service, Maoz was ordered to fire at a man driving a pickup truck, presumably a civilian — an experience which resulted in psychological trauma and several decades later was converted into one of the critical scenes in the film.

The reduction of Lebanon to the interior of an Israeli military vehicle alerts us to the film’s insular vision right away. The fact that traumatized members of an invading Israeli tank crew are portrayed as the ultimate victims of a war that according to journalist Robert Fisk killed at least 17,500 persons in Lebanon, mainly civilians, illustrates the Israeli knack for inverting the relationship between aggressor and victim.

This talent was most recently demonstrated after the May 2010 attack on the flotilla transporting aid to Gaza, when the world was encouraged to believe that Israeli commandos who killed nine humanitarian activists were instead themselves the recipients of aggression.

Israel’s monopoly on emotional suffering is meanwhile demonstrated by its tendency to include citizens treated for shock and anxiety in official tallies of war casualties. The luxury of psychological injury is not generally offered to Arab populations subjected to Israeli military activity, perhaps because casualty figures would then be largely indistinguishable from general population size.

That the aim of Lebanon is merely personal validation in the context of Israeli society is suggested in an interview Maoz gave to The Observer, in which he explains how his wartime suffering was not recognized by his mother — who did not realize she was “embracing an empty shell” when he returned home. Nor was his anguish affirmed by the older generation of concentration camp survivors, who “made us [returnees] feel we had no right to complain … Even now, as I’m talking about it, I feel like a bad boy.”

According to the The Observer: “For Maoz, making his film turned out to be, cliched though this sounds, healing. As he wrote the script, he realized he was at last able to put some distance between himself and his past. … Physically, too, something changed. ‘Two days into the shoot, I developed an infection in my leg. It was so painful I could hardly walk. The doctor gave me antibiotics and I went to bed for a day. When I woke up, the pain was gone.’ He looked down at his foot and, there beside it on the mattress, were five small pieces of shrapnel, rejected by his body after nearly three decades, evidence, he believes, of ‘the connection between body and soul.’”

For Palestinian filmmakers, on the other hand, therapeutic cinematic opportunities can be slightly more complex, given that there are more than psychological obstacles to isolating the past as an entity to be dealt with. For example, rather than waking up a few days into the shoot for Salt of This Sea (2008) to find that her conception of injustice had been neatly ejected from her leg, Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir instead awoke to the challenges of filming under Israeli occupation and attempts by Israeli settlers to run cast members over.

Salt of This Sea’s protagonist is Soraya (played by Suheir Hammad), a Brooklyn-born Palestinian endeavoring to come to grips with her family’s expulsion from Palestine during the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Soraya fittingly responds to the suggestion by the Israeli woman now occupying her grandfather’s home in Jaffa that they put history behind them: “Your past is my everyday, my right now.” Media reports regarding the bombing of Gaza City by Israeli F-16s and the bulldozing of 18 homes in Balata refugee camp outside the occupied West Bank city of Nablus are interjected sparingly throughout the film, recalling the opening black-and-white scene of Israeli war machinery tearing down Palestinian infrastructure and underscoring the continuity between past and present.

Lebanon, meanwhile, is merely an isolated snapshot of self-absorption, allowing us to spend 92 minutes aghast at the horrific effects of war in general on the individuals forced to fight them, and allowing Maoz to receive 20-minute standing ovations at the Venice Film Festival. Despite Maoz’ pronouncements to The Observer that “[w]ar is no solution at all” and that the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006 “was a totally bad idea,” the film offers no fundamental condemnation of a state built on a policy of bellicosity.

At one point in the film, the Israeli commanding officer informs the tank crew that, as international law prohibits the use of phosphorus bombs, they are expected to refer to the substance instead as “flaming smoke.” Recent Israeli military endeavors have made it clear that the progression from past to present has not elicited any change in Israel’s willingness to melt the flesh of Arab women and children, but the continuity of Israeli behavior vis-à-vis external populations does not appear to be an overriding concern for Maoz. This is especially evident in his response to opposition to his film in Norway, where, he told The Observer, “people started to shout at me. ‘Don’t talk to us until your soldiers leave Gaza!’ they said, as if I were a representative of the government. That was too much for me! No one likes the situation in Gaza, but still … missiles are fired at Israeli cities from Gaza.”

Like Lebanon, this statement lacks contextual details — such as that rockets arriving from Gaza are generally the result of Israeli ceasefire violations and that approximately one Israeli civilian perished for every 400 Gaza civilians during the last war. As for what is not to like about the situation in Gaza, we can only hope that a conscientious Israeli pilot will decide to enlighten us by producing a film about hardships inside an F-16 cockpit.

Belén Fernández is an editor at PULSE Media and the author of Coffee with Hezbollah, a satirical political travelogue about hitchhiking through Lebanon in the aftermath of the July War. She can be reached at belengarciabernal [at] gmail [dot] com.