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London Film Festival: claustrophobia and carnage in “Lebanon”

Mark Farnsworth is currently reviewing selected films from the London Film Festival.

Fighting in built-up areas, street fighting, urban combat, call it what you will, is the real horror of modern warfare. Just ask the Germans in Stalingrad, the British in Northern Ireland and the Russians in Grozny. Civilians mingle with combatants, the three-dimensional battleground promises limited fields of fire, and there are deadly bottlenecks and excellent cover for snipers and booby traps.

The overwhelming superiority of professional armies in mobility and firepower are largely negated by cities. Behemoth tanks cease being the scourge of the infantryman and become multi-million dollar death traps at the mercy of shaped charges. Gun elevation, depression, and rotation are severely limited, and visibility is restricted.

“Lebanon” focuses on one tank crew as they participate in Israel’s 1982 invasion of the Southern part of that country. Director Samuel Maoz suffocates his young conscripts in the oily belly of their fearsome machine, rarely allowing his camera to probe the outside world. Everything they spy is seen through their gun sights or night vision equipment, turning their battleground into a real life version of the old Atari game, “Battle Zone.”

levanone_01This skewed view of the world is the gunner Shmulik’s alone. It is his conscience that can choose whether or not to obliterate a speeding Mercedes or a rickety poultry farmer’s van. Should he machine gun a position that may contain civilians even when under orders? How does a conscript react when he’s only previously shot barrels before?

Through his sight the absurdities of war becomes apparent; a weeping mule takes its last breath, a flaming woman is stripped naked, and stylised posters of foreign tourist destinations (Twin Towers, of course) catch the eye. Every time the gun sight zooms in, it makes an audible ‘pop’ like a child’s viewfinder, only the pictures of London or Paris are now replaced with ones of Lebanese carnage.

Maoz also shows how language in war is altered to appease the international community. Banned from using phosphorous shells, the tank crew’s direct commander orders the use of ‘Flaming smoke’ – a direct comment on the IDF’s contentious use of white phosphorous in the Gaza conflict earlier this year.

We’ve seen this intense claustrophobia before in Kevin Reynolds’ movie “The Beast of War” about Soviet tankers in Afghanistan, but “Lebanon’s” refusal to come out of the tank takes us on a more visceral journey. The vehicle itself seems to sweat diesel and blood as the crew comprehend the fact they may have been cut off from the main force. One blind night attack is filmed with such kinetic violence that we find ourselves wanting to duck for cover.

War on a budget is tough to pull off, just ask Gordon Brown, but “Lebanon’s” unique point of view almost pulls it off despite some lapses in suspense. The subjective camera makes us question our take on the conflict and all other wars beside it. Maoz gives an even handed account that is well suited to the complexities of the Middle East and offers no answers other than the horrific scenes that we view down the barrel of a gun. We can only wonder when they will be enough.

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Mark Farnsworth

Senior Film Writer Mark Farnsworth teaches Film in East London and is currently working on two screenplays, The Mysteries and Fair Access. He also writes the Oh/Cult section for Brokenshark.co.uk.