AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
VENICE 2009 –
A LION IN YOUR TANK
by Harlan Kennedy
Miracles still happen
and where better than in
One miracle – this
archipelago in northern
A film set almost entirely inside the 40 square feet of a military tank’s interior. As the armoured juggernaut advances into enemy danger during the 1982 Lebanon war it dawns on us – if a dawn can last 90 minutes – that we have not left, are not leaving and will never leave this space. It is dank, dark and impacted with its own Moloch life. The hatch-door in the tank’s top opens only to let in something worse: a corpse deposited for storage, a gibbering Syrian prisoner and his tormenting escort. Then the hatch-door shuts again. Virtual blackness re-engulfs. Claustrophobes, take doctor’s advice before buying a ticket.
All good art comes out of an artist’s life, by way of his heart, mind, soul. Filmmaker Samuel Maoz, 47, was himself a tank gunner in the 1982 war. Emotionally lacerated, he spent 25 years hoping his wounds would heal. He tried, and for two decades failed, to write a script to help the curing process. When he realised the scars were there forever,, his confrontation with the truth triggered the creative moment. He took up his pen and worked. The script was written in four weeks. Cicatrices became cinema.
Soon, though, the
metal Godzilla is itself at bay. We
feel the panic as two successive civilian vehicles come charging at it, along
the improvised warpath taking shape in the banana grove’s heart, and the
gunner (Yoav Donat,
playing the director’s fictive alter ego, must decide whether he stays his
hand or shoots to blow the vehicles apart.
After that virtually every choice is between life and death. Part of
But if every choice – to more hair-trigger effect today than ever – is between life and death, Maoz’s movie shows that even those alternatives are riddled with complexity. Saving your friends by killing your foes; sparing your foes and thereby killing your friends; assuming a danger – an explosive-packed oncoming car – where there may be none; assuming a safe ally – the Christian Phalangist who brings the captured Syrian- when there may be none. The Phalangist, a Trojan incursor whose entry into the plot proves deadlier than the Syrian’s, is the devil ex machina in a scene of perfect horror. Speaking Arabic, he taunts the prisoner with a litany of promised tortures and barbarities, then turns to the tank crew and says, in their language, “Treat him carefully, he’s a prisoner of war.” Promising to lead the crew to safety, if they only follow him, the Phalangist then departs into the night – into the bomb-ruined maze of a city where the tank has ended up – and becomes the tank’s Jack o’Lantern leading it (the audience and the crew both suspect) to disaster.
There has surely never been a film squeezed for so long into so confined a space. It makes a submarine movie seem like a western. Only two book-ending shots are set outside the tank. Two shots of sunflower fields, waving with the kitsch lyricism of a travel poster. Between those poles of optimism, Maoz fits us into his iron maiden and slams the door. The ‘outside world’ is seen only through the gun sights. It is barely heard at all. The main acoustic is the turning, grinding, winching noise of the turret as it changes our viewpoint moment by moment: up, down, leftward, rightward, like some robotic madman dictating our world-view by an ear-tormenting semaphore of right angles.
Every soldier in the
tank is a good soldier; every soldier in the tank is mentally going to
pieces. That is not a contradiction, it is just war; or the guerilla
war-with-machines that was the 1982
Finally the tension,
anguish, uncertainty, confinement – the sense (again for both audience and
crew) of living inside a metal carapace controlled not by us but by our foes
and tormentors – become too much. The tank makes a dash for it. It charges blind into the maze of streets,
seeking an escape route, as it charged seemingly blind into the banana grove.
Count the conditional
in that sentence. Don’t they tell
their own story? How many ‘ifs’ must a
nation muster – or can a nation get away with – when it mobilizes men for
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved