Terror in a tank

Jim Moody previews some of the offerings at this year's London Film Festival

Already a prize-winner at the Venice International Film Festival, Lebanon (director and writer: Samuel Maoz) is the most recent Israeli attempt on film to deal with what is a continuing festering sore: the 1982 Lebanon war.

Despite a long-term Palestine Liberation Organisation ceasefire, on June 6 1982 the Israel Defense Forces invaded southern Lebanon, primarily to attack and destroy the PLO and its allies. Assassination attempts on two Israeli diplomats by non-PLO groups, in April by the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Fraction (successful) and on June 3 by the Abu Nidal faction (unsuccessful), provided the flimsy pretext to ‘get’ the PLO.

‘Operation Peace for Galilee’, as it was called in Israel, started with attacks on PLO forces, sections of the Syrian army, leftist armed groups and Muslim Lebanese forces. It ended with Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon for the next three years. Three months after the invasion, prime minister Ariel Sharon’s government let loose 150 pro-Israel Lebanese Christian militia (aka Phalangists, modelled after Franco Spain’s fascist Falange) in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, where they massacred at least 800 civilians; the IDF manned the camp exits, preventing anyone escaping.

Lebanon commences with an Israeli tank crew starting duty early on the morning of the invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. This is their first taste of combat after training. All of the tank’s crew are conscripts, just like every other private, sergeant and first sergeant ranks in the IDF.

Tank commander Assi (Itay Tiran), gunner Shmuel (Yoav Donat), ammunition loader Herzl (Oshri Cohen), and driver Yigal (Michael Moshonov) comprise the crew. Director Moaz, who was a tank gunner himself in the Lebanon War, has said: “The Armored Corps is the proletariat of the Israel Defence Forces. If you’re healthy and don’t want to volunteer for the paratroopers, you’ll most likely wind up in the Armored Corps. That’s how I became part of a tank crew” (director’s statement).

Assi gets his instructions from paratroop officer Jamil (Zohar Strauss), who is keen to exert his authority over the tank crew, going over their commander’s head to give strict orders to the gunner about who to fire on and when. Quite apart from the fact of the IDF hierarchy involved, it is clear that the professional soldier has little time for young men who are evidently amateur killers, unlike him. As an example of this professionalism, he brazenly orders them to refer to phosphorous shells as “burning cloud” over their radios, as their use in civilian areas is illegal under international law.

In their first skirmish while waiting to move to a town levelled by the Israeli air force, Shmuel hesitates to fire on a speeding car that comes into his crosshairs, so paratroopers outside the tank have to stop it in a hail of small arms fire. Next time a vehicle appears, Shmuel over-reacts and shells a chicken farmer’s truck on the way to market; Jamil callously puts the maimed driver out of his misery as if he were a wounded animal. Then it is on to the town in order to clean up whatever the bombers and strafers of the air have left them to pick over. As it happens, they come upon a militiaman who is holding a family hostage; the paras open fire and kill most of the family collaterally while taking out the militiaman. The surviving young mother (Reymonde Amsellem) is burnt and loses her clothes, sent half mad by the loss of her husband and child; but the tank grinds on, leaving her bereft in the ruins.

Sound, motion and filth inside the tank set everyone’s nerves jangling; the imaginary stench that is evoked adds to the overpowering shock that these young men experience in being caught up in killing civilians. They have never experienced violence like this. After being massively jolted by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), the RPG firer, a Syrian soldier (Dudu Tassa), is captured and chained up inside the tank by Jamil. When a friendly Phalangist (Ashraf Barhom) arrives to help them get out of hostile territory, he wants the Syrian so he can torture him. But the Israeli soldiers keep him from such depravity.

Just as Das Boot was able to give an inkling of what it might have been like in a German submarine in World War II, depicting the stresses and strains that its military personnel had to withstand, so too Lebanon performs a useful humanistic role. It shows us the cleft stick into which raw conscripts were fixed by the war in Lebanon. Individuals put in impossible situations by extreme circumstances have only their comrades to depend upon and their consciences to guide them. Just as no-one came back from Lebanon unaffected, so today troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan bear invisible marks of what they have been forced to do.

Issues raised by Lebanon help refute arguments to boycott such cultural artefacts originating in Israel. This is no paean of praise for Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, but is inherently critical, based as it is on the writer-director’s own experiences and those of others involved in the film’s creation. It is a visceral portrayal of what IDF conscripts were caught up in 27 years ago, carrying out orders with little idea of what it was all for. It was part of a system that continues to this day.

Modern saintliness

Another film that deals with issues around belief and their material manifestations portrays a teenager in thrall to religious fervour. Hadewijch holds a lot of promise as it unfolds. Céline (Julie Sokolowski) is just too keen to suffer like a martyr, as did her saintly 13th century heroine, Hadewijch, whose name she has taken as a novitiate. So much is this so that her mother superior makes her leave the convent and “re-enter the world”.

Céline returns to the bosom of her family, which comprises her government minister father and her equally distant mother. Afraid of no-one and pleasant to all, Céline befriends Yassine (Yassine Salime), a Muslim young man from the banlieues. He is impressed by her frankness, but less so by her adamant declaration that she will always be a virgin: “I love Christ,” she states baldly - exclusively, we must assume.

Yassine and Céline nonetheless remain friends; he introduces her to his brother, Nassir (Karl Sarafidis), who is just as much a believer as she is, though in Islam. She is distressed that god fails to be ‘with her’ all the time, which is disappointing for someone so much in love with the immortal being. Make no mistake, though; this is no passing fancy. Céline’s spiritual passion for the godhead is so strong it is almost tangible. She is as committed to her expression of love as anyone might be to any other cause on earth. And this is her Achilles heel.

Nassir hardly has to persuade Céline to go with him to witness military attacks on people who happen to be Muslims. It may be in Gaza, though this is unclear. While there, she meets Islamic militants who welcome her commitment to ‘the fight’ as a Christian; she wholeheartedly and unreservedly joins their cause as a full expression of her faith.

Back in Paris, Céline prays in Christian manner side by side with Nassir and Yassine as Muslims, before setting out on a mission. A bombing that follows has clearly involved her, though nothing explicit in the film confirms this to be the case. Céline’s attempt to be close to god has, though, not achieved the desired effect - but the film fails to explain satisfactorily why she believes this action would have done so.

Clearly human beings, who in the cases she witnessed were Muslim, were suffering immensely, but her lack of explication gives us too few clues as to why this application of her Christian faith is preferable to some other manifestation of it. She does meet a saviour, it is true, but not the one she expected.

The main character’s divorce from her family and society leads her to be distanced from reality and real people, just as she feels an overpowering need to connect more closely with ultimate alienation by believing herself in direct contact with the deity. In such an ecstatic state of spiritual elation a feeling of godlike omnipotence cannot be far away. The next day it is not so simple.

Other highlights

A single man: Tom Ford’s debut feature, based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel of the same name, is a moving evocation of a loved one’s loss. This is set in times (1962) when a ‘love that dared not speak its name’, homosexuality, was far from accepted by society. Although the survivor, LA lecturer George (Colin Firth) is partially sustained by his fellow Londoner, Charlie (Julianne Moore), his grief at the loss of Jim (Matthew Goode) is very nearly too great to bear.

While societal questions of gay oppression and prejudice are examined - appropriately in fairly tangential style - the film’s poignancy has a wider remit, dealing with the despair of bereavement that is part of the human condition. One’s life partner dies young and the nightmare just does not stop: so is it even necessary to carry on? As viewers we share George’s pain and jointly visit the possibilities that spring to his mind. Vagaries and the chances of life itself can, however, furnish some balm; the sun begins to shine again for George, too.

Shed your tears and walk away: Anyone who knows Hebden Bridge only as a centre for artists and their art is missing something. And what they are missing is not good. Jez Lewis, who grew up there, gives us the real alternative view of the town.

Lewis’s documentary benefits from the fact that he has known the main characters who appear since childhood, and they trust him. Sadly, they do not appear to trust themselves without a can of strong brew permanently in one hand - especially Cass, whose cirrhosis is advanced. Those young people in his circle who have not already committed suicide seem intent on killing themselves at varying speeds with booze. Although Lewis’s film does not try to come up with easy answers, how many locals feel at the arty types’ ‘invasion’ is summed up by one mother who says they are “alienated in us own town”.

Trimpin: the sound of invention: Director Peter Esmonde promises that if you open your ears your mind will follow. And so it proves.

This relatively short documentary really lets Trimpin (he only uses his surname) live two years of his creative story untrammelled by explanation: the musical world that he produces speaks for itself. A highlight of the piece has got to be Trimpin’s collaboration with the Kronos Quartet, using a variety of toy and electronic instruments.

The London Film Festival runs from October 14 to 29 at the South Bank and central London venues. Several films were not available for preview as we went to press. For further details, including venues and screening times, see www.bfi.org.uk/lff