`A youth movement with weapons'

Guy Meirson's recently broadcast film `Itzik' - about a deadly game that was once popular among soldiers in Lebanon - puts the army squarely in the cinematic crosshairs.

"Army movies are an Israeli genre. Not war movies. These films don't have an enemy and don't have territories. The Americans make movies about college; we make them about the army," says Guy Meirson, the director of "Itzik," an Israeli drama that was aired on Saturday night, as the final entry in the current season of "First in Drama" on cable television's Channel 3. "Itzik," whose story unfolds in a military prison, "is a film that takes itself seriously. Maybe too seriously," says Meirson.

The sense of dejection that goes along with military service is very tangible in the film, which is devoid of heroics. When the antagonist, known simply as "the orderly," describes to his cellmate his service in the army, which caused him to desert, the feelings of solidarity are so intense that it is hard to see how he will get through the two years and four months remaining until his release. When he was posted to the armored corps base in Shizafon, he relates, he was assigned to "Tower 8-16": eight hours on the watchtower, 16 hours off. The eight hours are hard but bearable, he says, but every minute that his replacement is late last an eternity. The minutes mount when the soldiers who are supposed to replace him simply decide not to come, and he has to sit in the tower for hours on end. "I've been in worse places than prison," the orderly says.

Meirson also served in Givati, the infantry brigade, and logged three months at Prison 4. "I suffered a lot in basic training and on operational duty," he says. "When I was in Lebanon, I didn't get to go home, and there were no vacation days in prison. In prison, it was less cold and less frightening. Except for the degradation, it was easier there."

It happened a year and a half after his enlistment. He was sent to prison for a minor violation, he explains. "Surprisingly enough, the time in jail was sort of a breather, during which I took in just what had happened to me in the army until then. I'd been in Lebanon, I'd been in Gaza. Suddenly, I realized that I had the power to influence my fate. I changed where I was at. After that, for instance, I never went back to Gaza.

"Prison is a period during which you mark off the time. It's like the army in general, but to an extreme. If in the army the soldier is outside of himself and his real life, in prison it's even more extreme. He takes off time from being a human being, takes off time from having the power to judge for himself. They tell you what to do, and that's what you do."

The orderly, a character that cleans up and metaphorically purifies a given environment, is exposed in prison to a system that exacts victims without fighting against any outside force. "It is a system in which the miserable individual makes life miserable for all those below him in the hierarchy," says the director. But the orderly decides not to collaborate with the injustice. When the corporal, whose stomach is hurting and just wants to go home, says nothing when he sees some officers beating one of the prisoners - the orderly reproaches him.

"Using the set of considerations that guide human behavior is contradictory to being a soldier," says Meirson. "All of the arguments that have been raised vis-a-vis the issue of refusing to carry out orders are expressed here, without reference to territories or Palestinians. What's left is only the discussion, and in any event discussion of these subjects is always internal; the `others' are of no interest.

`Really just kids'

The drama is being shown on television with very appropriate timing, coming on the heels of the revelation of the incident involving Captain R. and the story of the naval commandos. They are not atypical. The system creates these abnormalities. Because it is permissible to go this far [he gestures with his hand above his head], but one centimeter past that is already verboten. It's only natural that people play games with the boundary between them."

This is Meirson's first film as a director. He enjoyed working on "Itzik," he says, with an enthusiastic cast. "I felt it important to cast very young actors, with pink cheeks and baby faces, in order to emphasize that these soldiers are really just kids. Michael Moshonov (the son of Moni Moshonov and Sandra Sade), for whom there aren't enough superlatives to describe his work in the film, was only 18 when we were filming," he says. "The army is a youth movement with weapons."

It isn't hard to guess that Meirson is anything but captivated by the charms of military life: "The cultural patterns of life in a military unit are like belonging to a cult," he says. "Every unit has its own cult practices. You fight for the honor of the Paratrooper reconnaissance unit - instead of for the honor of the human being," he explains.

Not merely a cult, viewers will be shocked to find, but one that features rituals of human sacrifice. One of the prisoners is serving time because of a tragic accident that took place during a sort of tribal ceremony (conducted by the elders of the tribe, the pazamniks - the old-timers of the unit): "Itzik," the game that is also the title of the film. A sort of Russian roulette, Itzik has been around since 1988. "It was popular among units that were in Lebanon and Gaza during the first intifada. Quite a few soldiers were killed as a result of the game," notes the director. In 1989, a military tribunal handed down a sentence of seven years, including five years to be served outright, to Sergeant Alon Roth, a soldier in the Givati Brigade, who was found guilty of playing a game involving weapons that resulted in the death of Private Ehud Nissim. In the game, the soldier is supposed to simultaneously cock his rifle and release the magazine, with the intention of disengaging the magazine before the bullet has a chance to enter the chamber. If executed with skill, he succeeds and the weapon will be unloaded. The safety inspection is carried out in real time, while the weapon is being aimed at another soldier.

During his army service (1988-1991), Meirson says that were several other "Itzik" incidents that ended in tragedy and were covered up. In an interview with the former head of the Israel Defense Force's department of behavioral science, Eli Fishoff, which took place at the time of the trial, Fishoff stated that he had heard "rumors" about the game, but that he "had no idea of the frequency of the phenomenon."

"As I see it, this is when the army stopped operating with its sights trained on the outside world, and began to kill itself inwardly," says Meirson. "To a certain degree, this film corresponds to `Stretcher Drill,' which featured Moni Moshonov, the father of the lead actor in `Itzik.' That film was made at a time when the army was viewed in a more forgiving light. In any event, after the various justifications were offered, everything in our society changed - except for the attitude to the army. It alone remained a sacred cow."

The film is also reminiscent of another film, "Avanti Popolo," adds Meirson, and also of the "Military Post 22" animation series that was aired on the cable channel Beep and on Channel 2.

"I was very fond of the series," he says, "but the parody of it actually softened the reality. There's nothing quite as absurd as what reality is able to generate. In our film, I tried to show reality in realistic colors."

These colors are somber. "The IDF judicial system is ridiculous. While in civilian life it exists for the good of the individual, in the army it exists for the good of the system. Light sentences are given for truly serious offenses, while on the other hand you can find yourself in prison for the slightest bit of nonsense. Once you're in prison, you're sent to the closed ward (where the plot of the film takes place) for every little thing. If you're a little criminal, or a little violent, a little sassy, a little individualistic, they'll send you there right away.

"The next film will be more bourgeois," guarantees Meirson. "The army is a stage. When you write screenplays, first you look at your family, at the meaningful coming of age experiences, and this is one of them. Not a particularly positive educational system. But in the broader view, the best thing that the army did for me was put me in prison."