Unearthing the First Lebanon War

In his analysis of three Israeli films about the 1982 war, Kobi Niv plunges into their guts and exposes the undercurrents that act as their driving force.

“Bizroa netuya uv’ayin atzuma” (Look Back into the Future: The Israeli Cinema and the 1982 Lebanon War), by Kobi Niv, Olam Hadash Publishers (Hebrew), 181 pages, 53 shekels

Kobi Niv’s book on what is referred to as the “late Lebanon trilogy” – “Beaufort” (2007), “Waltz with Bashir” (2008) and “Lebanon” (2009) – is a provocation. Niv reexamines the three films, which were successful both critically and commercially (which is ironic, inasmuch as they are a cinematic “redemption” of a failed war – Israel’s 1982 Lebanon incursion – all of them made after the Second Lebanon War, in 2006). The author exposes the limitations of the films, all three of which were perceived as being highly critical of militarism in Israeli society.

But Niv’s provocation is clever; it does not make do with a single basic, negative viewpoint. Instead, Niv plunges into the guts of the films – principally, their screenplays – and exposes the undercurrents that act as their driving forces.

Niv provides a precise analysis of the screenplays through the prism of the finished product – that is, his analysis refers not to everything that was written for the films but to everything that appeared in the final edit. Rarely does he consider other cinematic elements to illustrate his arguments. The underlying principle of this mode holds that the screenplay carries the essential meaning of a cinematic work. All the other artistic aspects of filmmaking – direction, cinematography, editing, lighting, soundtrack – are subordinate to the script and serve it.

Thus, a cinematic text can only be deciphered through the screenplay. Every detail of the script is subjected to a thorough analysis: from the names of the characters (for example, a character named Herzl will be important in terms of situating the film with respect to the Zionist idea), to the characters’ ethnic origins and the attitude taken toward them (whether they are marked as Ashkenazim or as Mizrahim – Jews of Middle Eastern descent – and the balance of forces between different ethnic groups those markers entail), and also the seemingly extraneous stories that enter the mix, which may not be overtly connected to the subject of the film, but precisely because of that can serve as something of a Rosetta Stone for understanding it.

Implicit in this approach is the assumption that a film possesses one meaning – uniform, sequential, cumulative – and that we can arrive at that meaning by collecting the clues that the work scatters along the way. In fact, this method of interpreting a film is similar to that used for a book. Similar tools are used, and in both cases a written text constitutes the basis for unearthing the deep underlying structure of the work.

It is clear, from the case of the three works Niv considers, that such an approach can be effective in analyzing narrative films. This is particularly true because Niv’s interest lies primarily in the social-political context – specifically, the conventional perceptions in Israeli society concerning the first Lebanon war; the massacre in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Beirut in September 1982; death in battle; Israeli nationalism; the status of different ethnic groups in Israel; and the constructs of Israeli masculinity. In a superbly structured weave of arguments, Niv elucidates the patterns at the heart of the works, which at first glance are so seamlessly interwoven that they seem invisible. He shows that the three films are intertwined thematically and, at times, also in terms of form too.

Ascent of the Mizrahim

Niv begins with “Beaufort” (screenplay: Ron Leshem and Joseph Cedar, based on Leshem’s novel of the same name (called “If There’s a Garden of Eden” in the original Hebrew; directed by Cedar). In a brilliant analysis, in which he also considers the 1986 film “Two Fingers from Sidon” (screenplay: Tzika Kertzner, Eli Cohen and Baruch Nevo; directed by Cohen), Niv shows how the film resonates with the social processes undergone by Israel and hence also by the Israel Defense Forces in the 18 years between the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the army’s incremental withdrawal (or flight, as Niv emphasizes) from that country. To this end, he addresses the “fall” of the Ashkenazi male, coincident with the rise of the Mizrahi male.

This is the subterranean current that Niv uncovers in his analysis. A case in point is the Mizrahi male in “Beaufort,” the commander of the outpost, Liraz (whose name – “li,” meaning “I have,” and; “raz,” meaning “secret” – literally suggests he has something to hide): He must undergo a process of rebirth and emerge with a restrained, obedient personality in order to be “worthy” of succeeding his Ashkenazi counterpart.

The process Liraz undergoes can be interpreted by way of his relationships with two father figures. One is the division commander, who functions as the symbolic father; the other is the father of Ziv, an officer from a bomb-disposal squad who was killed at the outpost while trying to disarm a bomb.

Ziv’s death is the first turning point in the film; Liraz is unable to function properly afterward, even when his best friend is wounded by shrapnel and shouts to him for help. He vents his frustration on the division commander, accusing him – and, by implication, the entire IDF – of impotence (“We’re being fucked. Fighters are being wasted, and your answer is better protection?”).

Liraz asks the division commander for permission “to take the kids [the soldiers] down to Arnon [a codename for the village], we’ll show them what’s what. Let them feel they’re doing something.” The commander refuses: As Liraz’s symbolic father, he teaches him an important lesson ahead of his rebirth: knowing not only when to charge ahead but also when to exercise self-defense and dig in. After all, he’s just a low-life from Afula, as Leshem’s novel says, and in the film he has to restrain his Mizrahi passions in order to be a worthy commanding officer for his troops.

The scene in the film that depicts the heart of the process undergone by Liraz does not appear in the book on which “Beaufort” is based: It’s an addition to the original story by the screenwriters, Leshem and Cedar. After the latest deaths in the outpost, Liraz watches an interview with Ziv’s father on television. As Niv points out, the arrangement of the set (the television attached to the wall above Liraz’s head) creates the impression that Ziv’s father is talking directly to Liraz. The father blames himself for his son’s death and as such disconnects that tragedy and the entire Israeli presence in Lebanon from political reality. He says he “abandoned” his son by allowing him to sign up for combat service.

That statement is aimed straight at the persona of Liraz, the Mizrahi, who also signed up for a combat unit, and its pertinence to the film is illustrated several times. Thus, Liraz says that his mother “doesn’t know where I’ve been since I was nine, and she’s afraid to ask.” Moreover, at the end of the film, when Liraz leaves Lebanon, he doesn’t even call home, in contrast to another soldier (who is clearly Ashkenazi). Ziv, the Ashkenazi officer whose uncle was killed in the original 1982 battle for the Beaufort fortress, dies in the arms of Liraz, the Mizrahi soldier who evacuates the outpost there, and thereby symbolically transfers the command to him (and out of the hands of the old Ashkenazi elite).

Herein, according to Niv, lies the argument the entire film is tacitly making: The country’s borders and inhabitants should be guarded not by members of the Ashkenazi class, the iconic sabras, but by members of the “Oriental communities,” whose parents don’t care where their offspring are anyway. All they need is a little education and self-restraint, so they can carry out their mission.

Bloody dance

“Waltz with Bashir” (written for the screen and directed by Ari Folman) deals with the moral responsibility of its protagonist, who is trying to come to terms with the role he played in the massacre in the Sabra and Chatila camps. Niv addresses the tension in the film between the aspiration to be part of the civilized global world – represented by Europe and America (and expressed in the “waltz” of the title, or in the scene at the non-functioning airport where the protagonist looks at the destinations of the departing flights: London, Paris and New York) – and the frustration of being here, in the Middle East. (The European waltz that's danced with Bashir is the bloody dance on the streets of Beirut; the airport is not operating because of the war).

The same tension dictates the protagonist’s journey of consciousness, and directs him toward a solution that is embodied by his friend, a therapist. The protagonist is told that his guilt feelings arise not from his indirect part in the massacre (where his role was to shoot flares into the sky in order to illuminate the way for the Christian Phalangists), but from his consciousness of the Holocaust, as the son of survivors.

Indeed, the protagonist perceives himself as we perceive ourselves: as humanist offspring of the European Enlightenment and, as such, incapable of participating in such atrocities. Only Arabs – Christians, Muslims, what difference does it make? – are capable of that. The act of turning away one’s gaze (to put it mildly), Niv maintains, characterizes not only the protagonist’s approach but that of Israeli society as a whole to the massacre.

The third and final section of Niv's book is devoted to the film “Lebanon” (written for the screen and directed by Samuel Maoz). Niv focuses on a “surplus” scene – one that is seemingly unrelated to the overall thrust of the film. In it Shmulik, the artillery soldier, the director’s alter ego, tells his tank buddies about the day his father died. He got the news from his teacher, and with her encouragement (and participation) also had his first sexual experience. However, as Niv observes, it was a disjointed, uncontrolled experience, which erupted suddenly and was connected more closely to the world of death than to the world of life.

Here we also find a connection between the tank’s cannon, which Shmulik was unable to operate properly in earlier scenes, and his penis, which he does manage to use, but in a disjointed fashion. With his father’s death, Shmulik acquires the ability to act, albeit indiscriminately. At the end of the film he succeeds in shooting a weapon as required, but it’s a machine gun and not a cannon, and he shoots not at a specific target but into the dark.

Niv devotes the book’s concluding section to a 2008 Israeli documentary, “Summer Seeds” (directed by Gideon Totatly, broadcast on Ilana Dayan’s Channel 2 television program “Fact”). The film is about four mothers whose sons were killed at the very end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, in a tank incident. It’s a trenchant, fraught analysis, which homes in on the social and political process Israeli society is undergoing.

Niv’s take on this documentary illustrates the strengths of “Look Back into the Future”: precise, unsparing analysis, which examines the works in historical and social contexts – and offers a possible channel in which to continue and deepen the discussion.

Films (including Israeli-made ones!) are created in a cultural and artistic context – certainly war films, one of the oldest and most problematic genres. It would be interesting to examine the place of this trilogy in terms of the development of Israeli cinema overall and of the war-movie genre in particular. Do these movies show the influence of and connection to earlier Israeli films with similar themes, or is their chief source of influence Hollywood (as Niv hints)?

Those questions will await other researchers who, using different tools, will likely expand the illuminating and painful discussion launched by Niv.

Ido Setter is a writer and theater director.