Samuel (Shmuelik) Maoz picked the wrong month to give up smoking. His first feature film, Lebanon, based on his experiences in the First Lebanon War, was the surprise winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in September - the first time an Israeli film has been awarded this honor. Director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain), head of the jury and a Golden Lion winner himself, said that if this was Maoz's first film, he wondered what Maoz might do next. The film was picked up for distribution all over the world (it just opened in Rome) and was also shown recently at the New York Film Festival.
Back in Israel after the film's Roman premiere, he sat down in a cafe near his home in Tel Aviv to discuss the film and recalled the 20-minute standing ovation the movie received in Venice. Eventually, festival organizers had to shoo the crowd out for a screening with George Clooney.
"I cried. I haven't cried like that in 27 years. That was the big prize I took from Venice, for me it was the biggest prize," he says.
Another honor that came from this win is an invitation to meet the pope. Yes, the one in Vatican City, an unusual opportunity for an Israeli filmmaker. "It's something that happens every 50 years, they invite artists from all over the world to come. That's another good thing about winning a prize in Italy."
But that kind of joy brings its own stress, hence his difficulty breaking his cigarette addiction.
"I thought, if I can't quit now, when can I?" he says. Before he breaks down and admits to his craving, he looks distractedly around the restaurant, where he meets several friends and acquaintances, all of whom congratulate him. Something is gnawing at him, though, and it isn't clear what until he says, "I could really use a cigarette, I'll just take a break and come back in."
I suggest we move to a table outside and continue talking while he smokes.
"You wouldn't mind if I smoke in front of you?" he says, surprised.
Shmuelik Maoz, the man who made one of the most disturbingly violent films I have ever seen, is timid about smoking in front of me. It's difficult to sort out all the ironies here, but they are the key to understanding this soft-spoken man. A family man who worked as an art director on films for years and grew up in Herzliya, he dreamed of making his own movies (and did make several short films and documentaries). But, at the age of nearly 50, his first feature has placed him in the category of international filmmakers to watch. Set almost entirely in a tank during the first days of the Lebanon war, it recreates the experience of these soldiers and the violence, both against them and by them, is shown in horrific detail.
He lights a cigarette and the conversation, which had been a bit halting, begins to flow. No, it doesn't bother him that his film is the third prominent Israeli movie on the First Lebanon War, made after Joseph Cedar's Beaufort in 2007 and Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir last year. He has only kind words for these two films, and says that his film "might have benefited by being the third. They put the steps in place and it made people ready." The comparisons don't bother him, either, he says, since the three films are so different.
"One thing they have in common," he says. "You know that every Remembrance Day, and every anniversary of the war, they'll be shown on TV."
But there is another similarity between him and the other two directors: It took Maoz years to put together a film based on his memories from the war, although he tried many times before he managed to write the screenplay for Lebanon.
"After I studied filmmaking" - at Beit Zvi, in the 1980s - "I tried to write about it the war," where, like his alter ego in the film, the character played by Yoav Donat, he served on a tank crew.
"But every time I started, I smelled the smell - burning flesh. I started thinking about the smell, and I stepped back."
Finally, in 2006, at 45, partly out of disgust with the television coverage of the Second Lebanon War ("I'm sure it helped sell a lot of tampons and detergent") and anger over the war itself, he started to write again. This time, he managed to work through the smell and completed the screenplay in just a few weeks.
"People said it was a brave thing to set the film in the tank, and it's nice when people think you are brave," he says, lighting another cigarette (he will smoke six before the interview is over). "But it was just natural. It was my personal story, with my point of view and I spent the war buried in a tank."
To make the audience understand what the war was like, "it had to be a strong experience. You identify totally with the actors. You know what they know. You see what they see. You hear what they hear.
"I made it from a feeling of guilt. I was there. I killed people. I can't just say I was a cog in the machine. I have responsibility and I can't avoid it."
He comes back to his guilt feelings several times during the interview, saying that he sometimes sees himself "in a court, with myself as judge, defendant, prosecutor and defense lawyer."
He knows that a soldier's guilt is often dismissed in Israel with the phrase, "shoot and cry - yorim v'bochim."
But Maoz shrugs this off. "It's not a political film," he says. The closest he gets to political conversation is saying, "There are different kinds of wars. If it's war for survival, that's one thing. But if it's a war of choice, that's another."
The First Lebanon War, to Maoz, was the latter. "If it's a war for existence, then it's two armies. You're fighting on your territory, shooting at each other; you have uniforms, they have uniforms. But in Lebanon, we were fighting in villages, the enemy was wearing jeans, often you didn't know who the enemy was."
But he doesn't really want to get into to discussing the political specifics of the war in Lebanon, which he was relieved no one asked about abroad during interviews.
"This isn't a movie about good guys and bad guys," he says. "The bad guy is the war."
He thinks talking about morality and war is almost superfluous, because "war doesn't give you the chance to be moral."
He brings up a hair-raising sequence early on, set in a banana grove, in which the soldiers in the tank have to decide, literally in the blink of an eye, whether to shoot men in civilian clothes in a sedan, showing the basic dilemma of fighting any war.
"If I don't shoot, I will die or one of the soldiers with me will die. If I pull the trigger, I may kill an innocent person. You find yourself in a no-way-out situation.
"This scene has a 1:1 correspondence to what actually happened. You can see in it the basic conflict of the war."
He set the film on the first day these soldiers go out into enemy territory, he says, because of research he's read that the vast majority of soldiers who die in battle are killed on the first or second day.
"It's almost impossible to deal with that situation," he says. "You go into shock. The first day, you'll look twice before you shoot, after the second day, the survival instinct kicks in and you just shoot.
"You take a 20-year-old boy; yesterday he was never involved in anything violent, then you turn him into an assassin."
Why are soldiers so young? Maoz asks. "Because they're boys in men's bodies. They still don't step back and question what they're told to do."
He sees his story as that of a "wounded soul," although he feels it would be presumptuous to ask for sympathy. "In the hierarchy of suffering, soldiers who have been wounded psychologically are at the bottom of the ladder. I can't compare my suffering to the suffering of a woman who loses her whole family, or to a soldier who is killed. I came back with 10 fingers and 10 toes, no disability."
He admits though, that he did think about "how to get lightly wounded. We talked about it in the beginning. Everyone had the way he wanted to get wounded. Some people wanted to get one bullet in the lower part of the leg, other people in the arm. Because then you got to go home. And later, we started to talk about how we wanted to be killed. If you know you're going to die, let it be quick, a bullet to the heart."
To convey the horror of this situation, Maoz used relatively little dialogue. "In fact, there is only dialogue in 30 percent of the film. Seventy percent you just see them and what they are seeing. What could I have the character Shmuelik say on screen, 'I can't go on'? You don't need him to say it, you see it in his face."
This visual storytelling helped give the story its universal appeal, Maoz thinks. "If you want to reach people, you can't talk to their heads. You won't change their minds. You have to talk to their guts and their hearts."
At the New York Film Festival screening, he recalls, eight former marines in Vietnam came. They had read about the movie and wanted to see it. "Afterward, they came up to me, and said it was just like Vietnam. They hugged me, they hugged each other, it was a whole telenovela going on. They said something about how they loved the Marines, but you betrayed us, America. Okay, so in Vietnam, they were in the jungle, we were in villages, but it was the same message."
He cites Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, which was set in Vietnam, as a war film that influenced him and he discusses in detail the scene in which these soldiers enter a boat and kill everyone on board. Like Coppola, Maoz has an unconventional approach to film language. "I like to take what's there and play with it a little."
Maoz says he wanted to make movies since he was a young teen and saw a western in which a train approaches the camera then barrels by it at top speed.
"I wanted to recreate that shot," he says. He got a Super 8 camera for his bar mitzva and set it up near the railroad tracks. When the train went by, "the camera was blown to pieces."
With this movie, "I knew whatever it was, it would be total. Either it would crash totally, or it would succeed totally. And this time, the camera wasn't blown to pieces," he says, stubbing out a cigarette.