'Lebanon' wins best film in Venice

Samuel Maoz's movie about First Lebanon War scores top prize at world's oldest film festival.

samuel maoz 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
samuel maoz 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Israeli director Samuel Maoz's Lebanon won the Golden Lion, the top prize, at the 66th Venice Film Festival on Saturday night. While this is not the first time that an Israeli film has won the top award at an international festival, it is a major achievement, since Venice is one of the largest and most prestigious European festivals. Lebanon, which has received glowing reviews from critics, was widely admired by audiences at this festival. The International Herald Tribune called it "a powerful and original film." It is an especially sweet triumph for Maoz and the entire Israeli film industry because the competition at Venice was fierce. Other films up for the Golden Lion included Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story, Todd Solonz's Life During Wartime, Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans and John Hillcoat's The Road, all of them major, much-hyped films from established directors. By contrast, although Maoz is known in the Israeli film industry for his documentaries, Lebanon is his first feature film. It had its world premiere this summer at the Jerusalem Film Festival, although it did not win the top award there (that honor went to Ajami, which is currently competing in the Toronto International Film Festival). Based on Maoz's battle memories, Lebanon depicts the fate of an IDF tank and its crew behind enemy lines at the beginning of the first Lebanon War in 1982. The hard-hitting film is shot almost entirely from the point of view of the soldiers inside the tank. It stars well-known Israeli actors Oshri Cohen, Yoav Donat, Itay Tiran, Michael Moshonov, and Zohar Strauss, all of whom were praised for their work in it. Lebanon is uncompromising in its depiction of the confusion of war, the inevitability of casualties (both civilian and military), and the claustrophobia of being stuck inside a machine that protects soldiers but can also become a death trap at any moment. It is highly critical of the leadership that brought these soldiers into such a deadly situation and left them there with so little guidance. Lebanon is nominated for several Ophir Awards, the prizes of the Israel Academy for Film, including Best Picture. The Ophir winners will be announced in a ceremony on September 26. The winner of the Ophir Award becomes Israel's official entry to be considered for a nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. In the past two years, two Israeli films have been nominated for the Oscar in this category: Joseph Cedar's Beaufort in 2008 and Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir in 2009. Ironically, these two films also dealt with IDF soldiers in Lebanon. As soldiers who fought in this conflict as very young men grow up and become artists, they have used this war as the subject for very intense and personal films that have moved audiences all over the world. Lebanon will face some stiff competition in its battle for the Ophir, as Ajami and the highly praised The Loners also vie for the prize. But whether or not it wins the Ophir, Maoz and his young cast should bask in the glory of their Venice win, proof that a good movie can trump any prejudice that may exist in the international arts community against Israel. There has been a call by well-known actors and filmmakers, among them Jane Fonda and Danny Glover, to boycott this year's Toronto International Film Festival because one program there will be devoted to films set in Tel Aviv to mark that city's centennial. Lebanon's victory in Venice simply proves that, if given the chance, international festival audiences and juries are more than happy to celebrate Israeli films.