His first war

An officer in the war doubled as cinematographer and created a chilling documentary.

Yariv Mozer 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yariv Mozer 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Yariv Mozer got an unexpected call-up to replace a shell-shocked officer who had left the battlefield in the Second Lebanon War, he instinctively reached for his camera. For years, it had served as his personal video camera, and the unprofessional, mini DV had poor sound quality, one battery and five cassettes. "The idea of going to war was frightening for me, and bringing the camera was a way for me to overcome my fear. The camera provided a way to mediate between myself and the events that were happening around me," says the 30-year-old owner of a production company whose previous work includes Hothouse and a PBS series on the Six Day War. "I didn't set out with the intention to film a documentary." When he arrived in the North, Mozer was horrified by the irony of the situation. The lines of battle had been drawn among pastoral orchards swelling with fruit where, in times of peace, vacationers come to hike and picnic in the verdant hillsides. Filled with tanks, artillery and soldiers, the land was overcome with the sounds of battle: Deafening sirens sounded as rockets crashed into the earth and radios crackled with orders. "My commanding officer told me to go ahead and film as one day it would be a part of history," says Mozer, who agreed not to release any footage without permission from the IDF censor. It was a struggle to get the documentary through, as soldiers in the film are often critical of the IDF command structure, but Mozer says that in the end, he was forced to make very few compromises and allowed to keep most of the footage. Generally, a feeling of disorganization and bedlam worsens as the war progresses. Rockets fall, tanks are destroyed with sophisticated anti-tank missiles, more and more soldiers are killed and the atmosphere is one of defeat and senselessness. Orders are given and then retracted. "Somebody sent soldiers to die," says the bleary-eyed Capt. Reuven Sa'adon to Mozer as he drives back from Lebanon in an armored Humvee. "That is the clearest thing I can say." But perhaps the most controversial element in the documentary is when the hero, ruggedly handsome Lt.-Col. Ilan Levy (whom Mozer refers to as an Israeli Sean Penn and is the elder brother of a former Miss Israel, Ilanit Levy) tells a group of fellow officers after the cease-fire about his choice not to take a patrol into Lebanon. Levy describes his reasons to fellow officers, who have been discussing the failures of the war - from Armored Corps soldiers abandoning their tanks to leaders who lacked confidence. "I was at the gate with an armored personnel carrier, with 11 soldiers and three officers, after a briefing on entering Lebanon, after everything, and they told me, 'Go,'" Levy says. "I decided at that point, in terms of the need that existed at that moment and the risk that existed, that I wasn't taking them in, and I informed the division's chief of staff who was standing next to me: 'I'm not taking them in.' "In my understanding, the way things were prepared, in that constellation of things, the risk exceeded the benefit. I didn't get it from anyone in an organized fashion. And by the way, the convoy that did enter was almost all burned up. And I made the decision, not anyone else." A hailstorm of criticism focused on the praise that Levy has gotten for saving his soldiers' lives by disobeying a direct order. "He didn't defy a direct order," says Mozer, whose shaved head accentuates his large, brown eyes. "He decided to complete the mission in a different way, and in so doing he saved the lives of his soldiers. I could have met him after the war in front of coffins," he says vehemently, taking a moment to regain his composure. In the middle of the war, Mozer returns to Tel Aviv and experiences a feeling that he has stepped into an alternative reality that is both surreal and disgusting. Life on the streets continued as usual while the war raged, and the indifference and normalcy was tough to accept. "I was walking down Sderot Rothschild with my kit bag and there were bikes everywhere and dogs and cafés full of people," he says. "People avoided looking at me because I was in uniform." "For me, the fact that no one reads or discusses or reacts to the Winograd Report - one of the most catastrophic, 500-page reports on a war yet - is the worst thing. People are amazed by the tragic situations they read about in books, but no one is doing anything about it. I call it 'the Winograd sin.'" This is not the first time that a war here has been filmed, but it is the first time that a soldier doubled as a filmmaker. "This documentary looks at the reality of the war from the inside," says Mozer, who received funding for the film from Channel 8, Noga Communications, the Rabinowitz Foundations and Arte/ZDF. Having a low-quality camera with short battery life and being a commander obligated him to make crucial decisions during the war about what to include and what to leave out. "I had to decide what was important enough, and of course I had to fulfill my role as a commander first and as a cinematographer second." Mozer describes My First War as a documentary about the people involved in war and says that while his point of view influences the way the documentary is edited, he is less interested in his own reactions than those of his heroes, who he revisits after the war to see how they are faring in their daily lives. "Each of the six characters I chose clearly reflects something I see in myself, and I could not have asked for a better script if it were written for me." www.mozer-films.com