Wednesday evening was going to be a celebration of locally-shot and produced film Cup Cake which was showing on the Dublin Road as part of the Belfast Film Festival. Baking in Ballymoney – who would have thought! The screening was sold out, but hopefully the film will be shown again later this year. Maybe the QFT will give it a week’s run?
So I headed up to the QFT and was just in time to catch Lebanon.
Other than the matching opening and closing shots, the entire film is shot inside the tank. Over 90 minutes you see the four Israeli soldiers as they get progressively warmer and grubbier during their day long military operation.
The outside world is solely observed through the gunner’s viewfinder, the driver’s optics, or by peering up though the rooftop hatch as visitors come and go. The backing music is sparse, but the sound track is superb. As the tank's hatch was slammed shut, it sounded like the whole roof of the QFT cinema had been dropped down above us.
The context is the First Lebanese War in June 1982. The inexperienced and quarrelsome tank crew provide cover for a small group of troops as they search for remaining fighters in a previously bombarded area.
The driver Yigal is very young and this is his first experience of war and he's anxious that his parents are told that he is well. He hasn't yet learnt that there's "no such thing as a dead tank". Hertzel, the artillery loader, is junior in rank and endures the most physical role in the metal box on wheels, but perhaps has the most experience. His officer Assi fails to command the respect of the crew and gradually falls apart under the pressure of the day.
Meanwhile the gunner, Shmulik, has never fired live rounds before and freezes instead of destroying an oncoming vehicle. He comes face to face with the consequence of his inaction – a dead soldier (referred to as an "angel" on the army radio) killed by the escaping enemy is lowered into the tank to remain until he can be evacuated by helicopter.
The mission’s commander Gamil sounds confident when he pops into the tank to brief them, but a possible lapse of judgement leaves them in peril. Reminding the crew that international law prevents them from using phosphorus grenades, he explains that he refer to them as "exploding smoke" if they are needed.
The Wikileaks website recently published a video of real US military action in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad which resulted in needless death and carnage, including two Reuters news staff. The 2007 footage was from an on-board camera hooked up to the Apache helicopter gun sights and is disturbing to watch. (One of the soldiers on the ground has spoken out publicly about the incident.)
The film Lebanon provides a similarly constrained window onto the fog of war, seen only from the restricted view of a tank. Like the New Baghdad incident, there may have been other perspectives, other incidents nearby the same day, other factors to consider. But the men trapped in their tank don't see that. A lack of information, fear of apparent danger, and a lack of confidence in the command chain all lead to incomplete instructions and bad decisions.
Yet in the face of death and panic, there are some moments of humanity. A mother whose children have been caught up in the conflict is eventually treated with dignity. A Syrian prisoner of war is cared for. The crew slowly open up and relate to each other ... but when left lost and abandoned, will it be enough to see them through?
A dark subject matter, but a film worth seeing for its unusual setting and the complex characters involved. One last thought. Toilet facilities in tanks are primitive, but the film's soundtrack is graphic. There was a steady trickle of older gentlemen running out to the loo as the film progressed, and quite a queue at the end. Go before the film starts!
Belfast Film Festival continues until the 30 April.