Israelis tackle Lebanese occupation

Pix receive state coin from gov't production funds

LONDON — A clutch of Israeli pics are set to tackle the country’s controversial invasion and two-decade occupation of Lebanon. Samuel Maoz’s “Lebanon,” based on the helmer’s own experiences, follows 24 hours in the life of four Israeli soldiers at the outset of the 1982 invasion, while Joseph Cedar’s “Beaufort,” based on Israeli journo Ron Leshem’s bestselling book, follows the country’s eventual withdrawal from the south of Lebanon in 2000. Rounding out the trio is Ari Fullman’s animated documentary.

Rather surprisingly, given their touchy subjects, both Maoz and Cedar have received state funding from Israel’s two main production funds — “Lebanon” got $400,000 from the Israeli Film Fund, while “Beaufort” was granted $600,000 from the Rabinovitch Fund.

“It took me 20 years to get the strength to write the script,” Maoz tells Variety. “When I was in Lebanon it changed my life. I killed people while I was there. The film looks at some very difficult issues.”

The matter of Israel’s war in Lebanon remains a sensitive subject inside the country. Israeli forces originally invaded Lebanon with the stated aim of crushing Palestinian guerrillas, only to end up embroiled in Lebanon’s own raging civil war for the best part of two decades.

The timing of the films is also interesting, coming only months after Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. For Katriel Schory, the exec director of the Israeli Film Fund, it’s no coincidence that the nation’s filmmakers now seem ready to tackle the subject on the bigscreen.

“These filmmakers themselves were young soldiers during the Lebanon war in the 1980s. They were all tangled in this terrible mess. They have reached a point where they want to deal with this story.” he says.

While Maoz’s $1 million project is set to start shooting at the beginning of 2007, Cedar has just wrapped lensing on the $2 million “Beaufort.” Filming close to the Lebanese-Israeli border proved to be a military operation of its own for the U.S.-born helmer. “We had to coordinate every explosion and small maneuver with the UN to avoid a crisis. It was all very delicate,” says Cedar, who received the full cooperation of the Israeli military when making the pic.

For Cedar, who also served in South Lebanon as part of his own mandatory military service, the pic contains some universal, and hopeful, messages for the future. “It isn’t just specific to Lebanon. It’s a war movie about soldiers dying to defend a mountain that turns out to be insignificant but it’s also an extremely humanistic story about how Israeli society decided to put human life above military power,” he says.

While the upcoming Lebanese-themed projects deal directly with Israel’s military conflicts with its neighbors, many popular Israeli pics concentrate on cultural but not necessarily political subjects.

Such was the case with recent hits “Walk on Water” and “Ushpizin,” which took in $2.7 million and $1.7 million respectively at the U.S. box office.

Israeli cinema overall is experiencing its healthiest returns in many years. Israeli films saw 2.5 million admissions worldwide in 2005, with 25% of production money coming in from abroad. “For us, it’s very impressive and something we didn’t believe could happen,” Schory says.

One of the main reasons for upturn is the inking of co-production treaties with numerous territories. There have been 15 co-productions with France since 2001, five with Germany, two with Canada and one with Australia.

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