Helmer sees film as therapy

Israeli director Samuel Maoz will complete a year on the road promoting his Venice Golden Lion-winning film “Lebanon” in September back where he began — in Venice as a member of the jury deciding the Luigi De Laurentiis Award for Debut Film.

His own debut film is based on the trauma he experienced as a member of a four-man tank crew during Israel’s war with Lebanon in 1982.

Maoz, who spent 25 years struggling with psychiatric problems after the war, says making the film and seeing its international success has been therapeutic.

“It is definitely not as if I was sick and found a cure — in the end nothing can make me healthy because, without sounding dramatic, when the soul is bleeding nothing can stop it,” Maoz says. “Of course, I’ve learned to smile, but still (the war) is the first and last thought I have most days.”

Sitting over coffee in a sun-soaked outdoor cafe during the Sarajevo Film Festival — a city no stranger to war and horror and where “Lebanon” screened — Maoz says getting his experiences out and finding a way to convey an anti-war message have been cathartic.

He finished the war mentally scarred but without major physical injuries: Doctors removed 12 of 15 shell fragments from his legs, while the rest, they told him, would remain in his limbs forever.

“Lebanon” found funding after gaining support from the Israel Film Fund and then French and German co-producers following a pitch at the Rotterdam Film Festival.

Strangely, when Maoz began shooting the film he began to experience pains in his legs again.

After three days, he was sent home by a doctor with antibiotics to treat an infection and fever. The next morning he says he awoke to find the three pieces of shrapnel lying on his bed; he says he believes that the process of healing had taken on a physical form.

A difficult film to finance, shoot and promote — one European sales agency that had taken it on went back on the deal when they saw the rough cut — “Lebanon” does not make for comfortable viewing.

It’s not meant to. Maoz was so disturbed by his experiences, he found he could not write his script for many years because he experienced the smell of burning flesh every time he sat at his typewriter.

It was only when Israel went to war in Lebanon again in 2006 and a new generation of young Israelis was exposed to similar horrors that Maoz felt able to write, a process that then took just four weeks.

The pic had a lukewarm response in Israel — tallying 60,000 admissions — but Sony Classics opened it Aug. 6 in New York and will take the pic to Los Angeles Aug. 13. Maoz hopes the parallel with the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will not be lost on U.S. auds.

Maoz recalls that he stopped crying about two years after war and for years felt nothing.

When the film earned a 20-minute standing ovation in Venice last year, Maoz found tears rolling down his cheeks. “That for me was a bigger prize than the Golden Lion,” he says.

He’s now mulling his next pic: another drama, based on his war experiences, or a black comedy.

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