NEW YORK — As the last of the long, battered convoy of Israeli tanks and jeeps retreated from the Lebanese battlefront, international TV crews scrambled close, shooting this emotionally charged historic event.
But they were unaware that some of the Israeli soldiers grinning into their cameras were actors, part of a strange interplay of reality and fiction called "Ricochets."
"Ricochets" amounts to a series of battlefield vignettes wrapped into the first anti-war feature film made by an army--and it's become a commercial success by the most unusual accident.
Produced by the Israel Defense Forces as an educational training film for officers, it was shot during 24 days toward the end of the three-year Lebanon war. The film was intended to encourage discussion about the moral dilemmas facing soldiers under pressure. But it was so gripping and authentic that Israeli soldiers pressured their chief of staff to release it to the public.
Unexpectedly, "Ricochets" has become an Israeli box-office sensation and is attracting international attention, including a "60 Minutes" report scheduled to air tonight.
At the Cannes and Toronto Film Festivals, it won the acclaim of packed audiences, stunning Israeli army brass.
"Ricochets" grew out of director Eli Cohen's frustrations making documentaries in Lebanon for the Israeli army film unit. "My cameras couldn't get to the ambushes on time," he said during a visit here. "I begged and pushed and disobeyed orders, but I couldn't capture critical historical moments as they were happening. That's when I realized fiction--a feature film--was the only way to portray this kind of reality."
The army film unit agreed--and Cohen made it during his mandatory annual reserve duty.
It captures the brutality of war as a small unit of young soldiers--brave and humane, but also trigger-happy, angry, confused--struggle with their consciences:
One soldier befriends a Lebanese child, who is accidentally shot by the soldier's own platoon. . . . A wordless romance between a soldier and a local Arab woman develops--and abruptly ends when he discovers that she's part of a Shiite terrorist ring. . . . One terrorist is hiding in a house filled with civilians--should the soldiers blast it with bazookas and grenades, or be cautious and give the terrorist a chance to escape?
One of Israel's leading documentary film makers, Cohen initiated, researched, co-wrote and directed "Ricochets," his first feature. An army captain and veteran of the 1967 and 1973 wars, Cohen said he learned firsthand that "in a second, a soldier's personal history--his education and moral training, personality and relationship with fellow soldiers--is compressed into the tiny muscle of his trigger finger."
Cohen joined patrol units in Sidon, basing his characters on real soldiers, generals and Lebanese whom he met. They told him about their battlefield experiences--especially about their anxieties. Cohen recounted how a soldier described what it feels like hearing a suspicious noise in the bushes, not knowing whether to shoot. If he shoots too quickly, he may injure or kill innocent civilians; if he hesitates, he may be killed himself.
Shortly before filming began near the Israeli border, 12 soldiers were ambushed in a half-truck. "Sometimes I couldn't sleep. I was frightened all the time," Cohen admits. "How could I justify risking soldiers' lives to make a film?"
The director was urged to re-create Lebanon in a safe area inside Israel, but he refused. "We were hitchhiking on history. As the cameras rolled, fiction frequently became reality. Filming in the war zone pushed everyone to greater creativity." At all times, the "Ricochets" crew and soldier cast carried Uzi machine guns or pistols. Filming was frantic because the army only approved the script shortly before the pull-back. There was no time for reshooting.
"There was no time for tracks, dollies and elaborate lighting," Cohen says. "I'm glad I didn't have the time to be tempted to make a more stylized film. The outcome is unpolished, but maybe that's the strength of the film."
There were constant glitches, such as the time the crew set off a real army alert while blowing up a car for a terrorist scene. The officer sent to investigate was furious that Cohen's staff hadn't notified headquarters.
"Our film was not an army priority," explains Cohen. "When their units needed our extras, the soldiers were returned to duty and whatever soldiers happened to be free were sent as substitutes. Many days we had different extras acting in the same parts in one scene. Let's hope no one notices."
Cohen preferred soldiers to professional actors for authenticity, but recruiting Shiite and Christian Lebanese for roles proved difficult. "People in the villages were very cautious. I visited a lot of families and drank endless cups of coffee. They asked about the story line and were incredulous that the army was making such a movie."