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Israeli Army film: warts-and-all view of itself

Roni Pinkowitz's first reaction when he heard that the Israeli Army was making a film about Lebanon and looking for Israeli soldiers to star in it was that he wanted nothing to do with the project. ``I thought it would serve the Army's purposes -- which I am not interested in at all,'' the 21-year-old actor recalls.

Mr. Pinkowitz, a self-described leftist, says he was bitterly opposed to Israel's war in Lebanon. But after his agent persuaded him to read the Army's script, Pinkowitz changed his mind.

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``When I read the script, it was obvious to me that I would have to do the movie. [It] is totally realistic. It shows that people were damaged by this war, that everyone involved in it was damaged.''

Pinkowitz is the star of the movie, titled ``Ricochets'' in English. He plays an idealistic young officer who assumes his first command in south Lebanon during the final months of Israel's three-year occupation and is sorely tested by the reality he finds.

The film is Israel's official entry at the annual Cannes Film Festival this year.

What is remarkable is that ``Ricochets'' was written, directed, and produced by the Army.

The film tells the story of Company B, a collection of frightened teen-age soldiers trying to survive the occupation of an increasingly hostile land. It portrays the Israeli soldier as, at best, a nonheroic figure and achieves a gritty realism that gives it the flavor of a documentary.

``I never felt such terribly mixed emotions about a film before,'' says Uri Avnery, an Israeli journalist of the far-left. ``On the one hand, it is an example of the `shoot and weep' syndrome that exists here -- there are no questions asked or answered about why we were in Lebanon in the first place. But, on the other hand, no other Army in the world could make such a film about itself.''

The soldiers shown in the film express anti-Arab sentiment, destroy property during a search of a village home, accidentally shoot to death a small Lebanese boy during an ambush, and use a village mukhtar (religious leader) as bait to capture a Lebanese guerrilla.

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Such images of the Israeli soldier are unusual in a nation that has long surrounded its Army with a thick wall of myth intended as much for internal as external consumption.

The Israeli Army is a people's army -- all men and women perform mandatory service when they reach 18. Soldiers in Israel are supposed to be heroes and wars are supposed to be fought for reasons of defense only. Lebanon changed all that, and ``Ricochets'' is the Army's acknowledgement of the changes.

``Ricochets'' was never intended for general release. It started out as an educational film, designed to spark discussion among officers about the moral dilemma the Army faced in Lebanon, where for three years from 1982 it occupied a land peopled with a large, increasingly hostile, and militant civilian population.

``There were problems with the way some soldiers were behaving there, it was all over the papers,'' says Capt. Eli Cohen, director of the film. ``Soldiers were stealing things, behaving cruelly.'' The film was first intended to address those issues.

But test showings of ``Ricochets'' to soldiers elicited a powerful emotional response. Although the Army was aware that the movie was a ``warts-and-all'' view of Israeli soldiers in Lebanon, officers connected to the film were proud of its authenticity. It was decided to release ``Ricochets'' both here and abroad.

``We have had letters from soldiers saying that this movie says what they have never been able to explain to their girlfriends and families about what it felt like to be there,'' Captain Cohen said.

``Ricochets'' biggest drawback is its failure to give any explanation for why Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982 and then occupied the southern half of the country until June 1985. The war, which led to the expulsion of the Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut, Israel's first bombing of an Arab capital, and the death of more than 600 Israeli soldiers and as many as thousands of Lebanese, remains this nation's most controversial.

The film is told from the infantryman's perspective, and it seems to say that the average Israeli soldier really had no idea why he was fighting Lebanese villagers.

Its tone is captured early on when Georgie -- a soldier of Company B who has a nervous breakdown during the course of the film -- explains to his newly-arrived commander his version of the Lebanese quaqmire.

``Look, I'll tell you the truth,'' says Georgie, played by Alon Aboutboul. ``Seriously, I didn't understand until yesterday. But yesterday, they brought us some orientalist. He gave us this lecture on the situation. Now it's clear to me. It goes like this: The Christians hate the Druze, Shiites, Sunni Muslims, and the Palestinians. The Druze hate the Christians. No. Right, the Druze hate the Christians, Shiites, and the Syrians. The Shiites were [put down] by them all these years, so they hate everyone. The Sunni hate whoever their leader tells them to hate, and the Palestinians hate each other. Aside from that, they hate the others.

``Now, all of them have a common denominator,'' Georgie says. ``All of them hate us. Us, the Israelis.''

In an interview, Mr. Aboutboul, who says he joined in anti-war protests before entering the Army, says he felt the movie has an important message for Israelis -- a demystification of the Israeli Army.

It was sometimes difficult, Aboutboul says, to separate acting from reality during the filming of ``Ricochets.'' Much of it was filmed in south Lebanon, in the Shiite village of Khiam, within Israel's self-proclaimed ``security zone.'' According to the Army spokesman's office, the villagers of Khiam were willing to cooperate with the filming. The role of the village mukhtar is played by a part-time Druze reserve militiaman, and several other villagers play themselves in the movie.

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