A provocative feature film, produced by the Israeli Army as a training aid to stimulate discussion of motivation and morality in the war in Lebanon, has sparked so much interest among Israelis that it is being released for general distribution both here and abroad with the approval of the Army.
The film, whose story line raises questions about the purpose of the three-year war in Lebanon and the norms of combat of Israeli soldiers in its final months, first attracted attention at last month's international film festival in Cannes and has become a topic of spirited debate not only within the Israeli Army, but in Israeli society at large.
Its producers in the Israel Defense Forces film division, following a screening this week, disavowed any intention to convey a political message, but acknowledged that audiences will inevitably find antiwar themes in its plot and dialogue.
Titled "Ricochets," the 90-minute film portrays "people in a war without the only luxury war can give -- the knowledge of who is 'good' and who is 'bad,' " said the film's writer and director, Eli Cohen.
"Usually there's a purpose. That's why the planners of campaigns draw arrows on maps. No clouds and fog. In Lebanon, it was constantly a matter of making decisions without adequate information," Cohen said.
Shot on location in southern Lebanon in just 24 days before the Israeli Army completed its withdrawal last June amid daily attacks by Shiite Moslem militiamen, "Ricochets" portrays a young Israeli officer who confronts the brutality of war and military occupation and struggles with his conscience. In the end, he countermands an order from his company commander in an effort to spare civilian lives and is seriously wounded as a result of his decision.
Throughout the story, there is constant tension between the young platoon leader named Gadi and his company commander, Tuvia, who regards Lebanon as a cursed land and would prefer to see hundreds of Lebanese civilians suffer rather than lose one of his own men.
A series of incidents that shake Gadi's convictions unfold in the film with gripping reality: A popular member of the platoon breaks down with battle fatigue; a local girl with whom another soldier falls in love turns out to be a member of a Shiite terrorist ring; and a small Lebanese boy to whom another soldier becomes attached is accidentally machine-gunned to death in an ambush in which Gadi's troops indiscriminately fire at rustling bushes.
In other scenes Gadi raises moral objections to his commander's treatment of Lebanese civilians at roadblocks and during house searches, although in some of the cases there is an underlying tactical message that failure to deal firmly with the local population could compromise the safety of the men in the platoon.
In another scene, Israeli soldiers openly negotiate with a collaborating Druze elder and then leave him in his village to face almost certain execution by local guerrillas, and in another they look the other way when Lebanese Druze gear up to avenge the death of an Israeli Druze soldier.
In the film's last major scene, Gadi is confronted with a moral dilemma when his unit is ordered to direct devastating fire against a house in which civilians are thought to be hiding a guerrilla leader who killed the platoon's previous commanding officer.
Gadi at first hesitates and then, with pressures on him mounting, single-handedly storms the house in an act that could have endangered the lives of his men. He kills the guerrilla leader, but is seriously wounded himself.
Cohen, a civilian filmmaker under contract with the Army, said the purpose of "Ricochets" was to convey the ambiguity of certain circumstances in wartime and to provoke debate among Army recruits.
"We were trying to build an image and then destroy it. To build a cliche' and then destroy it to show that it's not that clear," Cohen said.
He said he had received no specific instructions from the Army, other than that "it went without saying that we shouldn't touch the political area." He said he knew of no other feature film produced by any other country's army which has dealt with such provocative questions of combat motivation and norms in an unpopular war.
The actors and technical crew of "Ricochets" are all soldiers, some of them on reserve duty. Also in the cast are Lebanese civilians from the southern Lebanon village of El-Haim, where most of the film was made.
El-Haim was attacked and heavily damaged by the Israeli Army in 1976 following major battles between Palestinian guerrillas and Christian militiamen and remained unpopulated until Lebanese civilians began returning in 1983.
Cohen said the Lebanese civilians who played in the film were surprisingly cooperative and, for the most part, convincing in their roles.
However, he recalled one woman whose war-ravaged home was being "stormed" by the Israeli actors and who looked nonplused by the drama. The director ordered some firing in order to startle her on camera, but she remained unmoved.
"What's a movie compared to real life in Lebanon?" the director asked.