Published November 20, 2014
The villain in Lebanon's new hit war movie: a cigar-smoking Israeli army colonel who sports a cowboy hat and a handlebar mustache and repeatedly orders troops to shell Lebanese villages. The heroes: residents of one such village who band together to fight Israeli troops.
The film, 33 Days, tells the story of the 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in one front-line village and glorifies "the resistance" — shorthand among many Lebanese for Hezbollah and other groups that fight Israel.
The movie is unlikely to screen in Israel or the West. But in Lebanon, still officially at war with the Jewish state, it has drawn large crowds since opening on April 19. Audiences often cheer when Hezbollah rockets smash into Israeli tanks, indicating the hatred still aimed across the border six years after a war that began with a cross-border Hezbollah raid and killed 160 people in Israel and about 1,200 in Lebanon, reducing parts of south Beirut and many southern villages to rubble.
The film also reflects Iranian influence in Lebanon that goes beyond the increasingly sophisticated weapons it gives to Hezbollah, which has parlayed that support into a position as the most powerful political and military force in Lebanon, dictating the makeup of the country's current government.
The film's director and much of its funding and crew came from Iran. Although Hezbollah played no official role in producing it, the film serves as a feature-length advertisement for the anti-Israel struggle.
Ali Bouzeid, chairman of the film's Lebanese production company, denied that the film is political, comparing it to footage of workers in a bank fighting off armed robbers.
"If I get the footage of that and show it, is that a political film?" he asked. "It's a reality that happened."
Others see it differently.
"These films strengthen the culture of resistance among people, encourage them and make them sympathize with the resistance in all of Lebanon," actor Bassem Mughniyeh said in a promotional video released online.
Iran's quasi-governmental Farabi production company provided more than half of the film's $4 million budget, Bouzeid said. A Farsi-language version opened late last year in Iran, and the original Arabic is now showing in theaters across Lebanon. Bouzeid said he is negotiating distribution elsewhere in the Arab world and Turkey.
The film was shot in a 5,000-square-yard (meter) set built to represent the south Lebanon village of Aita al-Shaab. Most of the set was destroyed in the film's production, just like the real village during the war.
The actors are Lebanese, Bouzeid said, but most of the crew were Iranian. With a focus on battle scenes, the filmmakers used more than 2,000 extras, 30 Lebanese army vehicles and dozens of explosions — one of which wounded seven people.
The movie opens with blurry footage of Israeli troops panicking — apparently after Hezbollah crossed the border, killed three soldiers and captured two others, the event that sparked the war.
Cut to an Israeli military base: Col. Avi, the villain, lights a hotdog-sized cigar and orders troops to shell Aita al-Shaab, where the raid originated.
Then to the village itself, which is preparing for a wedding when word comes of the raid. The villagers mobilize for the Israeli response that soon arrives in a shower of shells. Some residents flee; the heroes remain.
One scene shows Um Abbas, a veiled Muslim woman, handing an armful of rifles to surprised young fighters.
A series of flashbacks soon reveal her history with Avi: He killed her son and husband years earlier, and she repaid him with a slash on his cheek, now a deep scar.
As Avi orders up more shelling, the casualties mount. A drone strike kills a man carrying medicine. After visiting his pregnant wife in an underground bunker, a leading fighter is surrounded by Israeli soldiers but detonates a hand grenade to kill himself and the Israelis instead of being taken prisoner.
Then the tide turns: Avi is addressing Israeli soldiers as a number of the nearly 4,000 rockets that Hezbollah fired during the war fly overhead.
In Beirut's Abraj theater during a recent screening, most of the 150 spectators burst into applause.
In the next scenes, roadside bombs and shoulder-fired missiles destroy Israeli tanks; village fighters rout an Israeli advance, sending terrified soldiers fleeing; and Umm Abbas emerges from a building with a sniper rifle as Avi falls dead in the street — all to huge applause.
The cheering continues when a baby is heard crying in the bunker — until the camera reveals its dead mother.
But the village celebrates anyway, and the credits roll as families return to their homes.
Not all Lebanese like the film. Some reviewers criticized the script as too simple. Bassem Alhakim lauded its special effects, but faulted it for reducing the Israeli colonel's war aims to a personal vendetta.
"In the film, he did not come to carry out an Israeli plan to destroy Hezbollah and disband the resistance," he wrote in the Al-Akhbar newspaper.
The audience at Abraj, however, was pleased.
Abu Asim Bazzeh, who brought his wife and three sons, aged 5, 12 and 14, praised the film's message.
"What really impressed me was the determination of the resistance to hang on to their land and be victorious, because that is what happened," he said.
When asked about his favorite part, his son Mahdi, 12, said, "the missiles."
The theater's manager, Raymond Chaanine, said the film had outsold everything else since it opened and that most who see it are Hezbollah supporters. He had not seen it, adding that not everyone wants to remember the war.
"It's all about taste," he said. "There are some Lebanese who don't want to see anything that has to do with war. Others love it."
Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi contributed reporting from Tehran, Iran.