Interventions

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Shooting Film and Crying

by Ursula Lindsey | published March 2009

Waltz with Bashir (2008) opens with a strange and powerful image: a pack of ferocious dogs running headlong through the streets of Tel Aviv, overturning tables and terrifying pedestrians, converging beneath a building’s window to growl at a man standing there. It turns out that this man, Boaz, is an old friend of Ari Folman, the film’s director and protagonist. Like Folman, he was a teenager in the Israeli army during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. And the pack of menacing dogs is his recurring nightmare, a nightly vision he links to the many village guard dogs he shot -- so they wouldn’t raise the alarm -- as his platoon made its way through southern Lebanon.

The pack of growling dogs -- animal Furies -- is a striking embodiment of the violence of repressed memories, the fear and anger involved in confronting a shameful past. The rest of the film tries to answer the question posed by this opening nightmare -- what memories is this former soldier, and by extension Israeli society, pursued by? What is he guilty of?

In the film, Ari and Boaz, middle-aged men now, ponder this question over drinks, seemingly nonplussed. Ari finds that, while he can’t remember most of his service in Lebanon, he is also haunted by a vision: of himself and two friends, emerging naked from the Beirut sea, their skinny teenaged bodies bathed in the golden glow of night flares. He can’t tell if this vision is a memory or a dream. He can’t tell what it means. And he can’t remember where he was, or what he was doing, during the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the killings of Palestinian refugees (and other poor people living in the camps) that marked the tragic nadir of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and came to symbolize it thereafter for the Arab world. He embarks on a journey to interview old comrades and reconstruct the past.

Ari’s inability to remember is clearly not to be taken at face value: It’s a convenient framing device and a reference to the conscious or unconscious obfuscation of the past. It allows the film to move gradually toward the “discovery” of what happened in Sabra and Shatila, and of what role the protagonist played.

Israel invaded Lebanon on June 6, 1982. The immediate trigger was an attempted assassination of an Israeli ambassador in London by members of a Palestinian militant group. But Israel had been itching to rid Lebanon of the Palestinian resistance movements that had established bases there. Israel was already fighting the Palestine Liberation Organization in southern Lebanon, and was supporting the Christian Lebanese Forces militia in the bloody civil war that had broken out between them and the PLO and its supporters.

The Israeli invasion initially targeted only southern Lebanon, but Israeli forces pushed on northward until they reached the capital of Beirut. By September 1, Palestinian fighters had been evacuated from Beirut as part of a ceasefire agreement. On September 14, the newly elected president, Bashir Gemayel, was assassinated, infuriating his supporters among the Phalange, the political party of which the Lebanese Forces is the military wing. On September 15, 1982, Israeli forces, contravening the truce agreement, occupied West Beirut and surrounded the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), under the command of then Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon, allowed Lebanese Forces militiamen -- the Israelis’ allies in Lebanon, and the Palestinians’ opponents in the civil war -- to enter the camps, supposedly to “mop up” the last remaining “terrorists.” While Israeli forces maintained their positions around the camps and on surrounding rooftops, the Phalangists proceeded to shoot camp residents dead -- including women and children. Despite reports of what was happening trickling out, for 48 hours nothing was done to stop the massacre, which involved the killing of at least 1,000 people in the camps. [1] (Both the official IDF estimate of 700-800 and the 3,500 long cited by journalists and others have been discredited.) There will never be an exact accounting of the carnage, because in addition to the roughly 1,000 people who were interred in mass graves by the Red Cross or in cemeteries by family members, an unknown number were buried by their Phalangist murderers. [2] The total death toll, however, is probably considerably more than 2,000, for after Israeli officers on loudspeakers ordered the shooting stopped in Sabra and Shatila, the Phalangists herded surviving men, women and children out of the camps and handed them over to the IDF. The Israelis transported them to a sports stadium, where, according to numerous survivors, the women and children were separated from the men, most of whom “disappeared,” never to be seen again. [3] Phalangist militiamen were present at the stadium, and eyewitnesses saw many Palestinians taken away by them after being handed back over by the IDF. It is possible, therefore, that more people were killed on September 17-18, after even journalists on the scene thought the massacre was over, than during the sanguinary initial 48 hours.

The Israeli government initially denied any role whatsoever in the massacre, but under intense international and domestic pressure it set up an investigating committee, the Kahan Commission, which found that Israeli forces were “indirectly responsible” for the massacre and that Ariel Sharon was “personally responsible” and should resign. The Kahan Commission report contains an oblique, one-line reference to hundreds of camp residents having vanished, but no hint of the direct Israeli role reported by survivors.

Almost none of this context is present in the film, though some of the events are. It is barely clear why Israeli forces are in Lebanon in the first place. The young Israeli soldiers in the film, starting with the slouching, scowling hero -- Folman at 19 -- range from the disinterested to the confused to the naive. They’re young men with no ideological convictions or animosities, thrust into traumatic surroundings. This, of course, may not be too far from the truth: Nineteen-year old soldiers, generally, may well be little more than blithe kids with machine guns, going to war with their girlfriends on their minds and no sense of what lies ahead. By not giving any background on the war, Folman may wish to thrust his viewers into the conflict as unprepared as he was. But it’s hard to believe that there were no discussions, no opinions, in the Israeli army. And it wouldn’t have taken much to get across a bare-bones account of how the war started.

Palestinians and Lebanese, meanwhile, are almost entirely absent from the film. There are distant, silent, undifferentiated images of them. They’re fighters, snipers, dead bodies, targets as seen from Israeli planes. They’re a child in the shadows of an orchard, holding a rocket grenade launcher. Again, this may be true to the experience of war, to the way in which the enemy remains physically and psychologically at a great remove. Folman has said that it wasn’t his place to depict the Palestinian point of view, telling an interviewer: “Who am I to tell their stories? They have to tell their own stories.” [4] This attitude seems a little glib, considering that film production isn’t exactly booming in the Occupied Territories.

One-sidedness and self-absorption may be inevitable in any nation’s reckoning with its military history. And the glamorization of the fighting may be inevitable too -- Francois Truffaut once famously remarked that it’s impossible to make an anti-war film because any film about a war can’t help visually celebrating it. In scenes that are very reminiscent of American films about the Vietnam war, montages of casual violence are set to thumping rock and roll music. The film’s general “anti-war” message is partly undercut by this thrilling presentation of military might and youthful recklessness.

Yet the fact remains that these scenes are visually and aurally thrilling, and the soundtrack is just one strong point of Waltz with Bashir. It’s a clever, original, mesmerizing film. It imaginatively melds a variety of genres: autobiography, documentary, animation. Folman uses the rotoscope technique pioneered by Richard Linklater in his films A Waking Life and Through a Scanner Darkly -- in which scenes are first filmed with real actors and then overlaid with drawings, preserving the realistic features and movements of the actors. The animation allows the story to move between different times and different realities; between the characters’ inner and outer lives; between vision, dreams, flights of fancy and reconstructions of the war. There are many evocative and extremely memorable images, which will stay with viewers’ long afterwards.

But reviewers around the world have come together in applauding Waltz with Bashir not just for its aesthetic value but also for its supposed moral courage. Jason Harsin writes in Bright Lights Film Journal, “Paradoxically, as horrific as those events were and are, there's something magnanimous about Folman’s determination to investigate them -- and his role in them -- from a dream ‘suggestion’ and a friend’s question.” [5] In the New York Times, A. O. Scott writes, “Waltz with Bashir is a memoir, a history lesson, a combat picture, a piece of investigative journalism and an altogether amazing film.” He calls it a work of “astonishing aesthetic integrity and searing moral power.” [6] A reviewer in Israel’s highbrow liberal daily, Ha’aretz, goes further: “If I had to choose one Israeli film that represents Israeli cinema…this is the film I would choose.” [7]

Waltz with Bashir is best appreciated as a rumination on the personal experience of war, on the way images and memories are erased or created in the mind. As such, it arguably shouldn’t be burdened with too much political deconstruction -- it’s art, and art is under no obligation to take clear-cut positions. Yet the film also aspires to be a documentary work, an intervention in the historical account of the 1982 Lebanon war. It has reaped the benefits -- critical and commercial -- of being a morally and intellectually “serious” work, one that takes a war and a civilian massacre as its subject.

The film won a slew of Israeli film awards and a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film; it was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. Most recently, Folman took home the top film industry honor in France, the Cesar, again for Best Foreign Film. And although the film is banned in Lebanon (which has never signed a peace agreement with Israel), a small screening in Beirut by Umam (the Lebanese Association for Cultural and Artistic Exchange) was widely covered in the press. “The subject of this film is a crucial moment in the history of Lebanon, for the history of Israel, for the history of the Palestinians and for the history of Palestinian life in Lebanon,” Umam founder Monika Borgmann told Ha’aretz. [8]

The film deplores war and wishes to register its horror at the Sabra and Shatila massacres. The final scene, in which we are suddenly confronted with documentary footage of piles of dead bodies and of survivors screaming and cursing in front of TV cameras, is wrenching. Yet we almost all deplore war, and wars and other atrocities happen nonetheless.

The fundamental question in Waltz with Bashir is that of collective and individual responsibility. And to this question the film never gives a satisfying answer. Ariel Sharon’s role is touched upon, but the film ultimately indicts the IDF less forcefully than the Kahan Commission did 25 years ago. One character may compare the Palestinians emerging from Sabra and Shatila to Jews coming out of the Warsaw Ghetto, and state: “We were the Nazis.” That is not the film’s final message. Ari sums the situation up by saying (in the face of troubling evidence): “The penny never dropped. We never realized they were carrying out a genocide.” (Folman has also maintained in interviews that he and his fellow soldiers “had no clue what was going on: We didn’t know there was a massacre.” [9]) “They” are the Phalangists, whose brutality is depicted, justly, as horrifying, but also as a counterpoint to the ethically anguished position of the Israeli onlookers. Yet as the title of the film should clearly suggest, the Israelis were the Phalangists’ willing partners in this deadly pas de deux. Arguably, they led the dance.

In Waltz with Bashir, the challenge posed by the fierce opening scene is left unanswered. The unvoiced accusation of the growling dogs is paralleled, at the end, by the collective scream of Palestinian women who emerge from the camps. But as Naira Antoun has pointed out in one of the few critical reviews of the film, published by the Electronic Intifada website, [10] the non-Israeli victims are never given a voice: They snarl and they wail, but they do not speak. Israelis are the only subjects: They interrogate themselves, confront themselves and ultimately congratulate themselves for their moral courage in doing so. Folman is the child of Holocaust survivors and his psychiatrist friend tells him that his concern with Sabra and Shatila is really about “those other camps.” Marked by the victimization of his parents, he must confront the possibility that he has been a victimizer in his turn. But this is an entirely inward, therapeutic journey -- what he never confronts are the victims themselves. The film is, in Antoun’s words, “a story of Israeli self-discovery and redemption,” and “an act not of limited self-reflection but self-justification.” Or, as Tom Segev puts it, less gently, in Ha’aretz, “The film Waltz with Bashir belongs to the kvetch genre: ‘Oy, how traumatic that massacre in Sabra and Chatila was for us.’” [11]

When asked in an interview whether his film belongs to the “shooting and crying” genre, Folman insisted, “When you watch this film, you have no doubt who the victims are.” It’s “impossible,” he continued, to sympathize with the Israeli soldiers. I beg to differ, as I think would most viewers of the film -- one is most definitely led to sympathize with the soldiers, young men who when stranded think of their mothers, who are appalled by wounded horses, who are never shown engaging in any sort of up-close brutality.

There is a final irony. Waltz with Bashir holds a redemptive message, celebrating the necessity and the ability to confront one’s past. Yet the film and its reception exemplify the strictly enforced boundaries of any debate on Israel’s past and present transgressions.

That many are made nervous by the idea of even discussing this chapter in Israel’s military past is made evident by the website of the Foundation for Jewish Culture, which partly funded the film. The Foundation has made available a detailed “Viewer’s Guide,” with frequently asked questions, links to articles on the issue and suggestions for how to lead discussions of the film after screenings. Among the advice offered is: “The film is neither for nor against Israel. It portrays Israelis in neither a good nor a bad light. The film demands an acknowledgment that life in modern Israel is far, far more complicated than ‘good or bad.’ There may be a temptation to treat the film as a commentary on current events in Gaza. We urge Jewish organizations not be sidetracked into a political battle that would strip art of its multi-valency. Rather, we hope to address the film in all its complexity and take the opportunity it offers to share the mixed emotions and ideas it sets flying.” [12]

This desire to avoid moral judgments and to emphasize the film’s universal, humanistic message is paralleled by the director’s own remarks. Upon winning the Golden Globe in January, as Israel was bombing Gaza’s captive civilian population, his only comment was: “My film is anti-war, and therefore, sadly, will always be relevant.” In an interview with the International Herald Tribune, Folman also said that his film “doesn’t deal with the other side, or what we do or not do to them. The basic statement is: War is useless. But there’s nothing you haven’t seen before or that we didn’t know: Sharon lost his job because of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila.” [13] As a matter of fact, Sharon was forced, after much resistance, to become a minister without portfolio, and as we all know his role in the massacre didn’t impede his eventual rise in Israeli politics.

But it’s not just that the outrage over Sabra and Shatila never led the Israeli military political establishment to reexamine its most bellicose proclivities. It’s startling to see how careful almost every reviewer of Waltz with Bashir has been to avoid linking the film with the massive Israeli bombing of Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009, which killed well upwards of 1,300 people, mostly civilians. There is, as Antoun says, something “perverse” in this disconnect.

The film is applauded for its courage in confronting a complicity that has long been part of the historical record. This confrontation ends up leading to redemption much more than to condemnation. And hardly anyone suggests that Israel’s current military operations should also be bravely examined. I suppose that we will have to wait for another award-winning film, a quarter-century from now, to do that.

 

Endnotes

[1] The researcher Mahmoud Kallam, a son of the camps, puts the number at just over 1,000. Of these, Kallam says, just over half were Palestinians; the remainder were Lebanese, Syrians, Egyptians and others living in the camps, as do many working poor of non-Palestinian nationality today. Mahmoud Kallam, Sabra wa Shatila, dhakirat al-damm (Beirut: Beisan Press, 2003).
[2] For details, see the legal document prepared for the ill-fated war crimes case against ex-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Belgian courts: http://www.indictsharon.net/cmptENft.pdf. For more on that case, see Laurie King-Irani, “Does International Justice Have a Local Address? Lessons from the Belgian Experiment,” Middle East Report 229 (Winter 2003).
[3] See Julie Flint, “Vanished Victims of Israelis Return to Accuse Sharon,” Observer, November 25, 2001; and Robert Fisk, “Sabra and Shatila Massacres: After 19 Years, the Truth at Last?” Counterpunch, November 28, 2001.
[4] Jonathan Freedland, “Lest We Forget,” Guardian, October 25, 2008.
[5] Jason Harsin, “The Responsible Dream,” Bright Lights Film Journal 63 (February 2009).
[6] A. O. Scott, “Inside a Veteran’s Nightmare,” New York Times, December 26, 2008.
[7] Quoted in Hamida Ghafour, “In Search of a Brutal Truth,” The National (Abu Dhabi), January 24, 2009.
[8] Ha’aretz, January 21, 2009.
[9] Freedland, op cit.
[10] Naira Antoun, “Film Review: Waltz with Bashir,” Electronic Intifada, February 19, 2009. http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article10322.shtml.
[11] Tom Segev, “Waltz with History,” Ha’aretz, February 5, 2009.
[12] The Viewer’s Guide is accessible online at http://www.jewishculture.org/attachments/waltz/waltz_guide_packet.pdf.
[13] Deborah Solomon, “The Peacemaker,” New York Times Magazine, January 6, 2009.

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