Waltz with Bashir

I went to see "Waltz with Bashir," the Israeli, Oscar-nominated animated film about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, with very mixed feelings. I've been curious to see the film since I first heard of it. Yet especially after the events of the last month I didn't feel particularly inclined to give $12 to an Israeli project. And I feared the film would be an offensively self-centered view of the war, in which we are meant to sympathize with Israeli soldiers for the inhumanity they were forced to exercise and witness. But I told myself I should investigate. So first of all, as a work of art, it's stunning. There's something dreamy yet realistic about the style, as if reality has just been "covered" with a drawing, filtered through an imagination. It allows for seamless transitions between battlefields, dreams, memories, visions. I at least have never seen animation work of this kind. There are many images that linger long afterwards, which is appropriate, since one of the themes of the work is how we remember (or forget), how the mind processes trauma.  As for the content. It's well-plotted, well-edited, smart, sometimes funny. Yet it is one-sided, of course. Much as in any American film about the Vietnam War, in "Waltz with Bashir" it is only the Israelis who are the protagonists of the story--Palestinians and Lebanese figure as victims, villains or distant threats. The film's framing device--which I found a bit artificial--is that the protagonist can't remember where he was or what he did in Beirut on the day of the massacres of Sabra and Shatila. He has several meetings with old friends and his shrink, who tells him that his interest in the massacre at the Palestinian refugee camps is also about his obsession with those "other" camps his parents were in. (I wasn't sure what to make of this reference--on the one hand, it seems a provocative comparison between what was done to Palestinians and done to Jews; on the other hand, must everything in Israeli discourse always be understood in terms of the Holocaust?) The massacre at Sabra and Shatila is the culmination of the film, and it is rendered clearly and precisely. In fact, the end of the film is emotionally wrenching. And, as if out of a desire to emphasize the reality of what happened, the film concludes with documentary footage (although some reviewers have viewed this switch as a shortcoming).  Yet there is obfuscation over the Israeli role in the massacre. We are told that Ariel Sharon was called by a journalist that night and told that a massacre was taking place; he replied "thank you for bringing this to my attention."  Israeli soldiers surrounded the camp while Christian Lebanese Phalangists killed Palestinian civilians inside, and Israelis even shot flares that night to provide better visibility inside the camps. Yet the protagonist says to his friend "The penny never dropped. We never realized they were carrying out a genocide."  All viciousness is ascribed to the Phalangists. The Israelis, like the protagonist, are distant, disconnected, confused--they don't know what they're doing there. None of the Israeli soldiers seem to have any ideological convictions, or any animosity towards the Palestinians. And a montage that shows the violence of the war set to rock music is again very reminiscent of American Vietnam movies--even as we are meant to condemn war, our military might and the youthful recklessness of "our boys" are portrayed in a thrilling way.  We've all had the experience of enjoying a work of art and then having someone nit-pick at its political positions. I'm sorry to be that spoil-sport today. Artists aren't obliged to make political statements. Yet to do a semi-documentary film about an invasion and a civilian masscre (and reap the artistic accolades and financial rewards for doing such "serious" work) demands that one ask--and answer--serious questions. "Waltz with Bashir" has good intentions (one witness compares the surviving Palestinians emerging from Sabra and Shatila to Jews coming out of the Warsaw ghetto), but it doesn't follow through. It wants credit for acknowledging (in the film, it's presented as a discovery of sorts) Israeli complicity in the massacre, something that has long been part of the historical record. And yet it leaves questions of causality and responsibility in the war and the massacre hazy, thus making sure it doesn't alienate any part of its potential audience.  If I knew nothing about about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or if I was less heartsick over the events in Gaza in the last month, I might have thought "Waltz with Bashir" was a great movie. But it just seems a bit rich that Israelis should invade their neighbors, kill civilians, and then win Oscars when a quarter-century later they produce art about their flashbacks and moral self-questioning (which never ends in outright self-condemnation). It makes me particularly heartsick that none of the lessons of Lebanon seem to have been learned. In fact, we can probably look forward to a film, 25 years from now, in which a former Israeli soldier will ask his friends and shrink: "Were all the 1300 Palestinians we killed really "terrorists" or "human shields"? Where was I and what did I do during the bombing of Gaza?"
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Salata Baladi

My profile of "Salata Baladi" director Nadia Kamel and of her film has just come out in The Review. The film is a documentary about Kamel's family, which includes Jews, Christians and Muslims who today live in Italy, Egypt, Israel and Palestine. I see the film as fundamentally a critique of Egyptian nationalism. But it has mostly attracted attention because in it Kamel and her parents travel to Israel to visit relatives of her mother's--this caused accusations that Kamel is "pro-normalization" with Israel.  I think this is an extremely simplistic view of the film. In Egypt today, being "pro-normalization" has become a smear that is too often used for petty personal reasons, on the part of people whose own commitment to doing anything helpful for the Palestinians seems pretty thin. I fear that clinging to a dogmatic boycott of Israel allows one to avoid thinking about new, more efficient, creative ways of trying to support the Palestinian people (such as this rather inspiring venture). I'm not saying one should stop boycotting Israel--but it irks me to no end (as I think it irked Kamel) to have any debate over what normalization consists of or accomplishes shushed up by self-appointed guardians of the public debate. These guardians in Egypt often belong to the left, which unfortunately shows itself to be incapable of self-criticism and innovation, and as disrespectful of freedom of thought and expression as its antagonists.  In any case, the normalization controversy has dominated the discussion of the film, but it actually is not the only or even the main point of the story. The documentary should be available in the States in the Fall from the distributor Women Who Make Movies and you can reads tons of articles about it at the Salata Baladi blog.
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Final credits for Youssef Chahine

Egyptian film-maker Youssef Chahine passed away the day before yesterday. You can find many elegies online. Personally, I consider "Bab Al Hadeed" one of the best movies I've seen--on a par with classic post-war Italian neo-realist films. His documentary on Cairo--"Al Qahera munwwara bi Ahlaha" ("Cairo Illuminated by its People") is a lovely, subtle, complex tribute to the city.  And he's authored many classics, like "Al Ard" and others I have to admit I haven't seen yet. But Chahine's later career has always struck me as a story of talent somehow squandered--I'm not sure why. None of his later films are on a par with his early, brilliant work--some are positively bad. While I enjoyed "Heyya Fauda" ("Chaos"), his latest feature film, it had none of the insight, naturalism or originality of his earlier work. On the contrary, it bears all too much the mark of his protege Khaled Youssef, whose heavy-handed, sensationalistic and formally mediocre work has reaped a recent--and to me, utterly confounding--success.
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Sectarianism on and off screen

Two Egyptian movie legends, Omar Sharif and Adel Imam, are starring in a new movie that addresses sectarian tensions. In "Hassan and Morcos," Adel Imam plays a Christian and Omar Sherif a Muslim who struggle against the extremists within each of their religious communities. As incidents of sectarian violence occur at a seemingly weekly rate, this is a promising and relevant topic--although I fear the film tows the government's tired "national unity" line, ignoring real grievances and power imbalances. The trailer does show some pretty dramatic and realistic depictions of sectarian riots.  Of course, the film has been deemed "controversial." Imam, a Muslim, has been criticized for playing a Christian onscreen. The Al Ahram Hebdo reports that a few geniuses have started a Facebook group entitled "Call to Muslims: Boycott the Christian Adel Imam."   
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Iran-Egypt culture wars

The naming of a Tehran street after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's assassin, Khaled Eslamboli, has long been a source of diplomatic tension and the object of repeated negotiations. Now comes news of a documentary, by the Committee for Commemoration of Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement (the Iranians always have the best committee names), celebrating Eslamboli. It's called "The Execution of a Pharaoh." This has not gone down well in Cairo. One Egyptian columnist has suggested erecting a statue of the Shah in a Cairo square. There's an article on this is this week's Al Ahram Weekly, but I can't find a link. 
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Cabaret

Just went to see the Egyptian movie "Cabaret" last night. Came out of it less than impressed, and with shaabi pop music ringing in my ears for hours. The movie tells the story of one night in a cabaret (an establishment that features belly dancers and singers) in Giza, and of the lives of nine characters from among the staff, the entertainers, and the customers. The movie suffers from faults common in the current crop of Egyptian films: too many characters, poor editing, over-the-top drama, "social issues" (like prostitution) shoe-horned into the plot. Then again, there are some funny scenes, some good acting, and a few plot lines which would have born great fruit if they'd been properly developed. But it's a bit troubling how much the film titillated the audience with endless shots of female booty, joint-smoking and beer-swilling--thus making the film "edgy" and above all marketable--but swathed all this voyeurism in a thin layer of moral condemnation. 
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"Salata Baladi" screening

Nadia Kamal's documentary "Salata Baladi" is playing at the Cairo Jesuit Cinema Club this Friday at 6pm. If you haven't seen the film, I recommend you check it out. It's not perfect (a common criticism is that it should have been edited a bit more tightly), but it's definitely good, and the multi-ethnic, multi-faith Egyptian family it focuses on is incredibly captivating. The story of an Egyptian woman of Jewish/Italian origins who (among other things) ends up visiting long-lost Israeli cousins, the film has been accused of having a "pro-normalization" agenda and  has stirred quite a bit of debate in this regard. 
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Links for November 28th

Automatically posted links for November 27-28th:
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Links for November 24th

Automatically posted links for November 24th:

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