The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

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?"