Film review: “Waltz with Bashir”

A still from Waltz with Bashir.


Waltz with Bashir, an animated documentary film charting the director’s quest to recover his lost memories of the 1982 massacres at the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, Lebanon, has been released to international acclaim. The film presents itself, and has largely been received, as a soul-searching and honest account of a journey to face up to guilt and responsibility. More than a quarter of a century after the atrocities in Sabra and Shatila, during which approximately 2,000 civilians were brutally murdered, we are witnessing a perverse moment: an apparently “anti-war” Israeli film wins several Israeli and international film awards in a context not only of Israel’s ongoing brutal occupation, violations of international law, racism and denial of refugee rights, but also while fresh atrocities are committed by Israeli forces in Gaza.

One night in a bar, a friend tells director, Ari Folman, about a recurring dream connected to his time in Lebanon in 1982, and Folman is alarmed to discover he has no memory of his own army service in Lebanon when he was 19. This serves as the point of departure for Folman’s cinematic journey. In an attempt to piece together what happened, he talks to several old friends who also fought in Lebanon. They are a motley assortment of middle-aged men, self-deprecating, liberal, essentially likeable characters. One of Folman’s first stops is with an old friend he served alongside and who now lives in Holland, having made a living selling falafel. “Healthy and Middle Eastern food is popular” he remarks wryly, unperturbed by the wholesale appropriation of Palestinian and Arab culture. But Waltz with Bashir has bigger fish to fry than falafel; it is a film charting an Israeli quest to remember — or to unforget — the Israeli role in the brutal massacre of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila. Or at least, this is the film’s ostensible purpose.

Several times, Folman talks to his psychologist friend, who appears wise and grounded and acts as a moral compass throughout the film. He is an Ashkenazi secular Jewish version of a priest — the couch is a kind of confessional, where one goes to seek validation and also redemption. When Folman first talks to him about his flashbacks, his friend — speaking in the voice of therapist, priest and philosopher — offers reassuring reflections on memory: “We don’t go to places we don’t want to,” he says. “Memory takes us where we want to go.” To read against the grain of the film’s tropes of memory, remembering and moral reckoning, is to recognize this comment as an apt description of the entire film — the remembering that the film undertakes does not take Israelis to places where they really would not want to go.

To say that Palestinians are absent in Waltz with Bashir, to say that it is a film that deals not with Palestinians but with Israelis who served in Lebanon, only barely begins to describe the violence that this film commits against Palestinians. There is nothing interesting or new in the depiction of Palestinians — they have no names, they don’t speak, they are anonymous. But they are not simply faceless victims. Instead, the victims in the story that Waltz with Bashir tells are Israeli soldiers. Their anguish, their questioning, their confusion, their pain — it is this that is intended to pull us. The rotoscope animation is beautifully done, the facial expressions so engaging, subtle and torn, we find ourselves grimacing and gasping at the trials and tribulations of the young Israeli soldiers and their older agonizing selves. We don’t see Palestinian facial expressions; only a lingering on dead, anonymous faces. So while Palestinians are never fully human, Israelis are, and indeed are humanized through the course of the film.

We most often see Palestinians — when we do see them — being blown to pieces or lying dead, but there is one scene where mourning Palestinian women occupy a street. They don’t speak; they cry and shout. We don’t see the hard lines of their grief, we don’t see their tears. Rather, the focus zooms into the face of the younger Folman watching them as his breathing becomes more shallow, functioning as the emotional anchor of the scene. This is very typical of the film in that the suffering and experiences of Palestinians are significant principally for the effects that they have on the Israeli soldiers, and never in their own right.

Several critics have noted the real — and horrifying — footage from Sabra and Shatila at the end of the film. Indeed the only people portrayed in the film who are not animated are Palestinians in this footage. There is a woman screaming and crying. She shouts “my son, my son” in Arabic. She repeats again and again in Arabic “take photos, take photos,” “where are the Arabs, where are the Arabs.” But her words are not subtitled; she is just a screaming woman and her words are irrelevant and incomprehensible. So even in the same gesture whereby we are reminded that the massacre was no animation and it was a real event, the victims of that massacre are presented to us in a way that is deeply dehumanizing and “othering.” The coping of the wailing Palestinian mother cannot compete with the quiet reflection and mild manners of the Israeli veteran. Folman does not talk to any Palestinians and the only Palestinians we see are in flashbacks and this footage at the end of the film. Not only are Palestinians essentially absent then, they are also of one time — Sabra and Shatila. Palestinians are not part of time’s passage; they are frozen in an incomprehensible, and in effect inaudible, wail.

It is not that the absence of Palestinians is necessarily a problem per se. There are indeed films where what is absent is key, and therefore has a presence that is all the more significant. In Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rebecca, for example, the haunting absence of the true central character, the traces of her, the allusions to her, make Rebecca all the more present. Not so with the Palestinians in Waltz with Bashir. They are peripheral to the story of the emotional life of Israeli veterans, a story of Israeli self-discovery and redemption. Indeed, it transpires that the filmmaker does not need to find out about Sabra and Shatila for a full understanding of his own role there, of what happened, of his responsibility, of truth. Rather, Sabra and Shatila are a portal to “other camps.” The psychologist-friend cum philosopher-priest-moral-compass tells Folman that this is in fact all about “another massacre,” “those other camps.” At this point it transpires that Folman’s parents were camp survivors. “You were engaged with the massacre a long time before it happened,” the psychologist says, “through your parents’ Auschwitz memory.” The solution that he suggests is for Folman to go to Sabra and Shatila to find out what happened. Everything falls into place. This is the meaning of Sabra and Shatila — a means, a mechanism, a chapter in Israeli self-discovery and coming to peace. The Palestinians are doubly absent.

Folman’s psychologist friend, like many psychologists one presumes, often talks in therapist mode, in addition to his priest-philosopher mode. He puts forward the idea that Folman suppressed the memories because his 19-year-old self — with the Palestinian camps as simulacrum for those “other camps” — unwittingly associated himself with the Nazis. But, he reminds Folman now, at Sabra and Shatila Folman did not kill, he “only lit flares.” So while Folman has been teetering on the edge of an overwhelming guilt, his psychologist friend drags him from the precipice. Folman and his contemporaries need not carry the guilt of being perpetrators — they were accomplices. They lit flares so that Israel’s ally in Lebanon, the Phalange militia butchering Palestinians could see what they were doing.

The question of who was doing whose dirty work is not so easily answered however Israel was nobody’s sidekick when it invaded Lebanon. The film does not show us the Israeli shelling of Beirut that led to 18,000 deaths and 30,000 wounded, the violations committed against civilians, the destruction of Palestinian and Lebanese resistance. And what about the fact that the Palestine Liberation Organization and armed resistors had been evacuated more than two weeks before the massacres, and that it was the day after multinational forces left Beirut that Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon made it known that 2,000 “terrorists” remained in the camps? The focus of Folman’s quest for responsibility in Waltz with Bashir hones in on lighting the flares as the Phalangists “mopped up” the camps. That two months before the massacres Sharon had announced his objective to send Phalangist forces into the camps, that the Israeli army surrounded and sealed the camps, that they shelled the camps, that snipers shot at camp dwellers in the days before the massacres, and then having given the green light to the Phalangists to enter Sabra and Shatila, the Israeli army prevented people from fleeing the camps — all of this is absent in Waltz with Bashir.

In the film, it is on the shoulders of the Lebanese Phalangists that responsibility for the massacres is unequivocally placed. The Israeli soldiers have qualms and do not act on them, the Israeli leadership are told and do nothing, while it is the Phalangists who are depicted as brutal and gratuitously violent. But just as this is not a film about Palestinians, nor is it a film about the Lebanese Phalangists — it is a film about Israelis. The point seems to be to set up the young Israeli soldiers as morally superior to these blood-thirsty beasts, not only in that it was not they but the Phalangists who actually massacred and executed, but also in their very way of being in the world, they are superior.

In a moment of what is presumably supposed to pass as brutal honesty, one of Folman’s friends remarks sadly of how he realized that he “wasn’t the hero who saves everyone’s life.” Essentially this is the limit of the notion of responsibility in this film: the Israeli veteran’s guilt at not having been a hero. The pain of having done nothing at the time, although there were stirrings in their consciences, even then — which the film contrasts with the Israeli leadership, and most starkly with the Phalangists.

The immediate aftermath of Sabra and Shatila witnessed a rare, if limited, moment of Israeli self-reflection. It seems odd that an Israeli film grappling with responsibility for the massacres completely elides this moment in Israeli history and collective memory. After demonstrations of more than 300,000 persons, the Kahan Commission was set up by the Israeli government to undertake an inquiry into what happened at Sabra and Shatila. The inquiry had several limitations, and one of its conclusions was that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was indirectly, but personally, responsible for the massacres, and his ministerial portfolio was taken away. Of course the same Ariel Sharon was later elected and re-elected prime minister of Israel.

As Folman and those he speaks with recount what happened when they were in Lebanon, there is a lot of “while they’re shooting at us from all directions,” “we are attacked, we retaliate.” There is no sense that Israel invaded Lebanon — the word “invasion” is barely used in the whole film. The soldiers are young men going off to war in fighting spirit, fantasizing about women, wondering at how to prove their masculinity, licking the wounds of being dumped by girlfriends. They are singing songs with upbeat tunes and lyrics such as “Good morning Lebanon … you bleed to death in my arms,” “I bombed Sidon,” “I bombed Beirut, I bombed Beirut every day.” These lyrics are supposed to grate, but one nevertheless gets a sense of naive hapless kids who have no sense of the trauma that they are unwittingly walking into. One imagines that Folman would respond to the criticism that Israel’s role is not made clear in the film, that these hapless kids are also members of an invading army committing acts of aggression, by saying that this would be going into the realm of politics, and rather this is intended to be a human film. One of the more disquieting views coming from admiring quarters is that the film is great for a general audience because one doesn’t need to know any background information to appreciate the film. That Israel launched a brutal offensive that led to the deaths of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians is apparently not relevant. With “politics” and the “background” rendered off-limits, we are left with something that is misleading and inane. Its principal message becomes “war sucks.” And why does war suck? Because it is traumatizing — principally for the soldiers. When Waltz with Bashir won the Golden Globe for best foreign film in January, while the force of the Israeli military machine was being unleashed against Gaza, while war crimes and atrocities were being committed by Israeli soldiers, Folman could only muster, “My film is anti-war, and therefore would, sadly, always be relevant.” Given the evasion of responsibility and decontextualization that lie at the core of this film, this was hardly surprising.

In the final analysis, this is what Waltz with Bashir is about: the evasion of responsibility. It is not that the self-reflection offered by the film is only partial, and that we would simply be nay-sayers to be dissatisfied with it. Because there is no sense of what the Israeli role in Lebanon was, because it is about ethically and morally redeeming the filmmaker and his contemporaries — and by extension the Israeli self, military and nation, the Israeli collective in other words — because of all this, the film is an act not of limited self-reflection but self-justification. It is a striving towards working through qualms to restabilize the self as it is currently constituted; it does not ask challenging questions that would destabilize that self. And we are reminded of the psychologist’s comment near the start of the film: “We don’t go to places we don’t want to. Memory takes us where we want to go.” Perhaps this explains how at the same time that Gaza was being decimated, Israel heaped acclaim and awards on Waltz with Bashir; in addition to numerous international awards, the film scooped up six awards at the Israeli Film Academy. Indeed, the same Israelis who flocked to see the film gave their enthusiastic approval to Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. According to a poll released on 14 January by Tel Aviv University, a staggering 94 percent of Israeli Jews supported or strongly supported the operation.

What is alarming is not the approbation that the film is enjoying. That is to be expected. What is so disturbing about the reception of Waltz with Bashir are those liberal Arabs, Palestinian and others, who have been gushing. There is no reason to be so easily satisfied, to ask for so little from Israelis. If Palestinians do not continue to call Israel to account, then who will?

In his anti-colonial classic, The Wretched of the Earth, psychiatrist and revolutionary Franz Fanon includes at the end a series of case studies of his patients. There are torture victims. But there are also torturers who are unsettled, who are suffering, who are having nightmares. Fanon brings out the absurdity — and inhumanity — of the notion that they want therapy to be at peace with what they do, and clearly have every intention of continuing to do. Waltz with Bashir answers the collective Israeli call for precisely this kind of therapy.

Naira Antoun lives in London and works in the field of education.

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