Revolution Online, December 14, 2008

From A World to Win News Service

Film review: Waltz with Bashir – feeling good about feeling bad

December 8, 2008. A World to Win News Service. Waltz with Bashir is an important film because it’s so powerful. Its power comes from the filmmaker’s unusual choices regarding form and viewpoint, so that the way the story is told conveys its content in parallel with – and enormously intensifying – the unfolding of the narrative itself. But that very power makes it imperative to untangle the layers of meaning. The film’s emotional force is actually part of what’s problematic about it. It leaves audiences so stunned that it’s hard to give it the careful thought that such art actually requires.

Waltz with Bashir is told almost entirely in animation, the motion picture equivalent of a graphic novel. But this deliberately unreal medium is used to conduct a real documentary enquiry into the experiences of the filmmaker himself as a 19-year-old rudely torn out of his warm and fuzzy teenage environment and thrust into the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the slaughter of thousands of civilians at the Palestinian refugee camp called Sabra and Shatila.

The film opens with a scene depicted with hallucinatory lucidity. A pack of 26 ferocious dogs runs through city streets and squares, scattering the pedestrians and café tables in their way. Their destination is an apartment building, where they howl at a figure seen in silhouette in a window far above, waiting to tear him apart. Immediately we find ourselves in a warm Tel Aviv café. What just happened is a recurring nightmare, and Boaz, the man in the window, has summoned filmmaker Ari Folman in the middle of the night to tell his friend about it and seek solace.

The two served together in the Israeli army during the invasion of Lebanon. Boaz was in a unit that conducted night raids into Lebanese villages to grab Palestinian “suspects.” Since he couldn't bear to harm human beings, he was sent in ahead of the patrol to shoot the half-starved village dogs instead. Although we are told that if those dogs had been allowed to bark Israeli soldiers' lives would have been at stake, now the repressed memory of the 26 animals Boaz killed – he kept careful count – has returned.

The film, however, is more complex and compelling than a plot summary may sound. Folman is not just giving us a lesson in psychology or trivializing the death of Palestinians by guilt over the death of dogs. Just the opposite – the cold-blooded shooting of animals is used to infuse viewers with a building dread that his characters and viewers can accept, while the killing of humans we will soon be confronted with is so horrible that Folman himself can't bear to think it. Driving home through the rain after this late-night encounter, the filmmaker realizes that he has absolutely no memory of his wartime experiences. That whole period of his life has become inaccessible to him.

But this meeting provokes Folman to have his own dream: he and other boys – their skinny anatomy emphasizes that they are not yet men, although later into this sequence stubble will sprout on their faces – are floating half-asleep, naked in night-time, womb-like ocean. The sky is a pale but strangely intense yellow. This color lights many of the film’s key moments. It is not the bright, cheerful color of sunlight, but one that later we will learn to recognize as the sallow glow of military flares. Toward the end of the film, it will cease to be the mysterious lighting of dreams and illuminate the horrors previously hidden in the darkness of his mind. The boys emerge from the water onto the beach, pull on jeans and take up automatic rifles, and advance toward the high-rise apartment and hotel towers that line the waterfront. On the other side of the buildings is a glow like the sky above a sports stadium. This time it is Folman who wakes up a friend, a sympathetic psychiatrist, who argues that Folman’s only way out is to uncover and confront his buried memories by seeking out his service mates and finding out what happened in Lebanon.

Almost all of the film is animated, with a combination of software (Flash)-generated images, pictures derived from photos and old-fashioned drawings of the kind once associated with Walt Disney. The awkwardly moving characters in front of still backgrounds and the often slightly jerky rhythm associated with low-budget children’s cartoons constantly remind us that what we’re seeing isn’t real. But it is real: this is what really happened. Much of the time is spent on the filmmaker’s visits and long conversations with fellow former soldiers. The soundtrack consists of the actual words spoken, and while the images are cartoons, they are realistic pictures of the men talking and the actual circumstances of their conversations.

Because of the animation, only the light gives much hint to distinguish reality from dreams. But the filmmaker’s declared aim, as a character in his own film and as an artist, is to get at truth and the real experience that those who experienced them have been unable to face. These man-boys, whose lives revolved around girlfriends, rock music and smoking dope, were terrified from the first instant they found themselves in Lebanon. As they later recall, panic and bewilderment made them do terrible things. Firing their automatic weapons without stopping and often without looking, they repeatedly kill civilians, including a family driving by because they fear a car bomb attack. Folman reacts by purging the whole experience from his memory, but others respond by pretending that none of this is real. A psychologist the filmmaker consults explains dissociation, one of the ways people deal with unbearable situations. She recounts the example of another Israeli soldier, a photographer who got through most of the war by telling himself that he was seeing everything through the camera viewfinder. Only when he sees his own reflection in the eye of a dead horse does this particular defense mechanism break down. Suddenly, to his horror, and at the worst possible moment, he finds himself there, in spirit as well as body. Phalangists, members of a militia allied with Israel, have slaughtered all the Arabian horses at a racetrack on their way to Sabra and Shatila.

Once again, the death of an animal foreshadows and mediates human suffering and allows us to contemplate the death of people, just as in Picasso’s Guernica, painted after the 1937 Nazi bombardment of a village during the Spanish civil war, history’s first aerial massacre. The terrified expression on the face of a horse conveys and makes us remember a horror that would leave us numb instead, as the writer Susan Sontag once pointed out, if we had seen exploding body parts. 

Folman, we finally learn, has seen what no one would want to. The Israeli army moved into West Beirut, on the other side of those beachfront buildings, and surrounded Sabra and Shatila. There they allowed the Phalangists to enter the camp and systematically slaughter thousands of people as Israeli commanders looked on from a bunker on top of a tall building overlooking the scene. Folman’s job is to fire flares, now as bright as the sun – the confusion of daytime and night-time throughout his dreams now resolved in reality – so that the Phalangists could do their job. In a crucial scene, an Israeli TV journalist recalls his own experience there. Informed of the ongoing massacre by Israeli officers, he rings up Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon during the night to tell him about the massacre and beg him to have his forces – who, after all, were in control – put a stop to it. Sharon brusquely thanks him for calling and then goes back to sleep. The yolks of the four eggs this obscenely obese figure eats with his corned beef for breakfast the next day as he issues orders to his troops are the same painful shade of yellow.

Then suddenly we see the real sun. The animation stops and we see authentic newsreel footage of the camps the next day. It’s in full color, not the more distancing black and white, and the realistic subtlety of the tones is unbearable after the cartoonishly flat painted colors we’ve seen so far. The head of a curly-haired child sticking out of the rubble. Alleyways completely filled with piled-up bodies. Courtyards full of dead families. A line of women moving down the main street, shrieking as they recognize the bloated bodies of their loved ones. You can almost smell the corpses. The footage lasts only a few minutes; that's about all film viewers can take.

So now we understand. Folman describes the making of the film as “four years of therapy.” Trauma has robbed him of the memories of his youth. Like Boaz, his friend with the nightmare dogs, the name of that trauma is guilt. Like Boaz, he killed no one himself but became indirectly responsible for many deaths when his flares lit up the night. Like Sharon, he failed to act to stop the massacre. And like Sharon, he turned over and went back to sleep. As his psychiatrist friend explains, these memories are particularly traumatic for him because “Behind this camp, there is another” – his parents were prisoners in the Nazi death camp Auschwitz. Another friend compares what they have seen in Sabra and Shatila to a famous photo of Jews being marched out of the Warsaw ghetto to their deaths. Folman fears that he has become like the Nazis.

The film’s title is as important as it is enigmatic at first. Early on, Folman’s youthful self is told “Bashir's been killed. You’ll be in Lebanon in a few hours” – and he is. During much of the film the viewer is as lost as Folman. Who the hell is Bashir, and what did his death have to do with Folman?

Lebanon’s parliament chose Bashir Gamayel, the head of the Christian-based Phalangist party and a close ally of Israel, to be the country’s president. He was known by his first name to distinguish him from other prominent members of his family, one of the country's most powerful clans. Israel, which had invaded Lebanon three months before on the pretext of protecting its own security by clearing Palestinian fighters along the border, moved far north into Beirut, where they forced the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership and thousands of its fighters to leave the country by ship. The American government, supposedly acting as a mediator, guaranteed the safety of the Palestinian civilians left behind.

Israeli troops then surrounded Sabra and Shatila as part of a “mop-up” operation on what Israeli authorities described as “empty” camps. After Bashir’s assassination, the Phalangist militiamen howled for vengeance. In an earlier scene, when a patrol is pinned down by sniper fire from the beachfront towers, an Israeli officer grabs a heavy machine gun and performs a long, wild waltz in the middle of the street, with his weapon as his partner, bullets hitting all around him and giant posters of Bashir on the walls behind him. The Phalangists are bloodthirsty dogs, Bashir is their icon, and Israel – and Folman in particular – went insane and danced with them. That’s the memory that’s been more than this ex-soldier could stand.

Unfortunately, however, this conclusion isn’t close enough to the truth. Through the making of this film Folman may have recovered his memory, but the truth is more than a matter of his personal experience. It’s one thing to concentrate truth through symbolism and other artistic techniques. Picasso’s Guernica conveys truth all the more powerfully because it’s not realistic. It’s another thing to use the power of such techniques to mislead people. The film is often hard to follow, but that’s for a good reason – this is art, not journalism, and this difficulty makes viewers share Folman’s own confusion as he tries to remember what happened. The director has made well-thought-out and effective choices in how he tells the story. But the content of his art matters.

One way the film distorts the truth is that it implies that the killing took place over the course of one night. It’s not hard to understand why the filmmaker felt the need to compress the events, so as to maximize the impact. But his solution isn’t good. It makes a difference when you know that the massacre went on not just for a night but more than 38 hours.

But there are even more damning facts.

First of all, the Israeli leadership didn’t just “waltz with Bashir.” It first deliberately inflamed and then brought in the Phalangist militia to carry out the killings.

Under the political set-up imposed by Lebanon’s ex-colonial master France, parliament chooses the president, and that president must be Christian, not because Christians are a majority (which would be bad enough), but because the French and later Israel and the U.S. thought (as they do to this day) that they could use the Christian clans easier than their Shia and Sunni Moslem rivals. Bashir had agreed to let Israel take over southern Lebanon, which they did. The day he was killed, Sharon met with the family, supposedly to offer his condolences. According to Time magazine, “Sharon reportedly told the Gemayels that the Israeli army would be moving into West Beirut and that he expected the Christian forces to go into the Palestinian refugee camps. Sharon also reportedly discussed with the Geymayels the need for the Phalangists to take revenge for the assassination of Bashir, but the details of the conversation are not known.” (Time, February 21, 1983) One fact that is known is that Israeli authorities publicly blamed the assassination on the PLO, even though the assassin was a fellow Christian. The Phalangists had massacred Palestinians before. What happened next was what the Israelis meant to happen.

Secondly, Sharon wasn’t interested in the journalist’s phone call because it wasn’t news. The Phalangist leader of the operation, Elie Hobeika, and the Israeli field commander on the scene, Brigadier General Amos Yanon, were stationed together on the rooftop. An Israeli lieutenant later told a Knesset (Israeli parliament) commission that an hour after the Phalangist militia went into the camp, an officer in the camp radioed for instructions about what to do with the women and children. Hobeika answered, “This is the last time you’re going to ask me a question like that. You know exactly what to do.” The Israeli general was aware of this exchange (see When twenty years later, a Belgian court prepared to try Sharon, Yanon and Hobeika for the massacre, the Phalangist said that in his own defense he would testify that the Israelis knew and approved of everything. He was killed by a car bomb and the case was dismissed at the U.S.’s insistence.

Thirdly, there is evidence that the Israeli army itself killed many Palestinians, even after the massacre had ended in the camp. Only about 600 bodies were found in Sabra and Shatila, while almost 2,000 people are known to have disappeared and the actual toll may have been higher.

British journalist Robert Fisk, who arrived on the scene shortly after the Phalangists came out of the camp, describes seeing “probably well over a thousand” Palestinian men and boys held prisoner in the nearby sports stadium. Many of them had been brought from neighboring areas during the massacre or from the camp afterward. Israeli secret police officers (Shin Beth) and Phalangists took some prisoners away one or two at a time. A few were released. But when Fisk went back, the stadium was deserted. A woman survivor who went in search of her husband described convoys of canvas-covered Israeli trucks leaving the stadium with unknown cargo. She, Fisk and other experts and historians believe that the Israelis killed most of the prisoners and buried them in secret graves. (Robert Fisk, The Independent, reprinted by Counterpunch, November 28, 2001)

Folman could argue in his own defense that the teenage soldier that he was could not have known all this amid the “fog of war.” Fisk, despite being on the scene, later wrote that he did comprehend what was going on himself at the time. But here we run up against the consequences of the filmmaker’s decision to tell his story entirely through his own eyes and those of his friends, just as they experienced the events. The film’s subjective point of view and expressionist style, while they are a big part of what makes it so strong, are linked to its misleading content.

Such a style is not necessarily a weakness. For instance, Persepolis, a recent animated film with which Waltz with Bashir is often compared, also represents the first-person, expressionistically-told story of a young person trying to come to grips with overpowering historical events (in that case, the 1979 Iranian revolution and its highjacking by the Islamic regime). But while Persepolis both illuminates the events it recounts and endows them with universality, Waltz with Bashir often tends to reduce them to personal trauma.

Enough of what Folman recounts is so well known to Israelis that this film is no surprise. The facts it alludes to came out in the report of the commission established by Knesset after an unprecedented public outcry in Israel in the days following the massacre. The Kahan commission came to a conclusion similar to what many people will get from Folman’s story: that the massacre was the work of the Phalangists alone, but that Sharon and other officers failed to prevent it. That commission held that Sharon bore “personal responsibility,” and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was “indirectly responsible” for not looking into Sharon’s negligence.

That won’t do. While Sharon certainly does bear personal responsibility, his negligence or indifference, or even deliberate criminality, are not all there was to the massacre. It was committed as part of overall Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and Lebanon, policies that led to three invasions of Israel’s neighbor and continuing horrors against the Palestinians. These are the natural result of Zionism itself – logical solutions to the problem of establishing and safeguarding a Jewish state based on the racist fantasy of a mystically-defined Jewish people worldwide somehow gathered into a single nation and endowed with a genetic birthright to land already peopled for thousands of years.

Right after the Sabra and Shatila massacre, as many as 400,000 people – almost one in ten Israelis – gathered in Tel Aviv to protest against it. A hand grenade thrown into the crowd exasperated a political crisis that led to the establishment of the Knesset commission. But while eventually Sharon was forced to resign as Defense Minister, Begin kept him on in the cabinet. Begin is said to have complained, in Sharon's defense, “Goyim (non-Jews) kill Goyim, and they come to hang the Jews?” To Sharon, he said, “You are young. You still have much to do.”

Sharon remained a pillar of Israel’s political establishment as well as its leading general, and went on to be elected prime minister himself, serving until a stroke left him brain dead two years ago. So even if it were true that the massacre was planned and orchestrated by Sharon and no one else, which is impossible, what happened there was later approved by Israel’s ruling class as a whole and a large part of the electorate.

There is a big difference between people like Folman and the people like Sharon he so rightly hates. But in Israel the film hasn’t had the kind of reception Folman thought it would, and people who think like him should ask themselves why. What did we do wrong? he says his film team-mates ask him.

Instead of being banned or otherwise attacked, Waltz with Bashir has been embraced by much (although not all) of Zionist society and the government itself, currently run by Sharon’s appointed successor. Although surprised, Folman understands why. The facts as they are presented in his film are “not controversial in Israel,” he said in a UK interview (November 20, 2008, audio file at Like the Knesset commission, the film admits that Israel waltzed with Bashir but tends to put the worst blame on “Goyim,” covering up the full story, and, most of all, why it happened. Its Israeli critics are concerned with the film’s effect abroad.

Speaking of Israeli official backing for the film, he says, “I think they took this decision deliberately. I think they realized that the more I criticize what happened, the more Israel is shown as a very tolerant country.”

Here he betrays his own blind spot. Try talking about Israeli tolerance to the 10,000 Palestinians currently in Israeli prisons. Almost every Palestinian family has had a member go through Israeli jails. Tell that to the people in the big prison that is Gaza or to the Palestinian villages in the West Bank where the Israeli army lets Jewish settlers from New York bully and beat Palestinians, burning down their houses to drive them out of their own homeland, while these same soldiers use tanks and machine guns against Palestinian children who throw stones. Tell that to the Palestinian refugees around the world forbidden to ever return to their homeland, while anyone who claims Jewish heritage is welcomed. And tell that to Jews and other non-Arabs who take the Palestinians’ side even in small ways. How much Israeli tolerance was extended to Rachel Corrie, a young American deliberately crushed by an Israeli armored bulldozer when she stood in the way of the demolition of a Palestinian home? Because she had crossed the line, the U.S. government refused to press Israel about her killing.

The boundary line of Israeli tolerance, as most Zionists will readily tell you, is the existence of the Jewish state. People like Folman, who seem to genuinely hate things that are hateful, and even bring up uncomfortable subjects like this massacre, can be tolerated within these limits, as long as they themselves tolerate the Jewish state. There is a rival current in Israeli society, the so-called national religious movement whose violent intolerance extends to secular and would-be humanist Jews like Folman. Among them are the Israeli fundamentalists who settle in Palestinian areas, attack Palestinians and then claim that they are simply Jews defending their homes. But as much as they clash, both currents operate within the limits of the interests of the larger settler state. That’s why a sober-minded, secular Zionist like Sharon championed these crazed religious fanatics.

Audiences leave the cinema stunned by the atrocities committed during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. This has had a positive effect on viewers in continental Europe and the UK, where it is now playing and stirring up much-needed discussion. This impact may be greater in the U.S., where after festival appearances the film will be released for general distribution December 26, and where enforced ignorance about Israel’s crimes is particularly appalling. (A DVD version in Hebrew, Lebanese Arabic, German and English is to be released in March 2009.) But at the same time, this positive aspect is tangled up with its negative dimension, the implicit message that feeling bad about crimes committed in your name is enough, a merit and mark of enlightenment that can mitigate guilt.

Folman explains that his film “could be about anyone who wakes up to Motown (rock) and ask themselves what they’re doing there” – a U.S. soldier in Vietnam, he says, a Russian in Afghanistan, an American in Iraq today, a Dutch “peacekeeper” in Bosnia, youth sent to fight wars for “small leaders with big egos who don’t care about people dying.” A song in the soundtrack references the Enola Gay, the U.S. airplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, one of whose crewmembers was consumed by guilt until he died.

It’s good for people like Folman to feel bad about what they’ve done and what they’ve become. He feels that he and his fellow soldiers were also victims, that the war robbed them of their humanity. That’s true to some extent, but it’s not enough. There are more basic questions for the soldiers in the reactionary armies Folman mentions and the citizens of the countries those armies represent: why they were sent to fight, for what interests, and where they themselves stand in relation to those interests. Once they have woken up a little, will they take responsibility, cross the line and change sides, or go back to sleep, content that their anguish is enough to preserve their humanity while their society crushes masses of human beings?

A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world’s Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

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