Directed and written by Ari Folman. 90 minutes. Certificate 18. In colour with English subtitles.
This film has received glowing reviews, frequently using the phrase ‘anti-war’. It is a powerful and imaginative documentary film, though it feels and looks much more like a fictional dramatisation. That is mainly due to the animation techniques, which are used so effectively. It is a film to be seen, and preferably in its proper format on a cinema screen
It treats of the massacre of thousands of Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. So the powerful emotional responses that the film is likely to generate also need to be analysed. Whilst I feel that this is an impressive treatment for an Israeli artist, I still find the film is problematic and shot through with contradictions.
In a seminal article on Hollywood films and Vietnam the sadly deceased Andrew Britton wrote:
“The ‘anti-war’ film tends to protest against war as such from an abstractly moral point of view, in the name, frequently, of a humanist idea. . . . war is extrapolated from its socio-economic causes and functions and we are confronted with its ‘horrors’ – horrors which, given the vague definition of their origins, and the status of the protagonist(s) as victim (s) seems both intolerable and irremediable.” [Sideshows: Hollywood in Vietnam, in Movie, 27/28, 1981].
These were comments that seemed to me apposite for Waltz with Bashir.
The opening credits are followed by a placing statement, which refers to the ‘war between Israel and Lebanon’. Already this is problematic. This was not a war in the sense of a two-sided conflict; Israel invaded Lebanon with no justification. And that is true of the most recent invasion, which receives no mention in the film. This is despite the film being completed in 2008, that is, when the more recent atrocities were well-known.
The film uses interviews with participants and flashbacks to the actual event of 1982. The latter in particular reminded me of the well-known Vietnam film Apocalypse Now [a film that Britton’s critically discusses in his article]. There is a similar noirish atmosphere, similar sequences of ‘shock and awe’, and a similar overwhelming sense of masculinity. The few females in the film comprise a woman in a porn film excerpt, a fantasised sex-cum-mother icon, a girl friend who dumped the narrator, and, finally, the women in the Sabra and Chatila camps. [There may have been in brief a female military character?] These are fairly stereotypical characters in war movies.
The film’s focus is on the combatants. These are Folman and his friends and colleagues. Troubled by dreams and memories he seeks out friends who participated in the invasion and also counsellors and psychologists for comment and advice. Thus it is these Israeli voices that present and contextualise the events that unfold. In Folman’s case he finds he does not remember the actual events of the invasion, hence his search to both recover and understand.
Clearly the climax of the film is the massacre in the camps: actually perpetrated by Christian Phalangist militia. At the time the Israeli authorities professed ignorance of the appalling atrocities that were perpetrated, but subsequent investigation has clearly exposed their complicity in the horrors. In the case of Folman and his friends, ordinary soldiers, they still maintain that they were unaware until the massacre was almost complete and finally ended. Whilst some reviews echo this claim, I found the film very ambiguous on this point. In the flashbacks the Israeli soldiers are clearly almost on top of the camps, they stand and watch as the Phalangist militia enter the refugee camps, and there are regular mortar flares fired into the sky by Israelis: illumination by which the massacre is carried out. I was unclear as to whether Folman was in denial as to the crime, or whether the mise en scène subverts the claims of ignorance. And who was being subverted – the filmmakers, the audience, or both?
In fact, what the viewers see is not a record of events, but recovered memories of the events. Our final glimpse of Folman is at the end of the last flashback, as his face shows shock as he [apparently] realises the horror that has occurred. The psychologists [or psychiatrists] offer some analysis of these memories. At one point there is a reference to the Holocaust in Germany in World War II. This seems to be one of those automatic and defensive references that Israelis offer when their actions are criticised. The psychologist suggests that Folman could be taking on the role of a Nazi: a type of sublimation? This would seem to miss the point, because the parallels are not with Nazi Germany but with the Apartheid [settler] regime in South Africa. So the absence of the settler ideology, a cause and a factor, reinforces the sense of nameless horror.
Once again the parallel with Apocalypse Now is apparent. The latter film totally fails to deal with the factors for the US presence in Vietnam. Folman’s film never attempts to explain the Israeli presence in Lebanon. And, like Apocalypse Now, the ‘enemy’ is shadowy and predominately depersonalised. There are no Palestinians or Lebanese in the contemporary sequences. And in the flashbacks, for most of the time, we see only fighters, termed ‘terrorists’: and victims of the Israeli actions. Andrew Briton also critically comments on the source novella for Apocalypse Now, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Whilst that novella does detail some of the crimes against the Congolese, [fictionalising actual historical horrors], the title indicates how Conrad failed to overcome the ‘otherness’ that the colonialists attribute to the natives.
Real Palestinians do appear at the end of the film when the animated flashback is transformed into actual footage as the survivors of the massacre finally leave and then return to the camp. This is shocking horror. Unfortunately whilst powerful, I find it [as Britton did in the Vietnam films] ‘both ‘intolerable’ but ‘irremediable’. As is so often the case, even in liberal Israeli films, we never hear the voice of the Palestinians. They are either terrorists or victims: they remain the other.
The problem with this is highlighted in a stanza by the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish:
You standing at the doorstep, enter
And drink Arabic coffee with us
(you might sense you’re human like us)
you standing at the doorstep of houses,
get out of our mornings,
we need reassurance that we
are human like you!
[State of Siege, translation Fady Joudah, 2007].
How rare is any sense of Palestinian humanity in the dominant discourses of Israeli society. Apparently Folman’s liberalism and guilt do not extend that far. In fairness they do extend some way beyond that of most Israeli artworks. Whatever its limitations, Waltz with Bashir shows a welcome confrontation with one of the darker passages in Israel’s occupation of Arab lands. So this is definitely a film to see and to ponder.