Waltz With Bashir (Israel/Fra/Ger/US/Japan/Finland/Switz/Bel/Australia 2008)

waltz-with-bashir

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.

17 comments

  1. me

    “This was not a war in the sense of a two-sided conflict; Israel invaded Lebanon with no justification.”

    Eh? Non stop bombardment from Lebanon lawless territory and infiltrating by terrorists who are massacring civilian targets (see Maaolt school and schoolbus of Revivim) is no justification?

    • keith1942

      This is the the sort of response ‘settlers’ make to critical comment on Israeli actions repeatedly. My standpoint is simple, like other colonial settlements [e.g. aprtheid South Africa] they inevitably spark resistance. As Mao told us, ‘it is right to rebel against reactionaries’!
      keith1942.

  2. me

    No one says they would no resist but you say the attack on Lebanon was without justification. And why “resistence” means massacing children? After starting the Lebanese civil war (the massacre of Damour in 1975 of christians), the “Palestinians” got in Sabra and Shatila some taste of thier own medicine.

    Did the film also deal with the so called “war of the camps” in 1985, 1986 in which different sects of Muslims fought each other for control of the camps? The number of casualties in these battles for Sabra and Shatilla between Amal and Palestinians took the lives of over three and a half thousand people. What is the point of making a film about the Lebanon civil war if you are not going to examine its contemporary history? This episode is still waiting for Arab film makers. But it won’t happen because as Arabs (i.e the “other”) you have a free crad. You can’t hold responsibility for your murderous deeds. It only applys for “settlers” (no need to steal the black narrative of apartheid and South Afrika)

    On a side note, we all settlers. Americans, Arabs in Europe and even the “Palestinans” who mostly emigrated from Lebanon and Syria, and in southern part from Egypt.

  3. venicelion

    I can’t disagree with any of Keith’s analysis. The references to Apocalypse Now are certainly there. I take the point about the complexities of the Lebanese Civil War, but that doesn’t negate the fact that Israel chose to invade in order to protect/promote its own interests. If you don’t allow your enemy the dignity of being an opposing army, it isn’t a ‘two-sided’ war.

    My own reaction was ambiguous in the sense that I was sickened by the attitude of young men towards ‘terrorists’ – as Keith says, treated simply as ‘other’ – but also in some ways sympathetic towards young frightened men led to believe that what they were doing was in a worthwhile cause. In this respect, the Israeli state is no worse than the British and Americans, except that the soldiers in the film seem remarkably ill-prepared for the realities of modern combat. I’m not sure what to make of this since the image of the Israeli soldier as promoted by Western media is usually one of competence. Perhaps there is some kind of double-bluff being played here?

    The film does look wonderful (although, personally, I’m not sure about the use of actualité footage at the end. I wish I’d seen more animation styles in order to comment on the influences, but I did think that it drew heavily on certain styles of manga. Several drawings/shots reminded me of Ghost in the Shell.

    I am left wondering if the purpose of the film is to help the filmmaker sleep better at nights. Nothing wrong with that of course, but are the film’s meanings being coralled for a broader political argument? I really fear how the film might be misunderstood by American liberals in thinking about Israel’s history of invasions and occupations.

  4. me

    “I really fear how the film might be misunderstood by American liberals in thinking about Israel’s history of invasions and occupations.”

    There is no other way to build Jewish safe havean. Many Americans agree with this. Keith don’t see the point for the Jews making their place in the world (how many states the Arabs got?) For her “settlers” is bad word. Alas, the history of mankind and civilisation is the history of settlements, ethnic cleansing ( see Islam spreading) and nation building (America).

    The soldiers call them “terrorists” because they and their families were on the recieving end of their appaling actions ( see the school massacre in Maaolt and schoolbus massacre in Avivim). Unlike you they had no the privilege to view this actions through fashionable “progressive” speak.

    The film is directaed mainly to Israeli, Jewish and worldwide sympathetic opinion. it plays wondurfully in bringing sympathy for the Israeli soldier. The Palestinians can show their own side. I’ve seen some blood thirsty Palestians clips where children are celebrating after martydom operations (massacreing Jews in buses and markets). I can not feel any symapthy for this civilization.

  5. keith1942

    Re ‘me’.

    Why does a Jewish safe haven have to be built on Palestinian land. Plus why all the other invasions, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, ….?

    And getting back to Watltz with Bashir, the film fails to provide a context. And that includes the present and intervening years. That includes the 2007 invasion when the Israeli military kills more civilians in large numbers.
    I am quite sure the film will be misunderstood by US liberals, because it fails to addres the actual social conditions and relations.
    I think Vernicelion is right, the film addresses the gulity feeling sof the protagonists, but not the oppression of those on the receiving end.
    keith1942

  6. me

    “Why does a Jewish safe haven have to be built on Palestinian land”

    Because this is Land of Israel. The “Palestinians” (Arabs) forged their national identity only after Zionists arrival, in 1920.

    ” Plus why all the other invasions, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, ….?”

    you may live in a parallel universe but they started the war against Israel.

    The film is for Israelis and those who want to understand Israel, you supposed to boycott it. Why did go to see it?

    • keith1942

      To me

      Actually, you have written almost nothing about the actual film. The Blog is not big enough for the whole history, but the Zonists claimed Palestine was an empty land when they arrived. The Palestinians were already there, included Palestinian Jews.

      It is these values, inscribed in the state of Israel that are unexamined in Waltz with Bashir.

      Consider the title alone. It refers to a ‘flashback’ where an Israeli soldier, in the attack on Beirut, ‘dances’ between the bullets as he fires off his machine gun. This is war as spectacle as well as being male fantasy. Hence my comparison with Apocalypse Now.

      So I am not boycotting the film, trying to critically engage with it. I did note that it at least openly deals with an event that the larger Israeli media tries so hard to forget. But there are serious problems with that political angagement. Hence my comments.

      So, do you like or agree with the movie?

      keith1942

  7. nicklacey

    I thought the film was brilliant even though it didn’t give us the Palestinian perspective (‘Me’ suggests they should make their own film; I’m sure they’d like to). The lack of Palestinian voice is problematic but is outside the remit of the film which filters events, literally, through the subjectivity of the participants. The horror of what happened is reflected in the inability of the soldiers, all barely men when they were sent into Lebanon, to remember exactly what happened; who would want to remember such obscene events?

    I take Keith’s criticism of the Apocalypse Now elements, however that film would likely have been fresh in Folman’s mind at the time. Certainly Coppola’s film ignores the politics (though the Redux version does have a scene about colonialsm) in favour of existential madness; surely this is how the ‘boys’ would have experienced the war?

    I think the film clearly show Israeli complicity in the massacre and we can ask for no more than that (except for the opportunity for Palestinians to have their say).

  8. me

    “a land without a people for a people without a land”

    Another staple anti-Zionist libel is that the state of Israel was a creation “a land without a people for a people without a land” continues to be propagated despite being exposed by several historians. Opponents of Zionism have regularly cited the phrase as expressing the Zionist claim that Palestine was empty.

    Opponents of Zionism have regularly cited the phrase as expressing the Zionist claim that Palestine was empty.

    Robert Fisk, the British foreign correspondent in Beirut, published PITY THE NATION,

    Twain is quoted as recording that ‘one may ride ten miles, hereabouts, and not see ten human beings’ and that ‘the hills are barren … the valleys are unsightly deserts … it is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land … Palestine is desolate and unlovely.’ The quotations were accurate but one sensed within Aumann’s text an underlying idea: not just that Palestine was empty of people — which it assuredly was not — but that perhaps those people who did live there somehow did not deserve to do so; that they were too slovenly to use modern irrigation methods or to plant trees or to build brick houses.

    Columbia University professor Edward Said attributed this phrase to the sometime Zionist Israel Zangwill, who is supposed to have coined the phrase in 1901.However, in 1991 Adam Garfinkle attributed the phrase to Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury in 1853. In 2008, historian Diana Muir attributed the phrase to the Church of Scotland clergyman Alexander Keith, D.D., an early Victorian proponent of the idea of returning the Jews to the Land of Israel, in his 1843 book The Land of Israel According to the Covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.In a Middle Eastern Quarterly article published in the spring of 2008, historian Diana Muir presents evidence of the absence of this phrase from pre-state Zionist literature, writing that “It is not evident that this was ever the slogan of any Zionist organization or that it was employed by any of the movement’s leading figures. A mere handful of the outpouring of pre-state Zionist articles and books use it. For a phrase that is so widely ascribed to Zionist leaders, it is remarkably hard to find in the historical record.” She proposes that: “Unless or until evidence comes to light of its wide use by Zionist publications and organizations, the assertion that ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’ was a ‘widely-propagated Zionist slogan’ should be retired.”

    Israel Zangwill, who was a Zionist briefly before breaking dramatically and publicly with Zionism movement, did use the phrase, attributing it to Lord Shaftesbury.

    Historian Alan Dowty has stated that the phrase was not in use among Zionists.

    Opponents of Zionism have regularly cited the phrase as expressing the Zionist claim that Palestine was empty. The most prominent anti-Zionist intellectual to cite the phrase was literary scholar Edward Said who held it to exemplify a kind of thinking that hopes to “cancel and transcend an actual reality – a group of resident Arabs – by means of a future wish – that the land be empty for development by a more deserving power.”

    According to historian Diana Muir, the earliest uses of the phrase by opponents of Zionism occurred shortly after Britain issued the Balfour Declaration. After the founding of the state the phrase was cited by both Zionists and anti-Zionists as having been a popular Zionist slogan. On November 13, 1974, PLO leader Yasir Arafat told the United Nations, “It pains our people greatly to witness the propagation of the myth that its homeland was a desert until it was made to bloom by the toil of foreign settlers, that it was a land without a people.”

    In his book The Question of Palestine, Edward Said cites the phrase in this wording, “A land without people for a people without a land.” S. Ilan Troen and Jacob Lassner call this omission of the definite article ‘a,’ a “distortion” of the meaning and suggest that it was done “perhaps malevolently” for the purpose of making the phrase acquire the meaning that Said and others impute to it, that Zionists thought that the land was or wanted to make it into a land “without people.” Steven Poole calls this omission of the indefinite article “a subtle falsification.”

  9. venicelion

    OK. Enough discussion about Zionism, I think. The blog cannot as Keith says, contain all the history about what has happened in Palestine. We’ve explored some of the issues about the politics of the film, but the debate about Zionism should now transfer to another forum where I would be with Keith in opposing what Zionism has created in the state of Israel. But pursuing that argument is not the function of this blog. Our aim is rather to explore the meanings of films, how they might be constructed and circulated and how the institution of cinema enables this to happen (or not) and audiences to engage with them.

    • keith1942

      Afterthought ….. [occasioned by comments from colleagues].

      Much of the criticism and comment on Waltz with Bashir focuses on how the film confronts the massacres in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shuttle. But the film seems to me to be full of both complexities and ambiguities on this point.
      It is presented as a documentary. Whilst the documentary form does not guarantee impartiality, and certainly not objectivity, audiences seem to expect that it will provide both information and understanding about actual events and peoples. Fictional films also address the real world and its characters, but such films embroider, compress and dramatise [to a much greater degree?]. One complication with Waltz with Bashir is that the film uses animation techniques, especially in the flashbacks, and these conjure a sense of fictional narration. Some sequences seem to have jumped from a computer game. Andrew Osmond [S & S December 2008] compares them to Gerry Anderson puppets. He also argues that ‘the emotional weight is mostly carried by the voices’.
      This dramatisation seems valid because the flashbacks are not documenting what happened, but the protagonist’s memories of what happened. Vernicelion criticised the final cut from such an animated sequence to actual video footage of the survivors. On reflection I think he is right. The cut to the ‘real life’ footage seems to validate the animation that has proceeded it. There seems to be equivalence between them.
      Yet status of these flashbacks must be a matter of debate. Are they recovered, or do other memories and conversations prompt them. The last shot we see of Folman is the moment that precedes the actual video footage. His face displays shock at the sight of the camp survivors, validating the claim in the film that the ordinary soldiers were unaware of the massacre until too late. This provides these protagonists with a different ethical status from the military and civil establishments, who are clearly identified as complicit and culpable in the crime. Yet, as I noted in the original review, the visual evidence within the mise en scène seems to clearly show that the soldiers must have known something of what was taking place. Vernicelion is right to argue that the film represents the response to their guilt by the filmmakers. But it would seem that the guilt is only partially admitted.
      Nick Lacy’s argument that the film represents the viewpoint and experience of the young solders involved in the invasion fails to answer this point. And I think it is a dangerous argument to advance regarding this film, or indeed Apocalypse Now. Neither film really restricts itself to the subjective viewpoint of one set of combatants. In fact Waltz with Bashir tends to offer the audience an omniscient viewpoint. The experiences of the soldiers in 1982 is revived and commented on both by the recent interviews and the analysis of the advisers. The film subtly suggests that the narrator has investigated and weaved together a range of voices that provide a summation.
      The Sight & Sound review noted how the animation restricted the characters to a limited range of emotions and responses. But the contemporary interviews with Israelis offer them a more rounded personality, as does the use of the Israeli’s own voices. This is something not offered to either the Lebanese or the Palestinians depicted in the film. The one point at which we have a fuller picture of the Palestinian survivors is one where they have no equivalent voice, only their cries and screams of mourning.
      This is the conventionalised treatment that is inscribed in the majority of western films. The denial of a voice is one that bedevils Israeli films like Yon Kippur: a non-Israeli film like One Day in September: and western war films like Jarhead or Three Kings. And it is also typified in non-war melodramas like The Kite Runner.
      Given that Waltz with Bashir is such a powerful and emotional viewing I feel critical discussion is really important. The parallel film Apocalypse Now appears to be one of the few Hollywood Vietnam movies that still re-surfaces for contemporary audiences. But it is not a film that offers either an informed retelling of the war or any meaningful understanding. Waltz with Bashir ends with the actual video footage and the implicit message of Folman’s and his fellow soldiers’ ‘innocent’ ignorance, But the film does not offer an explicit comment or argument. Rather odd given the amount of time the protagonists spend discussing and investigating. Perhaps Folman believes the images ‘speak for themselves’. As the recent exchange of comments demonstrates, this is not the case.

      Keith 1942

  10. me

    I say “Palestinians” (Arabs) forged their *national identity* only after Zionists arrival, in 1920, not “Zonists claimed Palestine was an empty land when they arrived.” It’s not the same.

    Enough

    • keith1942

      I don’t think representation is a burden – it is part of the process of filmmmaking and film viewing.
      And NickLacy seems to agree with the criticism I and Vernicelion make of the film.
      After all, the film is not Folman’s alone: it is a dialogue with audiences.
      keith1942

  11. nicklacey

    Whilst I agree with Keith that the lack of Palestinian and Lebanese voices is problematic; it is beyond the scope of the film. Folman’s movie has to take on the ‘burden of representation’ of the events. In an interview on Al Jazeera (see YouTube) he states that it would be arrogant if he spoke for them.

    My reading, and I agree that the images are not ‘speaking for themselves’, of the ending is that Folman’s shock is twofold: at realising what had happened in the camps and the shock of the 2007-Folman as he realises his complicity in the massacres.

    I think Folman’s argument that the ordinary soldier didn’t know what was happening is disingenuous: they didn’t want to know what was going on. Maybe this is why a bunch of 19 year-old lads were (are) sent to war as they would not have the wherewithal to challenge their officers. In this the (self-serving?) TV reporter is the heroic figure.

  12. keith1942

    The film has now received a terrestial television screening on More 4. Problematically, it was placed in the True Story slot and presented as a documentary.
    In the term’s wider usage that might seem to apply – but it is part of a larger discourse which tends to privilege the voice of Israel and Zionism over that of Palestinians. I will wait and see if and when the chnnael has a Palestinian film and how it presents it.

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