Thursday, December 04, 2008

Waltz with Bashir: Review

Let me start by saying that the film, despite its many flaws, is brilliant. It caused me to sit on the edge of my seat hypnotised for some 90 minutes, and it made me cry. I am involved of course, coming from there, being closely familiar with the story and the circumstances, so I am perhaps not your average viewer. But I think it managed to turn what is essentially a documentary film into a mesmerising experience. What follows here is more a political response, rather than an appreciation of the film as a cinematic product (for a thoughtful film review see here).

The director Ari Folman said in interviews that he didn’t want to glorify war, and his film does a good job driving home the point that war is a terrible and messy affair, horrible even for those who survive it as “victors”. Yet at the same time there is some undeniable nostalgia at work: bitter sweetness captured best by the cheesy rock music accompanying the film. There is no way round it; being 20 is probably the most exciting time of your life, and the intensity of war just makes it more so. Probably all the Israelis I know look back at their army years with a mixture of disgust and nostalgia. Disgust – whether for political reasons, or much more likely, because almost no-one likes being in the military and taking orders (often from idiots). And nostalgia – because we all want to be 20 again.

Some critics (a few of them Israeli) condemned the film for being evasive on the question of responsibility to the massacres. I think this criticism is misguided. The film certainly leaves it to the viewers to decide on the question of responsibility and blame. But this is its strength. While some seem to believe that we need courtroom dramas, with conclusive verdicts, I tend to think that real life is murkier, with many shades between guilty and innocent.

Take Ron Ben-Yishai, the journalist who played a key role in reporting the massacre to the Israeli public. As is shown in the film, back in 1982 Ben Yishai "did the right thing", and tried to stop the massacre: he called Ariel Sharon directly and reported to him (Sharon was not surprised, and did nothing). His evidence was later crucial to remove Sharon from office. Not many people have the courage to step out of line in such situations in order to save life. But even viewers who know nothing about Ben Yishai will understand from the film that he was deeply embedded within the Israeli military, with close ties to the top officers. He had Sharon’s private number, and he referred to him and to other chief commanders by their first name. Ben Yishai was from the heart of the military establishment. He was not a critic of the war, he was a gang-ho war reporter. True, he had the courage, humanity and the sharp senses "to do the right thing", but he also supported a war whose overall price in human life was enormous for all sides.

So the desire to make clear that the Israeli army is “responsible”, if in second degree, to the massacre, seems to me pointless; that is, it is clear from the beginning of the film. And then what? How does it help us prevent the next massacre? In a way, Folman’s attempt to show the futility of war is more a step in the right direction than a frontal assault on “Israeli complicity”, which will perhaps leave some people with a more cathartic feeling, but does not solve much.

What I found disturbing was the film’s depiction of women: this is an almost all-male film, and women come into it mostly as objects of fantasy. The girlfriend, the dream woman that comes from the sea, the porn stars in a video cassette in a Beirut mansion; and finally, the wailing Palestinian women clout in black, to which I will return in a moment – they all remain alien and inaccessible; strange and fascinating objects of desire and fear. This is more problematic because war is repeatedly presented here as an story of male erotic failure, channelled into acts of violence. But Folman’s refusal to allow real women into the film leaves us in the same territory of juvenile male fantasy land. Despite all the awareness and irony manifested by the film regarding the destructiveness of men’s erotic desires and insecurities, the film still chooses to indulge in them, rather than to try and transcend them.

The film owes much to Vietnam films, such as Apocalypse Now and the Deer Hunter; even the scenery seems too tropical for Lebanon. And like Vietnam films, this is about the occupier, not the occupied. The issue is what war does to the Israeli soldiers, much more than what it does to the Lebanese or Palestinians. Now this in itself is not a problem in my view, because the film does not pretend to be anything else. Ultimately, this is Folman’s story, he tells it well, and it’s a story that deserves to be told. But towards the end of the film, when Folman tries to find out “what really happened there”, even then he still does not seek the point of view of the Palestinian victims, who remain nameless and voiceless throughout the whole film.

This really hit me in the face in the end of the film, when the animation makes way to documentary footage of women howling and crying in the refugee camp after the massacre. But there are no subtitles; for most of the viewers, Israelis, Europeans, Americans, their cries will remain undecipherable.

And what do the women say? It is not, as some viewers may guess, howls of grief and anger and mourning .Rather, they are screaming to the photographer: “Film! Film this! Where are all the Arab people?! Film this!” That is to say: they do not take the role that the film assigns to them - of passive victims, images of pure emotion - but rather they are cogent and active human beings, who are seeking to engage with the world, and are more than aware that photography is a political tool. And even in a state of anger and shock, they are able to fight back, with the very limited resources they have. In this light, Folman's decision to not to allow them a voice is even more troubling.

To come back to where I started: if Folman’s point was the futility and horror of war, then the film is probably effective. But for us in the Middle East – especially Israelis and Palestinians – this is not enough. Regardless of political opinions, almost everyone in Israel would agree that war is horrible – simply because almost everyone has been through it in some way or another. But what do you do about it? How do you stop the war? I don’t think there is an easy answer, certainly no clear road to “peace”, but I have come to believe that without facing the “enemy” and listening to her/him, no progress is possible. In Vietnam, the Americans could just walk away: shrug off their paranoia about communists taking over the world like domino, and walk away. And whatever traumas the Vietnamese were left with, did not really matter for Americans, because they were on the other side of the ocean. But in the Middle East walking away is not an option. Ignoring the other is not an option. Without the Palestinian viewpoint, we remain in a closed circuit: Israel, holocaust, Europe; Lebanon is not even a real place, only a site to act out and face the horror within us. But stopping the war would be impossible as long as we are locked in this circuit. We need to start listening.

The children of Sabra and Chatila live on: some of them may even be today in Palestine; others are probably in Europe. Reaching out to them and hearing their stories would be far more difficult, but if any attempt to deal with the trauma is serious, it has to be done.

But if anything, these flaws make the film more interesting. Go and watch it.



At 4:11 AM, Blogger ~PakKaramu~ said...

Happy new year

At 11:03 AM, Blogger mink said...

These thoughts were written in early December 2008. They proved precsient in the Gaza war, raging carnage for three weeks.
During these three weeks Ari Folman received the Golden Globe award; he did not mention Gaza in his speech. So far he did not speak against, or for, what has happened there.
This strengthens my thinking: as an "anti-war film", perhaps it's a good one. As a film about the Middle East conflict, this film is deeply, deeply flawed. Folman continues to escape responsibility; but this time he should know better.

At 5:06 PM, Blogger mink said...

I was too harsh on Folman, as apparently he did speak against the Gaza war. Still I wish he had done so in a more forceful way. The success of the film puts him a unique position to make some difference.
Leaving aside Folman, I think the main weakness of the film - the complete shying away from any real engagment with the "enemy", any attempt to dialogue - is a serious and disturbing flaw. It is this blocking-out which has enabled most Israelis to celebrate the Gaza carnage as "victory".


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