The Futility of Truth or Reconciliation in Waltz with Bashir

[26 June 2009]

By Luke Z. Fenchel

“Where are you Arabs?!” a grieving Palestinian woman begs to a camera crew filming the aftermath of the 1982 massacre in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila neighborhoods. “Produce images and distribute, produce images and distribute” she pleads, “and send them overseas!”

These lines appear without subtitles, and remain the un-translated last words of Ari Folman’s new film, Waltz with Bashir.

cover art

Waltz With Bashir

Director: Ari Folman
Cast: Ron Ben Yisahi, Boaz Rein Buskila, Ori Sivan, Roni Dayg, Carmi Cnaa’n

(US DVD: 23 Jun 2009)

The film, Israel’s entry for the 2008 foreign language Oscar, the winner of the prestigious Golden Globe, originally appeared in the US in Hebrew with English subtitles, and the DVD, released 23 June, adds a version that is dubbed in English. Despite DVD’s linguistic options—the film’s subtitles have been improved, and even the credits appear in English rather than Hebrew—this mourning mother, and all Palestinians in the film, are in effect silenced.

The unidentified woman pleads for the distribution of the images of the mass-murder, and one wonders if by denying her a voice, Folman is playing a private joke on himself, commending himself for fulfilling her mission. Or does he believe he is actually helping us “feel” rather than “hear” her pain? The images are also notable as they are the only live action footage in an otherwise “animated documentary” that seamlessly travels between the real and the surreal while exploring war’s psychic trauma.

“From the very beginning of writing the screenplay I knew it will end with live footage,” Folman’s commentary reads over shocking footage of the massacre. “I just wanted to prevent a situation where someone, somewhere, anywhere will see Waltz with Bashir and walk out of the theater and think that it’s a very cool animated film with great drawings and music and it’s an anti-war movie. It’s much more than that and I think those 50 seconds of live footage it puts the whole film into proportion. It puts my personal story into proportion. It puts the animation into proportion.”

With the abrupt transition from animated dream sequence to the final, arresting moments of actual footage, Waltz with Bashir transforms from an ostensibly personal film into an unquestionably political one. Praised for its “searing moral power” (New York Times’ critic A.O. Scott) and lauded almost universally in the US, Folman’s film undoubtedly pushes the limits of filmmaking in examining culpability and responsibility in service of truth and reconciliation. But for a film about the trauma of genocide, Waltz with Bashir fails to address the structures of power, and arguably perpetuates the very atrocities that it sets out to condemn.

Within the four corners of the film, left on the cutting room floor, and lurking just outside Folman’s frame, is the broader claim—taboo in his home country and in America—that state sponsored violence exists not to prevent massacres like Sabra and Shatila, but rather to perpetuate such atrocities as part of the core of the state’s very existence.

Ultimately it is difficult to emerge from the film without the impression that both truth and reconciliation are impossible in a society that has been complicit with, or has perpetuated genocide. In the end, Waltz with Bashir is a film whose bravery is only matched by its ambition, but if it is, as Folman hopes, to be heard as more than an anti-war movie, it must be asked what does the film have to say for itself?

Unconventional Medium for Conventional Message
For all of the buzz of technical innovation, Waltz with Bashir fits comfortably within two well-worn genres: the “weeping and shooting” soldier trope of sensitive Israelis dismayed or guilt-ridden at having to go to war, and the classic war movie. A US audience is likely to be far more familiar with the latter, but the other trope is just as present in artistic representation in Israel.

The genre is summed up by a professor of linguistics: “One…encourages rituals of self-accusation, shame and remorse. All this neither hampers nor mitigates the calculated, efficient and effective implementation of the atrocities of war on the operative level. On the contrary: the former may serve as a justification and affirmation of the latter.” But all guilty acts are not absolved through regret, and the soldiers’ alleged innocence fails to exonerate the violent nature of their State.

Waltz with Bashir centers on the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in 1982 and the massacre of Palestinian civilians, the events unfolding through the first-hand recollections and nightmares of Israeli soldiers. Carried out by The Phalange, a Lebanese Christian militia Folman accurately paints as a group of blood-thirsty extremists seeking revenge for the assassination of President-Elect Bashir Gemayel. The incident is one of the most notorious massacres of the last 30 years, and was committed under Israeli protection and with its leaders’ complicity.

The film begins simply enough. Folman is visited by his friend Boaz (one of two interviewees who requested anonymity, voiced by an actor named Boaz Rein Buskila) who has been terrorized by a recurring nightmare involving the ghosts of 26 dogs he murdered while serving during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon more than 20 years before. Folman, troubled that he has no recollection of his army service, dreams that very night of a ravaged Beirut lit up by flares. 

The film proceeds with a series of Israeli soldiers recounting their involvement in the 1982 war. Many have repressed precise occurrences, but with the help of a smarmy psychiatrist, a thoughtful expert in post-traumatic stress, some marijuana, and a heavy reliance on hallucination/dream recollection, Folman pieces together a narrative of events leading up to the massacre.

Slipping In and Out of Reality

Slipping In and Out of Reality

While clearly placing the blame of the atrocity on the side of the Christian Phalanges militia, Waltz with Bashir also implicates the State of Israel for its complicity. This implication is powerful, and the film is brave to broach the topic.

Because the recollections of the eight men who were interviewed for the film slide so easily from reality into fantasy, animation is the perfect media to represent their stories; an old Israeli army boat is transformed into a party boat, and the titular image, a soldier and his MAG gun waltzing through a hail of bullets in front of a huge poster of Bashir.

But under the guise of personal narrative, Folman never questions whether the State has any right to be in Lebanon in the first place. A scene—familiar to fans of war movies—involving a soldier’s company entering into Southern Lebanon offers the trope of soldiers journeying into a seemingly idyllic virgin land. But the area is safe for these soldiers precisely because it has been ravaged by an earlier Israeli-supporting militia.

Similarly, an intrepid journalist, Ron Ben Yisahl, is portrayed as a superhero in Folman’s film, outraged at the atrocities of Sabra and Shatila, to the point of calling on the phone his “friend” Defense Minister Sharon to inform him of his outrage. But Yisahl lives in a flat outside of Beirut, clearly provided because of his country’s place as occupiers, and never questions the war or occupation itself.

While clearly placing the blame of the atrocity on the side of the Christian Phalanges militia, Waltz with Bashir also implicates the State of Israel for its complicity. This implication is powerful, and the film is brave to broach the topic.

But what of Israeli soldiers? In interviews and in the publicity materials, Folman has stated, “Israeli soldiers had nothing to do with [the massacre].” In a undated Q&A included in the DVD release, Folman answers question in front of a red-carpet event with Variety magazine logo on the wall behind him. Between questions about the current life of a romantic figure in the film (she was married and divorced and married again), and why two interviewees elected to be voiced by actors (he didn’t want the guys at work to know he smokes marijuana), Folman answers a question under the inter-title “HISTORY”.

“A lot of people thought that the massacre was done by Israeli troops,” Folman says. “And suddenly they see for the first time in [Waltz with Bashir]—we had more than half a million in admissions just in France—that it was done by the Phalangist Christian regime. And I mean, the Israeli government understood very quickly and cleverly that this propaganda can’t be bought with money and the film does it. So it’s another reason they support the film.”

Though there is no question that it was the Phalange that committed the atrocities in the Sabra and Shatila neighborhoods, Folman’s film places the Israeli soldiers right outside the perimeter. One can’t help but be struck by how the film easily slips from the personal account to what might pass as political propaganda.

The Personal and the Political
Until the last scene, Waltz with Bashir is a series of personal accounts. Folman finds few friends who can clearly recall their experience in Lebanon. Instead, the movie comes off as a hybrid between an oral history and a hallucination.

Then, in the film’s closing minutes, Folman abruptly abandons both his personal narrative and his animated technique, choosing instead to end Waltz with Bashir with live action television coverage. The Arabic speaker also contributes her voice to the chorus of personal experiences, but unlike the pictures that accompany her story, which are crystal clear, her words, a call to arms and a plea for unfiltered distribution, remain un-translated. 

Folman’s film earlier finds empathy in two non-human species: dogs and horses, and one can’t help but wonder if Folman purposefully denies the woman her voice so that she might appear as a wounded and victimized animal rather than a human being, with a language (Arabic), nationality (Palestinian), and cause (outrage).

Ironically, Waltz with Bashir opened in New York and Los Angeles on 26 December, the very day Israel launched its most recent military campaign on the Gaza Strip. An estimated 1,300 civilians have been killed in a massacre whose images were censored by an Israeli army that prevented international journalists from entering the occupied area.

The few images that did emerge appeared on Al Jazeera, capturing the unspeakable carnage of men, women and children; images that were so similar to those from the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

Just more than a week before Folman’s film was to be released in the US, Israel’s new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the world and spoke of the possibility of a Palestinian state. His intended audience included US President Barack Obama, who has made many attempts in the early part of his term to engage the Arabic-speaking world in a dialogue. But a dialogue, as President Obama has repeatedly noted, involves listening, and it is hard not to hear the mourning mother in Folman’s film again pleading to be heard.

One may only hope that things will improve. If not, perhaps 20 years from now, another filmmaker will release a tragic work to a chorus of critical acclaim, a film that may be titled Waltz with Abbas.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/107142-the-futility-of-truth-or-reconciliation-in-waltz-with-bashir/