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March 06, 2009

Brendan Simms on Israel's first "Vietnam" film: Waltz With Bashir - Ari Folman

Posted by Brendan Simms

Waltz With Bashir
Directed and written by Ari Folman
certificate 18, 2008

"It is the fear", the young Israeli reservist said of his time in the occupied territories, "Wherever you go. It drains you".

"I understand", his interlocutor replied, "you must have been terrified". "No, no", the Israeli drawled, "you don't understand at all - it is their fear. You have guns, and they feel threatened. It is so exhausting".

There is certainly plenty of fear in Ari Folman's adult cartoon-film Waltz with Bashir: the terror of the Lebanese in the path of the invading Israeli army in 1982; the distraught women bewailing the slaughter of the Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatila camps; and not least that of the Israeli soldiers themselves who spray a car carrying an innocent family with bullets in one of the opening sequences of the film. As a result, the viewer is himself left somewhat drained by the end of the performance.

Waltz with Bashir has been hailed as a triumph of modern Israeli cinema. It is not, however, a purely Israeli film, being supported by a whole range of international, especially European backers. Moreover, the target audience is not so much Israeli, or middle eastern as western. What is being offered is nothing less than a globalised Israeli "Vietnam" movie.

The helicopters, the music, the absurd German pornography which the soldiers watch in an abandoned Beirut villa, the gallows humour, the contrast between the trauma of battle and the normality of a home front that didn't care, all this is part of a well-established cinematic tradition, represented by Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and even Forrest Gump.

And when, after a night of blasting into an empty Lebanese orchard, the soldiers wonder what they are supposed to be shooting at, this is surely a homage to Captain Willard, the hero of Apocalypse Now who memorably asked a stoned GI, as he randomly peppered the jungle, "what are you firing at, soldier?"

The plot revolves around the hero's quest to "remember", to recover the bits that he has "not stored" about his time in the Lebanon in the early 1980s, but which have begun to invade his dreams.

By the close of the film it has become clear that the memories he has blocked out relate to the notorious massacre of Palestinian men, women and children in the Sabra and Chatila camps. He did not pull any triggers, but was part of the Israeli army cordon covering the Christian Phalangist militias as they went about their dirty work, perhaps even firing flares to assist them through the night.

His therapist suggests that he is in fact carrying around not only guilt for his own involvement but for the suffering of his own parents in the Nazi camps. Of course, this is not intended to be taken literally, and certainly should not be, as far as scale and conception is concerned. Rather the parallel lies in the circles of complicity, which the director skilfully unravels, showing that the Israeli soldiers who knew what was going on either did not care, thought that it was somebody else's business to stop it, or - in a minority of cases - actually condoned the murder.

It is not quite clear what the cartoon genre does for the film. The cinematography is certainly excellent, and the director has mercifully eschewed the fashionable French yen for ultra-violent comic action. If anything, the film is rather restrained on that front. The 18-classification reflects some brief nudity, semi-erect genitalia, and the depiction of actual dead bodies at the end, when the director shows news images of the aftermath of the massacre. He does so presumably in order to avoid accusations that he has somehow minimized the full graphic horror of the event. But if that is so, then why choose to make a cartoon movie in the first place?

Waltz with Bashir is critical of the war in Lebanon, and in a sense also of Israeli politics as a whole - the explicit comparison with the Nazis can only be understood as a deliberate provocation. It is of a piece with the film Beaufort, which is set in the final days of the Israeli occupation of the south Lebanon, and is intended as a indictment of the futility of that conflict.

Some Israelis take the view that this zest for self-laceration is their greatest weakness. It gives the enemy a stick to beat them with, and undermines morale at home. They note that the United States was able to sustain serious casualties in Korea, while public support was strong, whereas a less intense conflict in Vietnam had to be abandoned in the face of mass protests in American cities.

There is something in this argument. And yet, one can see in the capacity for self-criticism, a feature of all western societies, a sign of great strength. After all, the massacre produced such outrage within Israel itself that an official enquiry was launched, whose findings were damning, and nothing comparable ever recurred.

Likewise, the militarily unsuccessful incursion into Lebanon in July of 2006, resulted in the coruscating Winograd report. Israel's neighbours and enemies have never been able to develop such a spirit of public inquiry, not because they don't need one, but because their rulers fear open discussion. Even a very good recent Lebanese film Caramel, studiously avoided mentioning "the war" (and there are quite a few to choose from).

We need to bear this in mind when watching Waltz with Bashir. It is not that we don't need that sort of thing, it is just that we need it from the Arab side even more. Without comparable productions from Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinian territories themselves, Waltz with Bashir, whatever its artistic merit, resembles nothing so much as clapping with one hand.

The author thanks Mr Ilya Berkovich for his comments and research in support of this review.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

To read Richard D. North's 's take on Waltz With Bashir, see: Do liberal Israeli film-makers have much to tell us about the Middle East's conflicts?

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