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March 06, 2009

Richard D. North asks, do liberal Israeli film-makers have much to tell us about the Middle East's conflicts? Waltz With Bashir - Ari Folman; The Lemon Tree - Eran Riklis

Posted by Richard D. North

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

The Lemon Tree
Directed and co-written by Eran Riklis
certificate , 2008

Against the odds, Waltz With Bashir turned out to be engrossing and memorable. It tells the story - I'm sure you know by now - of a middle-aged film producer who finds himself disinterring memories of his youthful involvement in the Sabra and Shatila massacres of Palestinian refugees by Christian Phalangists during the "First Lebanon War" in 1982.

The film is of course wringingly wet. I take it that the arts "community" in Israel is largely composed of whatever constitutes the Guardianista in that country. What's more, this film (like The Lemon Tree) was partly financed by European arts quangos and foundations, and they don't tend to celebrate the IDF or those who send it into action. So it is no surprise that this is a mea culpa. Of course one loves Israel - and supports it - because it is a liberal democracy in which worried liberal and illiberal dissidence is a big feature. By the way, this film isn't one: it achieves both intimacy and big-screen action drama by being almost entirely a cartoon. The device works beautifully.

Our nineteen year old "hero" is in a flashback (or recovered memory). His head spinning, he bowls down the coast in a gunboat (fantasising all the way) and is lobbed ashore with his little band of brothers. Frightened witless, they empty their machine guns into a stray Merc which turns out to be carrying a harmless family, presumably killing everyone. And so the war continues, with more or less boorish officers commanding their youngish recruits - heads full of Bowie - into action.

The waltz in the title refers to a brilliantly bizarre moment when a young soldier - spooked, hacked-off with cowering, whatever - defies all logic and discipline and dances in the street indiscriminately spraying apartment blocks with fire whilst posters of President Bashir loom over him. One hopes he hit some snipers and no innocent residents.

Surely the point of these two sequences is that Folman was party to disgraceful encounters which show that the Israeli military is often - or at least sometimes - out of control, amateur, and even plain nasty. To those who don't like Israel's militarism, this is a sign of a guilt they have long suspected and complained about. To me - a friend of Israel even when it is wrong - the events are an embarrassment, obviously, but a reminder that it's best not to provoke a military response from anyone, even a fine democracy.

When we come to the film's big set piece, the massacres, events seem more morally ambiguous. As told here, the Israeli army watched the killings unfold - but not for very long: it intervened when it became obvious what the Phalangists were up to. We aren't told that the Israelis wanted the Phalangists to go into the camps because they believed there were terrorists in them. Any bit of this story may not have been well told in this movie, but the point is that Folman is clear that it was awful to be an Israeli grunt watching it unfold.

One may say that Folman is being self-indulgent. He is feeling guilty now, but doesn't seem to have much bothered about it all for a quarter of a century. Isn't it a bit late? Maybe that's the point: this film may be an apology and a rallying-cry, as though to say: "Now I have woken up, I want us all to reconsider what we have done and are doing?". I can't say.

But I am sure that I like the people in the film. I was very drawn to the cool Israeli based in Holland who was in the army with Folman. Even in cartoon form, he is sleek and composed. He seems to feel that shit happens, and that there is little point making too much fuss about it. It is not nothing that he made his money years ago selling falafels to Dutchmen: a European Jew selling Middle Eastern delicacies to Europeans. I suspect that it is a liberal Israeli trope that for Jews hereabouts authenticity derives from a wider middle eastern identity and even an Arab one.

The film has been accused of indulging in psycho-babble. It is true that a psychologist friend is shown to say that Folman should not be surprised that the memory of the massacres was blanked for so long. In this view, Folman couldn't be expected to see the massacres in the Palestinian camps straight because as a transplanted European Jew he is trapped in a narrative of camps and guards and extermination and it is too amazingly powerful for ordinary cognition.

Well why not? I felt strongly that I could have met any of these people in exactly the contexts portrayed in the movie and listened to them unload their anxieties in pretty much these terms. They seemed completely real and familiar to me.

I went to The Lemon Tree looking for pleasure. I like peasant farms, and Defence Ministers, so putting the two head to head ought to be fun. It was, quite. But in this piece, there was allegorical overload of an oppressive order. Every damn thing in the human story on the ground was related to the grand narrative of the Palestine Question.

The story concerns Salma, a Palestinian widow who rather hopelessly farms an inherited lemon grove with a nice old boy she has also inherited. The hotshot minister and his pained wife take up occupancy of a large house by the grove. God knows why, granted that the Wall of Separation is about to get built at the end of his garden and between them. The Israeli security forces get very jumpy about this situation, claiming the grove will give cover to snipers and so on. The movie is widely touted as being based on a real incident, but so far as I can see the director may have played very imaginatively with whatever facts he had and the result seems quite improbable.

Anyhoo. The minister shelters behind rationality, hierarchy and order as he tells his wife to keep her nose out of the row. Thus does civilisation - and many a divorce - turn brutal. Salma is warned by her own Arab powers-that-be that she must not negotiate with the enemy. Grievance has made refuseniks of the Palestinians.

Every other kind of parallel is also milked. The minister's wife has communications difficulty with her child studying in her Washington university. So does Salma, with her plongeur son in a Washington restaurant. The daughter chats with mum on broadband video. The son takes snatched calls on his impatient boss's business line.

This being a liberal piece, Salma is a sort of Native American or a Tahitian: noble, passive, gorgeous, na´ve. She falls in love with her young lawyer, and is often to be seen dithering between wearing her hair in or out of the veil. She's discovering herself, see? One wished she'd get on with it. Hiam Abass is striking in the part, but one wanted to give her a good shake and see if something like animation could be got out of her.

The Palestinians are portrayed as pretty good eggs with a slightly old-fashioned idea of patriarchy. So far as one could see, the film's stance is that political resistance is wholly natural, but the Arabs ought to watch their misogyny, please.

Salma does lose her rag when the minister runs short of lemons for a party and sends a platoon in to rob the grove which has been declared off limits to its owner. Geddit? If only the Israelis had asked nicely, the Palestinians would have given them everything they needed and no bones broken. We have more of that authenticity thing: Salma remarks (it is one of her few moments of sparkiness) that the Israelis love Arab musicians but don't understand them.

Oh, and the minister suggests that a party should be catered by a local Arab restaurant, but for god's sake make sure he remembers to be Kosher or the orthodox will fuss. In the end, the Israeli love of the law is shown to produce a nonsense solution to the law suit Salma brings.

This might have been a marvel of engagement. Instead, it lectured us too much.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

To read Brendan Simms's take on Waltz With Bashir, see: Israel's first "Vietnam" film.

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