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As a depiction of the futility of war and the confusion, terror and brutalisation of those who take part in it Waltz With Bashir is a powerful example of the genre. This is partly due to the narrative approach, where the protagonist goes on a journey to recover his inaccessible memories of war. It is also due to the use of terrific animation, providing a fresh and affecting portrayal of boys at war. On a personal note I was struck by the fact that many of the IDF soldiers were no older than I was at the time, being on the other side and equally terrified.
The film explores the nature of memory and how we avoid cognitive dissonance by suppressing actions and events that don’t accord with how we see ourselves. Thus our protagonist, incited by a colleague’s own memories surfacing as bad dreams, tries to uncover the events he has blanked. So far so good, and the matter-of-fact way that he approaches his task through interviews is nicely offset by the dream-like flashback sequences.
For instance the infamous siege of Beirut predating the massacre is barely mentioned. Three months of intense Israeli bombing that, according to the UN, killed seven thousand people and injured eighty thousand, 80% of whom were civilians. The numbers killed were twice the largest estimate of the numbers killed in Sabra & Shatila by Phalangists. That in itself poses an interesting question about whether killings performed by the state are less heinous than those performed by thugs, but unfortunately there was no opportunity to ask it.
There’s more context missing: when Bashir was killed, the PLO had already left Beirut under the supervision of a multinational force, leaving little resistance in the city (apart from Lebanese leftist groups) and none in the camps. The film gives the impression that it was Palestinians who killed Bashir, a logistical impossibility. (It was probably the Syrians.) Bashir’s Phalangists were not intent on revenge – no doubt they were fuelled, along with drugs and alcohol, by his death – but their enraged and futile intent was always to ‘cleanse’ Lebanon of Palestinians, and here’s the awkward and unspoken truth – it was an intent of which Israel was well aware and took full advantage. The Phalangists had made no secret of wanting an ‘ethnically pure’ and ‘Christian only’ Lebanon, an interesting thread the film avoids pulling, and nor does Folman make use of the irony that the Phalangists (Israel’s ally throughout the invasion) were created by Bashir’s grandfather after an inspirational visit to Nazi Germany.
Then there’s the massacre itself. Basic research reveals the following: a pre-massacre meeting between the commander of Israeli forces in Beirut and the Phalangist chief of staff took place, at which Israel provided aerial photos of the camps and agreed to supply logistical support, wilfully disregarding what they knew Phalangists were capable of. Although the Israeli headquarters overlooking the camp was mentioned in the film, the fact that there was a Phalangist liaison officer present was not. In contact with militia in the camp, he gave Israeli intelligence officers no doubt as to what was going on. Under orders Israeli soldiers repeatedly turned pleading civilians back into the camps, ignoring their exhortations that they were being raped and massacred. Dramatically speaking this would have made for a much more powerful example of individual culpability for the protagonist than just being there when flares were fired, as shown in the film. This moment of revelation is weakened because again the director is perhaps being too autobiographical. Many IDF soldiers reported what was going on to their superiors, all were told not to worry about it. Although an example if this was shown in the film, the collective blind eye turned by IDF command was understated. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the fact that the IDF and Israeli Intelligence were in control of (and present inside) the stadium where truck-loads of camp residents were taken to be ‘processed’ was also left out.
All these omissions serve to water down Israel’s role in the affair, and the result is a disservice to the viewer and to Folman, who left too much unsaid.
Having said all that Waltz with Bashir is still a powerful and important film, for all kinds of reasons, not least of all because it gives the victims some acknowledgement, but also for those who let it happen. It was always going to take an Israeli to step up and ask, ‘What were we doing?’ No one else can do that for them. Folman, to his credit, has stepped up, but has only gone so far. It’s as if he took the brave step of deciding that he needed to hold up a mirror, but shied away from looking into it for too long.
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