Friday, March 6, 2009

Waltzing Alone

Earlier this week I saw the film Waltz With Bashir, an Israeli film (Hebrew with subtitles) nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Apparently the film was quite popular, though controversial, in Israel and was pushed heavily by the Israeli government for Oscar consideration. Waltz With Bashir is an animated (mostly) film dealing with Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. As a work of art, Waltz With Bashir is tremendous. The story is both gripping and compelling, the animation is unique in its implementation and style, and even the music helps set the time and place. The viewer cannot help but be drawn into the protagonist’s quest to remember the nature of his involvement in the war.

While the comparison may not be fair and the analogy may not be perfect, for an American audience Waltz With Bashir is somewhat reminiscent of films like The Deer Hunter, Platoon, and Apocalypse Now. And therein lies the problem. When an American audience sees one of those films, they are (usually) already intimately familiar with Vietnam and the events being recounted. Similarly, in Israel, audiences are completely familiar with the invasion of Lebanon, including the years of the Lebanese civil war, the PLO terrorist attacks launched from southern Lebanon, and the Syrian involvement in Lebanon. Israeli audiences are knowledgeable about Bashir Gemayal, the Phalange party, the disputes between Sunnis, Shi’ites, Druze, and Maronite Catholics (among others) that were at the heart of the Lebanese Civil War. And Israeli audiences are acutely aware of the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps as well as the findings of the Kahan Commission that investigated that incident and the eventual political fallout that impacted the Israeli political landscape. But I suspect that very few members of an American audience will have much, if any, knowledge or understanding of these events.

To Israelis (and, I suspect, many Jewish supporters of Israel), the issues that are at the core of Waltz With Bashir provide an ideal opportunity for communal soul-searching and coming to terms with history, much as a film like Platoon served a similar (though not identical) role in America. Israelis could discuss among themselves whether they thought the Lebanon War (often referred to as Israel’s Vietnam) was a just war, whether they believe that Israel gained anything by its involvement in Lebanon, whether the type of force used against the Palestinian terrorists operating in southern Lebanon was appropriate, whether, by the time of the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, Israel had learned from past mistakes, and whether Israel was right to ally itself with the Maronites or intervene in the Lebanese civil war. Even more importantly, Waltz With Bashir gave Israeli audiences the chance to have a heartfelt discussion about the cost of sending young soldiers off to war (especially a complicated war that the soldiers may not have fully understood). And finally, the film gave Israeli audiences, operating with twenty-five years’ hindsight, the chance and reason to talk about Israel’s complicity in the Sabra and Shatila massacre, Ariel Sharon’s involvement, and the findings of the Kahan Commission. In other words, I suspect that to an Israeli audience, viewing Waltz With Bashir is an almost cathartic exercise.

One other crucial difference between an Israeli audience and an American audience is worth noting: Israelis also come to films like this with a different perspective than American audiences due to the fact that almost all Israeli youth serve a period of time in the Israel Defense Forces, unlike the US military which remains an all volunteer force. During Vietnam, the US had a draft, but even then many Americans never served. In Israel, all but the ultra-Orthodox and Israel’s Arab population serve in the military for several years after high school and then for a period of time every year until about age 45. Israel’s Bedouin and Druze populations do serve in the Israel Defense Forces. So, essentially every single Israeli watching the film has served in the military [or will, if not yet 18] and, most likely, is continuing such service. Thus, the impact of the film and the issues it raises are much, much more direct and personal to an Israeli audience.

But to an audience without the understanding of the time and events, Waltz With Bashir is a completely different film. To those viewers, I think the film does an excellent job as a standard anti-war film, arguing that violence may not really serve a purpose and it is the innocent who most suffer. More problematically, for those who are already convinced of Israel’s “war crimes” (and here I mean not just Sabra and Shatila, but also the alleged “war crimes” in Israel’s efforts to stop terrorist attacks against its citizens, including the recent incursion into Gaza), Waltz With Bashir will do nothing more than reinforce the already held belief that Israel is culpable or, perhaps, that Israelis are bloodthirsty monsters who haven’t learned from the past.

This last point is, I believe, almost accidentally made by the film. As we see Israeli soldiers marching and riding into Lebanon, we see them firing at everything. And, with one notable exception, we never see those firing at the Israeli soldiers. One time, we see a group of PLO fighters after an engagement with Israeli soldiers, but they are not firing their weapons at that point. Again, with one exception, every time that we see shots being fired at Israelis they are coming from darkened windows, buildings in the distance, or places unknown. The enemy is never given a face. The one exception involves a group of Israeli soldiers walking through an orchard when a young boy fires an RPG at the Israelis. The boy is then killed in a hail of gunfire. Thus, the only time that a face is put upon the enemy is in the guise of a child. I suspect that the filmmaker was not suggesting that all of the Palestinian fighters were innocent; nor do I suspect that he was even suggesting that Israel is wrong to try to stop terrorism. Instead, given that the focus of the movie is upon the impact of war upon those who fought it, I suspect that the filmmaker was purposely dehumanizing the enemy (or making the enemy invisible) in order to ensure that the focus of the film and the audience’s thought process remained on the Israeli soldiers about whom the story is written. Depictions of those that the Israelis are fighting against could detract from the self-analysis that the filmmaker is striving for. An visible enemy allows the audience to focus outward; an invisible enemy forces the audience to focus inward.

(And here I want to briefly note one other interesting scene in the film [sorry, in advance for the spoiler]. At one point, the narrator mentions the advent of car bombings. Several soldiers are sent off to patrol and told to be on the watch for a red Mercedes that intelligence says will be used as a car bomb. While waiting and watching, an ice cream truck approaches the soldiers. Frankly, it isn’t clear whether the ice cream truck is real, an illusion, or a way to bring the events of Lebanon back to the present or to things familiar to the soldiers. But in any event, as I watched that ice cream truck approach the soldiers’ position, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was the car bomb. I don’t know if others had the same reaction; perhaps those who have not seen ambulances used to transport suicide bombers or women who pack explosives around their waists to disguise themselves as pregnant would never think that an ice cream truck might bring murder and death. I don’t know. But that brief moment had quite an impact on me.)

So here is the problem. Israelis watch Waltz With Bashir. They are engaged by the film and the issues that it raises. They understand those issues and they use the film to help them look at themselves and their country. They can synthesize the message from the film with their own viewpoints and those of their friends, family, and other Israelis, to help them make informed decisions about what is best for themselves and for Israel. And then they can go to the polls and elect leaders and try to work within their democratic system to move Israeli politics, culture, and actions in the direction that best fits their will and view. Just like here in America.

But that same discussion, the opportunity for cathartic self-analysis, the recognition that history isn’t always pretty or friendly, and the communal mea culpa for having done bad things is not going on in Lebanon or Syria or Iran or Egypt or the rest of the Muslim world. As Israelis try to come to terms with their own past, most of the Muslim world still refuses to take a critical self-analysis and examination of historical events, let alone actions like terrorism. The Muslim world is still watching films and television mini-series that glorify anti-Semitism, that refuse to acknowledge any historical Jewish links to Jerusalem, that dramatize the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that advocate the martyrdom of children in the name of killing "Zionists”. The Muslim world is happy to examine the wrongdoings of Israel, but is wholly unwilling to examine their own culpability; in fact, the Muslim world is even seeking to use the United Nations to limit critical discussion of Islam itself.

And in the West, audiences who may already be hostile to Israel (or even merely ambivalent) and who don’t understand how an Israeli audience (for whom the film was made) sees the film or the issues raised therein, will watch Waltz With Bashir and take away from it what they already “know”: that Israel is the “bad guy” who is at least complicit in, if not outright guilty of, the murders of women and children. The audience with whom I saw the film (there was a panel discussion following the movie) included many people who took from the movie the simple message that “war is bad” and “stop the violence” and those people seemed interesting in helping to promote peace. But right now, only one side is listening to those voices; in fact, only one side has a means of communication to which those voices can be addressed. How, precisely, does a concerned American tell Hamas or Hezbollah to “stop the violence”?

Thus, while Israelis' engage in dialogue over moral dilemmas and the consequences of actions, that dialogue takes place in a vacuum while those around them may use that dialogue, not as a point of pride or as evidence of an open and honest society, but, rather, as a tool of condemnation.

As I said during the panel discussion following the film (less articulately, I’m sure), Israelis want to talk about their issues and they want to discuss these issues with the Muslim world in general and the Palestinians in particular. But, at present, the Israelis are having a dialogue by themselves as the Muslim world refuses to look inward and backward at itself. So, for the time being, the Israeli self-analysis and catharsis facilitated by Waltz With Bashir is not a two-way street; in essence, Israelis are waltzing alone.

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