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Waltz With Bashir, (Israel/France/Germany/US/Japan/Finland/Switzerland/Belgium/Australia 2008)

Posted by keith1942 on June 25, 2015

waltz with bashir 2

Directed and written by Ari Folman. 90 minutes. Certificate 18. In colour with English subtitles.

I posted a review of this film on ITP World on its release. Much of that review is recycled below and is very critical of the film. The post provoked what I think was the longest and most vitriolic debate on that blog. Much of the debate was not directly about the film but about the larger conflict, one episode of which was depicted in this film. The wider context is dealt with to some degree in Al Nakba. But I have also added comments stimulated by the debate on ITP World.

This film received glowing reviews, frequently using the phrase ‘anti-war’. It is a powerful and imaginative documentary film, though it feels and looks much more like a fictional dramatisation. This is mainly due to the animation techniques, which are used to great effect. The style of animation reminded me of that used in video games: Roy on ITP thought he detected the influence of manga. Either way it gives the film a distinctive visual appearance: and as the film deals with memories and flashbacks this is very effective. It is a film to be seen, and preferably in its proper format on a cinema screen

The film treats of the massacre of thousands of Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps of Chabra and Chatila during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. An invasion astutely launched to overlap with the neo-colonial war by Britain over the Malvinas. So the powerful emotional responses that the film is likely to generate also need to be analysed. Whilst I feel that this is an impressive treatment for an Israeli artist, I still find the film is problematic and shot through with contradictions.

In a seminal article on Hollywood films and Vietnam the sadly deceased Andrew Britton wrote:

“The ‘anti-war’ film tends to protest against war as such from an abstractly moral point of view, in the name, frequently, of a humanist idea. . . . war is extrapolated from its socio-economic causes and functions and we are confronted with its ‘horrors’ – horrors which, given the vague definition of their origins, and the status of the protagonist(s) as victim (s) seems both intolerable and irremediable.”  [Sideshows: Hollywood in Vietnam, in Movie, 27/28, 1981].

These were comments that seemed to me apposite for Waltz with Bashir.

The opening credits are followed by a placing statement, which refers to the ‘war between Israel and Lebanon’. Already this is problematic. This was not a war in the sense of a two-sided conflict; Israel invaded Lebanon with no justification. And that is true of the earlier attacks on Lebanon and of the more recent invasion, none of which receive mention in the film. This is despite the film being completed in 2008, that is, when the more recent atrocities were well-known.

The film uses dreams, interviews with participants and flashbacks to the actual events of 1982. The latter in particular reminded me of the well-known Hollywood film set in Vietnam, Apocalypse Now [a film that Britton’s critically discusses in his article]. There is a similar noirish atmosphere, similar sequences of ‘shock and awe’, and a similar overwhelming sense of masculinity. The few females in this film comprise a woman in a porn film excerpt, a fantasised sex-cum-mother icon, a girl friend who dumped the narrator, and, finally, the women in the Sabra and Chatila camps. I do not recall any female soldiers, though we are constantly informed that women serve in the Israeli Defence Force.  The one woman who has a voice is a psychologist treating Folman. With her exception these are fairly stereotypical characters in war movies.

The film’s focus is on the combatants. These are Folman and his friends and colleagues. Troubled by dreams and memories he seeks out friends who participated in the invasion and also counsellors and psychologists for comment and advice. Thus it is these Israeli voices that present and contextualise the events that unfold. In Folman’s case he finds he does not remember the actual events of the invasion, hence his search to both recover and understand.

Bashir dogs

The first ‘dream’ in the film portrays a group of snarling dogs running through streets and baying at a face in a window: [‘dogs of war’]. We learn that this dream connects to an experience  in the war: the shooting of dogs during the invasion to prevent their barking warning the inhabitants of Lebanese villages. Another harrowing dream  of one character concerns the corpses of horses, [that] ‘broke my heart’. There is always something  problematic about sentiment over animals amidst the corpses of humans.

Clearly the climax of the film is the massacre in the camps: actually perpetrated by Christian Phalangist militia. At the time the Israeli authorities professed ignorance of the appalling atrocities that were perpetrated, but subsequent investigation has clearly exposed their complicity in the horrors. In the case of Folman and his friends, ordinary soldiers, they still maintain that they were unaware until the massacre was already underway or finally ended. Whilst some reviews echo this claim, I found the film very ambiguous on this point. In the flashbacks the Israeli soldiers are clearly seen almost on top of the camps, they stand and watch as the Phalangist militia enter the refugee camps, and there are regular mortar flares fired into the sky by Israelis: illumination by which the massacre is carried out. I was unclear as to whether Folman was in denial as to the crime, or whether the mise en scène subverts the claims of ignorance. And who was being subverted – the filmmakers, the audience, or both?

The film appears to lay the blame on ‘higher authorities’, military commanders or Israeli politicians. We twice see instances where a junior officers reports suspicions of something awry, and then are fobbed off. There seems to be an element of truth in this. But the feelings of guilt that run through the film, and which appear sincere, suggests the characters are not at rest with this. There is one reference in the film to the Nazi Holocaust. It is interesting that the victorious allies at the end of World War II at the Nuremberg Trials and subsequently have not countenanced a defence of ‘following orders’. And, as Hannah Arendt noted, this was not a defence allowed for Adolf Eichmann at his trial in Israel. But to date no serious attempt has been made to try the war crimes in Lebanon or elsewhere in this conflict.

In fact, what the viewers see is not a record of events, but recovered memories of the events. Our final glimpse of Folman is at the end of the last flashback, as his face shows shock as he [apparently] realises the horror that has occurred. The psychologists [or psychiatrists] offer some analysis of these memories – ‘dissociated events’. This phrase by the female psychologist adds an example of a photo-journalist who remained detached until his camera was broken: then the events became ‘traumatic’. This offers a critical avenue for exploring the medium of film itself, but it is not followed up.

There is the reference to the Holocaust in Germany in World War II. This seems to be one of those automatic and defensive references that Israelis offer when their actions are criticised. The psychologist suggests that Folman could be taking on the role of a Nazi: a type of sublimation? This would seem to miss the point, because the parallels are not with Nazi Germany but with the Apartheid [settler] regime in South Africa [and other settler states]. So the absence of the settler set of values, a cause and a factor, reinforces the sense of nameless horror.

This is worth an aside. Through the late C19th and early C20th European powers carried out lesser and even equivalent holocausts across Africa: and indeed elsewhere among the oppressed people and nations. Key powers involved were Britain, Germany, France, Belgium and Holland. Historians tend to identify the European Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s as a ‘unique event’. But in fact what was unique was that the actions normal for colonial occupations were carried out in  a European heartland. And in fact the methods of these actions were those developed against the colonised peoples: notably in South Africa / the British; Angola and Namibia / Germany:  the Congo / Belgium. One can argue that an important aspect of the Nazi discourse was to represent the Jews as a ‘colonial other’. Indeed the largest and most horrendous killings took place in Eastern Europe where there were also massacres of non-Jewish inhabitants – the Nazi Lebensraum has strong associations with colonialism.

The absence of the context is again a parallel with Apocalypse Now . The latter film totally fails to deal with the factors for the US presence in Vietnam. Folman’s film never attempts to explain the Israeli presence in Lebanon. And, like Apocalypse Now, the ‘enemy’ is shadowy and predominately depersonalised. There are no Palestinians or Lebanese in the contemporary sequences. And in the flashbacks, for most of the time, we see only fighters, termed ‘terrorists’: and victims of the Israeli actions. Andrew Briton also critically comments on the source novella for Apocalypse Now, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Whilst that novella does detail some of the crimes against the Congolese, [fictionalising actual historical horrors], the title indicates how Conrad failed to overcome the ‘otherness’ that the colonialists attribute to the natives.

waltz camps

Real Palestinians do appear at the end of the film when the animated flashback is transformed into actual footage as the survivors of the massacre finally leave and then return to the camp. This is shocking horror. Unfortunately whilst powerful, I find it [as Britton did in the Vietnam films] ‘both ‘intolerable’ but ‘irremediable’. Roy on ITP World made the point that the use of actuality footage for this sequence can be seen to re-enforce the documentary factuality of the animation. As is so often the case, even in liberal Israeli films, we never hear the voice of the Palestinians. They are either terrorists or victims: they remain the other.

The problem with this is highlighted in a stanza by the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish:

 You standing at the doorstep, enter

And drink Arabic coffee with us

(you might sense you’re human like us)

you standing at the doorstep of houses,

get out of our mornings,

we need reassurance that we

are human like you!

[State of Siege, translation Fady Joudah, 2007].

How rare is any sense of Palestinian humanity in the dominant discourses of Israeli society. Apparently Folman’s liberalism and guilt do not extend that far. In fairness they do extend some way beyond that of most Israeli artworks. Whatever its limitations, Waltz with Bashir shows a welcome confrontation with one of the darker passages in Israel’s occupation of Arab lands. So this is definitely a film to see and to ponder. But audiences will ponder in terms of the experiences, attitudes and values that they bring to the film. It was clear in the ITP World debate that some people did not share my response and, indeed, took a fairly antagonistic one.

These include interpretations of the film and its techniques. One sequence that was critically applauded in some reviews was an animated sequence of an Israeli soldier’s actions. which also provide the film’s title. His ‘waltz’ is a skilful dance between live firing, and looks rather like a sequence in some computer games. This again is a parallel with Apocalypse Now, especially the notorious ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’ sequence’. That is, war as spectacle. Such visual and aural imagery offers a depoliticised version of wartime events. In Coppola’s film we do see the bodies of the slain civilians, something that only appears at the end  of Waltz with Bashir.

Waltzing

Some comments argued that the film offered a ‘subjective’ view of the experiences and events and that therefore the more critical stance is,

outside the remit of the film which filters events, literally, through the subjectivity of the participants.

I do not think this is accurate. It is true that the narrative is constructed around the search by Folman and his friends to reconstruct their memories and the events from their past. But as is often the case when films use subjective sequences and flashbacks what actually appears is rather more objective, the omniscient viewpoint which shows events, including those that particular characters presumably did not see or even hear. The importance of the soundtrack is that we hear only the voices of the Israelis’. There is also what seem to be rather ironic use of music. This is the case with the song ‘Good Morning Lebanon’. However we also hear a Chopin Waltz and a work by Bach, both rather puzzled me. The magisterial The Battle of Algiers uses Bach to parallel the humanity of both sides of the conflict, even when we see the use of  ‘inhuman tactics’.

A phrase that also occurred in the debate was that of ‘the burden of representation’. This phrase has occurred a number of times in discussions and arguments between myself and others over criticisms of films. It is the idea that , as one comment penned,

I think the film clearly show Israeli complicity in the massacre and we can ask for no more than that (except for the opportunity for Palestinians to have their say).

I certainly ask for more. This is that peculiar British disease of balance, so beloved by the BBC. Balance ‘perhaps like beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. This is, of course, a question of ideology. That is a term that I now use sparingly because it usages are so varied and so contradictory. Marx penned two important aspects to ideology. One is the dominance of certain ideas and interests: Zionism certainly gets this through its support by the dominant power, the USA. But equally ideology is about a surface view, that fails to discern the underlying social relations. In the case of Zionism, this film and its supporters fail to discern the neo-colonial relations of the Israeli state vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Israel is a settler regime: note the UN recognition specifically ignores one of the basic tenets of its own Charter.

Article 73

Members of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount, and accept as a sacred trust the obligation to promote to the utmost, within the system of international peace and security established by the present Charter, the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories, and, to this end:

  1. to ensure, with due respect for the culture of the peoples concerned, their political, economic, social, and educational advancement, their just treatment, and their protection against abuses;

  2. to develop self-government, to take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples, and to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions, according to the particular circumstances of each territory and its peoples and their varying stages of advancement;…

The words of Franz Fanon are so obvious applicable to the Zionist ‘homeland’ and the occupied territories:

The zone where the natives live is not complementary to the zone in habited by the settlers. The two zones are opposed, but not in the service of a higher unity. Obedient to the rules of pure Aristotelian logic, they both follow the princi0le of reciprocal exclusivity. No conciliation is possible, for of the two terms, one is superfluous. The settler’s town is a strongly-built town, all made of stone and steel. It is a brightly-lit town; the streets are covered in asphalt, and the garbage-cans can swallow all the leavings, unseen, unknown and hardly thought about …

The town belonging to the colonized people, or at least the native town, the Negro village, the medina, the reservation, is a place of ill-fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not where, nor how. It is a world without spaciousness; men live there on top of each other, and their huts are built one on top of the other. The native town is a hungry town, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light. …. (Concerning Violence in The Wretched of the Earth, Trans. Constance Farrington, 1967).

Palestinian camp

Palestinian camp

I would add, that as with the ‘war’ between Israel and Lebanon, matters are not equal in any sense. Waltz with Bashir received festival screenings, a number of Awards and a fairly extensive cinema release – takings surpassed $12 million. Whilst Palestinian films have flourished in recent years they are by comparison ‘mégotage’  [in the words of Ousmane Sembène]. One only has to compare the Film Industries that lined up to fund this Israeli production. A friend of mine frequently uses a ‘what if …’ scenario. I have reservation about this tactic but certainly ‘what if’ we had a film of memory recovery by a German involved in camp atrocities in the 1940s. The film would have to negotiate the limitations [some legal] in addressing the values of the Fascist regimes. A film that addressed this issue partially, The Reader (2008), evoked praise but also questioning, as with this by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian (2nd January 2009),

Everyone involved in this film is of the highest possible calibre, but their combined and formidable talents could not annul my queasiness that the question of Nazi war guilt and the death camps had been re-imagined in terms of a middlebrow sentimental-erotic fantasy. This was, I admit, a problem I had with the original novel, and the movie treatment has not alleviated it.

But on Waltz with Bashir, though he has reservation, he ends:

This is still an extraordinary film – a military sortie into the past in which both we and Folman are embedded like traumatised reporters.

Presumably not as traumatised as the Palestinians.

There were also debates about contextual issues. At one point I bought up the Zionist rhetoric of  ‘a land without people’. In fact, it seems that this is an area of debate between Zionists and anti-Zionists over the extent to which this was ever widely used. I have certainly heard or read it in Zionist publicity. More to the point it was and remains the object of Zionist strategy. So Al Nakba demonstrates how before and during 1948 the Zionists attempted to empty the land of Palestinians. And the example of the settlement programme, blockades and barriers can be seen as an extension of this.

Here again we have an area of omission. The film  frequently provides testimony from the Israeli soldiers, who appear young, inexperienced and out of their depth in the conflict. This rather contradicts the publicity one sees of the Israeli Defence Force as a crack hard-line military force. And it also begs the education [in the broad social sense] of Israel’s citizens and soldiers. There is plenty of evidence that the attitude of a majority of Israeli/Jewish citizens have a racist attitude to the Palestinians. Since the most recent war against Gaza courageous Israeli anti-Zionists have published online commentaries by soldiers involved. Many of them clearly treated the Palestinians as some species of animals rather than as fellow humans.

The Palestinian film Five Broken Cameras shares with Waltz with Bashir a subjective and distinctive cinematic treatment of memories and experiences. However the Palestinian film also features the enemy, visually and orally. A commentator thought this the film managed to do this only negatively. But my sense of the Palestinian film is that the Israeli’s are the enemy not the ‘other’. The latter are exactly what Palestinians are in Zionist discourse and in Waltz with Bashir. Of course this is an honourable representation which they share with Native Americans, Afro-Americans, Vietnamese and many other oppressed groups and peoples. I would be happier if I thought a larger section of the audience carried an awareness of this into the cinema.

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