Waltz with Bashir – rare peek behind the curtain

February 26, 2009

I want to weigh in on a discussion about Waltz with Bashir, an animated vision/documentary/philosophical conversation by Ari Folman on the Lebanon War of 1982. Gideon Levy, a controversial writer for Ha’aretz newspaper, an Israeli left wing newspaper, wrote that he thought the film was brilliant the first time he saw it and then the second time it enraged him. (Levy’s piece) If I could condense why, it’s because he felt it should be an anti-war film and realized it was not.

I agree with him. It is not an anti-war film. And that is exactly one of the reasons I think it is so brilliant. It is an anti-war film because it is not an anti-war film. What do I mean by this? Folman pulls back the curtain and lets us witness what he and his companions remember of that war. They speak to each other tenderly, openly, guardedly, haltingly, hesitantly, even ambivalently searching for what they have forgotten and repressed. This is not a work of journalism, and not a work of righteousness.

Levy wants Folman to weigh in on the current Gaza conflict, he wants him to weigh in politically, he wants him to stand and be counted, but Waltz with Bashir is not about that. I don’t know if we can say that Folman’s approach is completely non-judgmental – it isn’t – he clearly doesn’t think allowing the massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatilla was a good thing, or a neutral thing. He knows it was a horror. But his approach to the people in the film is non-judgmental. What he is examining is how ordinary humans, young Israeli soldiers – the usual mix of well-meaning and selfish and oblivious – were complicit in an act of genocide.

Folman’s hero in the film – himself – remembers that he shot up flares the night of the massacre, thereby aiding the phalangists in their killing. Levy writes of this element:

the hero confesses on the way to his therapist, who is quick to calm him and explains that the hero’s interest in the massacre at the camps derives from a different massacre: from the camps from which his parents came. Bingo! How could we have missed it? It’s not us at all, it’s the Nazis, may their name and memory be obliterated. It’s because of them that we are the way we are. “You have been cast in the role of the Nazi against your will,” a different therapist says reassuringly, as though evoking Golda Meir’s remark that we will never forgive the Arabs for making us what we are. What we are? The therapist says that we shone the lights, but “did not perpetrate the massacre.” What a relief. Our clean hands are not part of the dirty work, no way.

I think Levy’s correct in interpreting the therapist’s remarks as a way of trying to let the Folman character off the hook. That’s what therapists do, help people make peace with their past, help then to move on. Therapists are not moralists. But I disagree with Levy that that is what Folman’s message is. I thought Folman’s meaning was subtle and devastatingly courageous. How is it that the child of survivors from the holocaust should shine a light for murderers commiting another act of genocide? How in the world could this happen? It was a moment of awakening to the full pain of being human. Waltz with Bashir is not a whitewash at all. It’s a tender (because the material is so painful) beginning of an examination of complicity. This is why I loved this film so passionately.

I remember seeing pictures of rivers of blood running in Rwanda in 1992 and getting on with taking my children to preschool, writing my novel, cooking dinner. It is easy from an armchair to say one would act morally, heroically, righteously, but on the whole we don’t. It is not helpful for our future as a species to lie to ourselves about our behaviour.

Better to at least start the difficult work of peeking behind the curtain and owning what is ours rather than projecting it onto others. It is in this way that Waltz with Bashir is an anti-war film.