Waltz with Bashir: post-Zionist stress disorder

A new animated documentary about the First Lebanon War ends up psychologising a complex political tragedy.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Waltz with Bashir, an animated autobiographical documentary about the First Lebanon War, or ‘Operation Peace of the Galilee’, as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) labelled it, is an intense and deeply compelling account of the catastrophic 1982 invasion. Culminating in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres – the spectre that haunts post-Zionist Israeli society – Ari Folman’s film imparts the view that, for Israelis, post-traumatic stress disorder is now a fact of life.

The film’s powerful graphics, with stark colour palates that shift across flashback sequences, childhood recollections, hallucinations and combat scenes, at once lend it a depth that could not have been achieved through conventional documentary or fiction formats – and also a simplicity that is entirely appropriate for a revisionist narrative that psychologises a complex political event. While his aesthetic judgement is beyond reproach, Folman, who sees Waltz with Bashir as an apolitical film, conveys a disturbingly skewed account of the First Lebanon War.

Folman may have been right to point out in an interview that the Palestinians can tell their own stories, and that he was better placed to focus on the Israeli point of view. But in portraying the IDF combatants as victims of circumstance, and their mental distress as the paramount consequence of Israel’s disastrous US-propped military operation, Waltz with Bashir is not only incredibly self-obsessed, it is also a striking evasion of responsibility.

The film opens with a pack of 26 dogs racing through an upmarket neighbourhood of Tel Aviv. Saliva frothing at their mouths, the beasts send bar stools flying and young mothers running for cover with their children. The dogs come to a halt outside an office building where a man stands in a window, watching them pant and growl. The man is Folman’s fellow Lebanon conscript, the canine rampage his recurring nightmare.

One rainy night some 20 years after the Lebanon war, Folman’s friend opens up about his nightmare for the first time. He is convinced that the dream is connected to his wartime experiences. Being too squeamish to shoot at people, he was ordered to kill dogs instead in order to stop them from barking at soldiers entering Lebanese villages. He shot 26 dogs in total, and he can remember every single one.

Speaking to his friend in a Tel Aviv bar, Folman realises that he himself recalls very little from the war, and that he never even thinks about it. Later that night, however, he has a flashback from Beirut and slowly comes to realise that he was in the city during the Sabra and Shatila massacre, which was carried out by Christian Phalangist forces three months into the war as an apparent revenge for the murder of their leader, the newly appointed president of Lebanon and ally of Israel, Bashir Gemayel.

Folman meets up with another close friend from his time in the army, who advises him to talk to other people who were there so that he can fill the gaps in his memory. The film follows Folman in his conversations and interviews with old friends, a psychologist and the reporter Ron Ben-Yishai, who was also in Beirut during the war (as a journalist). Folman is slowly able to piece together his wartime experience.

On the eve of the three-day assault on Sabra and Shatila, Folman was in a unit of soldiers that was ordered to fire illuminating flares to aid the Phalangists, who ostensibly entered the camps to look for hiding Palestinian terrorists. In reality, there were virtually no Palestinian fighters left in the camps when the Phalangist forces entered, as they had been mass evacuated to Tunisia two weeks earlier. The IDF had predicted beforehand that massacres might occur and then Israeli defence minister Ariel Sharon and his chief of staff received clear reports that the Phalangists were indeed indiscriminately killing residents in Sabra and Shatila, which was surrounded by the IDF, but they did nothing to prevent it.

It is impossible to be unmoved by the deeply personal Waltz with Bashir. Yet once the initial shock settles, the emotional response that the film provokes proves entirely unhelpful for understanding what Israel’s bloody war in Lebanon was about, how the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut could have been allowed to happen, or what being a young combat soldier is like. The film’s subtext – that war is futile and unglamorous – is, as Folman has said, ‘basic, even prosaic and banal’.

Of course the intention of the film is not to explain the details of the war, but to convey its folly through personal stories of former conscripts, who were left with deep emotional wounds. Yet the film is still at pains to blame the Christian Phalangists for the murderous consequences of the war in Sabra and Shatila. Folman has said of the atrocity: ‘It’s the worst thing that humankind can do to each other. One thing for sure is that the Christian Phalangist militiamen were fully responsible for the massacre. The Israeli soldiers had nothing to do with it. As for the Israeli government, only they know the extent of their responsibility. Only they know if they were informed or not in advance about the oncoming violent revenge.’

Perhaps young conscripts such as Folman had little option but to go into the war and then to follow any orders they were given. Perhaps in the midst of messy combat it is impossible for individual soldiers to grasp the full picture of a war or to know what the purpose of a particular task is. Apportioning guilt and responsibility in such situations is not easy, but is it really fair to claim that Israeli soldiers ‘had nothing to do with it’, even though they in fact aided the Phalangists and witnessed, as shown in Waltz with Bashir, families being dragged out on to the streets, lined up against walls and murdered? Though Folman may have been relatively helpless as a 19-year-old soldier, as an adult at least he could recognise that several parties hold responsibility for what happened.

The First Lebanon War has been described as Israel’s first ‘war of choice’, but Waltz with Bashir, though it includes an angry nod to Sharon’s unwillingness to intervene to prevent the massacres, wants to send a message that the consequences of the invasion cannot all be of Israel’s doing, because Israel did not directly pull the trigger.

Waltz with Bashir projects a very contemporary angst on to events of the past. In the post-Zionist era, and particularly after the Second Lebanon War of June 2006, the idea that war is futile, lacks glory and achieves only destruction and mental health problems holds strong purchase in Israel.

Since the film’s release in Israel, its creators have been approached by streams of men who were deployed in Lebanon in 1982. Now in their forties, these men apparently feel the need to vent their anxieties. Waltz with Bashir encourages such confessions as a way of healing war wounds and it reconstitutes Israeli men as victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. It is this conceptualisation of Israelis, whether as civilians or conscripts, as mere victims of circumstance which leads Folman to let the IDF off the hook regarding Sabra and Shatila.

In fact, the overall sentiment of the film is reminiscent of the anti-war slogan ‘Not in My Name’, adopted by Western protesters against the 2003 Iraq invasion. This was a personal proclamation, simultaneously a statement of innocence and a refusal to attempt to change the situation through collective political action. Now, this defeatist attitude and proclamation of innocence is applied to a war that took place a quarter of a century ago by the very men who helped to carry it out.

The most revealing scene in Waltz with Bashir is when Folman’s character is assured by his close friend that he should not feel responsible or guilty as he did not know why he had been ordered to fire the flares which facilitated the Phalangists’ massacre. He believes the real reason why Folman feels so troubled by his war experience is because he is putting himself in the place of the Nazis. The reason he feels so strongly about Sabra and Shatila in particular is because they remind him of ‘those other camps’. Because his parents were in Auschwitz, ‘the camps’ have really been with Folman since childhood, his friend explains.

Here, even the atrocities against the Palestinian refugees are all about Folman and his apparent psychological suffering as a ‘second-generation Holocaust victim’. Waltz with Bashir has been nominated for a range of prestigious film awards but it really takes the prize of the most introspective and narcissistic ex-soldier’s story ever. It is also a striking perversion of history, conflating the systematic extermination of millions during the Second World War with a three-day, spontaneous violent rampage in 1982.

At the end of the film, there is a sudden shift from animation to real archive footage of Palestinian refugee women wailing amongst the rubble and dead bodies in the Sabra and Shatila camps. Suddenly the impact of the graphics which were so forceful throughout the film wanes. Nothing is as shocking as reality.

While the Israelis are drawn as two-dimensional cartoon figures, the Palestinians are the only ones shown as real human beings, in actual film footage. In an attempt, seemingly, to hammer home the point that war is no American action movie, and that the true victims were the refugees in the camps, this final scene is in fact Waltz with Bashir’s ultimate assault on the Palestinians. They only feature as massacred and bloated body parts, as symbols for Israelis’ guilt.

Waltz with Bashir is an excellent, thought-provoking and devastating film. You will have never seen anything like it. Yet though it is highly recommendable, it is also objectionable.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Waltz with Bashir screened at the London Film Festival. It is on general release in London on Friday 21 November.

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