Dancing Around Bashir


Waltz With Bashir” has been racking up the prizes. In addition to a slew of international awards, it was awarded Best Picture by the National Society of Film Ciritics, Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes, and it seems to have the inside track on the same award at the Oscars this Sunday night.  But as “Bashir” amasses its acclaim, some observers are frankly critiquing the film against Israel’s painful present-day reality.

In a recent Nation article, Israeli author Liel Liebovitz wonders why the Israeli public has so thoroughly embraced this fiercely anti-war statement (enough to vote it as their third-favorite Israeli film of all time) while ignoring its “harrowing lessons” through its strong support of their government’s military actions against Gaza.

Liebovitz concludes that “Bashir’s” popularity not withstanding, Israel is sadly disregarding director Ari Folman’s powerfully moral vision – particularly in light of the recent elections:

Israel of today is not Ari Folman’s. It is Avigdor Lieberman’s and Benjamin Netanyahu’s, the country of the countless men and women crying out for revenge. As we root for Waltz with Bashir, if we want to truly honor that film’s message, let us never forget that. Otherwise, all we have is just a pretty animated film.

Journalist Naira Antoun, writing in the Electronic Intifada comes to a similar conclusion:

(We) are reminded of the psychologist’s comment near the start of the film: “We don’t go to places we don’t want to. Memory takes us where we want to go.” Perhaps this explains how at the same time that Gaza was being decimated, Israel heaped acclaim and awards on Waltz with Bashir; in addition to numerous international awards, the film scooped up six awards at the Israeli Film Academy. Indeed, the same Israelis who flocked to see the film gave their enthusiastic approval to Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. According to a poll released on 14 January by Tel Aviv University, a staggering 94 percent of Israeli Jews supported or strongly supported the operation.

As a Palestinian viewer, however, Antoun goes even farther than Liebovitz: she faults the film for rendering Palestinians essentially invisible:

There is nothing interesting or new in the depiction of Palestinians — they have no names, they don’t speak, they are anonymous. But they are not simply faceless victims. Instead, the victims in the story that Waltz with Bashir tells are Israeli soldiers. Their anguish, their questioning, their confusion, their pain — it is this that is intended to pull us…We don’t see Palestinian facial expressions; only a lingering on dead, anonymous faces. So while Palestinians are never fully human, Israelis are, and indeed are humanized through the course of the film.

Among other things, I think these reviews illuminate the painful difficulties inherent in making an anti-war statement while the war is still raging.  A sad anecdote: a congregant recently told me that when she saw the film, a screaming match erupted in the audience after it ended.  Apparently someone screamed “That’s Gaza!” to which another responded “Shut up!” and on it went…

And on it goes…

Update 2/23/09: Thanks to Eric for forwarding this devastating Ha’aretz piece re “Bashir” by (who else?) Gideon Levy.

6 thoughts on “Dancing Around Bashir

  1. Carol

    “Waltz with Bashir² seems to move people to great emotions and a multitude of conclusions based on their personal experiences and their feelings about Israel. The comments I have heard from Jews are across the board: it was about the hopelessness of humanity which will be forever mired in war, it cries out about the dire need to work to end the oppression of young male soldiers, it shows the feigned toughness of Israelis who are hiding behind deep psychological scars, it brings up shame about how Israel has failed to be a “light unto the nations”…

    A Palestinian friend told me that when the survivors of Sabra and Shatila cried out at the end of the movie, ³Where is the Arab nation?,” that it reminded of her parents¹ dashed hopes for pan-Arabism. Another Palestinian friend said she would have hoped that it had ended with the million strong Israeli anti-war protests in Tel Aviv which were a huge turning point for her in seeing Israelis as human. She told me that when the movie comes out on DVD, she wants to make sure her family sees it, because it is one of those rare movies that enables you to see as human the “enemy.” “When we lose our ability to see the humanity of Israelis,” she said, “then we lose our own humanity.”

    I would speculate that Israelis see it through the huge unhealed hurts of war and the Holocaust (a theme which permeates Israeli society). These hurts obscure their ability to integrate it into the present day reality.

    I was disturbed by the excerpts you shared from Naira Antoun. Her attack on the movie for the anonymity of the Palestinians misses the point. The movie was about how grunt Israeli soldiers experienced the war including what they understood or in this case didn’t see about Palestinians. The whole set-up of war is to dehumanize the enemy. One of the main themes of the movie is about how the glimpse the soldiers got of the reality of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatilla was so painful that it caused them to repress it deep into the recesses of their memory.

    Natoun reminds me of the many Jews and Palestinians who are unable to really listen to the narrative of the other side without in some way attacking it. We Jews are guilty of this when we insist that any Palestinian narrative must have equal time for Jews. Neither side complains when it is only “their” story. The universality of the movie is precisely because it focuses very specifically about how one small group of people experienced the same historical event from the perspective of middle age.

    If we are to truly move through this tragic era of our history, we will need to be able to listen with empathy to all of the parties, recognizing their inherent goodness and attempts to do their best in a trying situation.

    Based on the excerpts you chose to share, it appears that you are in a personal struggle about why Israelis didn’t condemn the Gaza War. My advice to you is to remember how many years it took a majority of Americans to condemn the Iraq War–and its didn’t affect most of us directly as is the case for many Israelis.

  2. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


    Thanks for your very thoughtful comments. I have to say, in response to your final points, that I’m not struggling all that much over why Israelis didn’t condemn the Gaza war. I know all to well that national communities tend to circle the wagons in wartime. I am intrigued, however, how a public can overwhelmingly embrace a powerfully anti-war film like Bashir WHILE they are fighting a war. I’m not sure I agree that it didn’t affect them directly (as is the case with Americans and Iraq). I think in a small nation like Israel, everyone feels the trauma to a very real extent.

  3. Ron Edwards

    I suggest that the Lebanese and Palestinian criticism is accurate, but it is also incomplete and misses the significance of what the film does do. I also think that discussing the film only as an issue of competing narratives, or specifically, complaining about others’ reactions to it, is missing the significance to a much worse degree. This film’s power is to provoke reflection by showing reflection, which by definition is personal and, especially as a starting point, limited (or specific, if you like).

    1. The Sabra-Chatila massacre and its context of the Lebanese civil war are very likely the core event of modern times. Mass media has been hesitant to touch it, even lightly, in any medium, and that includes latter-day Lebanese culture as well (in contrast to works from within the heat of the civil war itself, which would be called “indie publishing” today). That Folman was compelled and determined enough to do so is a big deal. I’ve been stressing to friends from Arab countries that you don’t ask the whole world from the person who starts the ball rolling, especially when that person isn’t you. A first-step movie can be praised as such without demanding that it be the equivalent of eight or ten movies worth of such reflection for everyone involved.

    2. Here’s a feature I’ve also been stressing to those friends. The film strikes hard at the popular image of the IDF as both invincibly competent and virtuously humanitarian. Israeli culture as well as its international PR goes very far to promote that image. In this film, though, the soldiers scream, panic, puke, and flake out. A tank flees a battle, abandoning a soldier. When not in combat, they’re naive and careless. The single time IDF soldiers succeed (if that) in combat, a few surviving soldiers riddle a solitary teenager with bullets after he has successfully destroyed their tank and its crew. A field commander lounges around pants-less, watching porn all day, occasionally looking over his shoulder to issue vague orders. Begin and Sharon are shown to be cynical towards their soldiers to the point of barbarity.

    None of this is familiar or comfortable territory, and judging from the powerful reaction among audiences, it is apparently the right jolt to make other questions, e.g. who are the Lebanese and how did this happen, even possible to those audiences in the future. “You are not who you think you are!” “I’m not?” is a good way to start thinking about others too.

    3. American Vietnam movies offer some insight as well. None of them feature Vietnamese characters or any context at all for who “those guys shooting at us” are. They’re entirely blind to the situation aside from what a given soldier might see or feel. Still, I think there are two kinds of these movies: one which is plain dishonest in negating others’ viewpoints and which perpetuates some comfortable myths about that war, nad the other which raises issues to grapple with. A generous reading of Waltz with Bashir puts it into the second group, because I think it indicts the blindness toward others, rather than reinforcing it.

    I think that generous reading is justified because the end throws the real question right into the audience’s face. Folman’s psychologist friend, who’d earlier made a case for the utter subjectivity of memory, tries to absolve him (“It’s really about the camps, you didn’t actually kill anyone”), and the question is whether that’s convincing. The scene soon followed by the flashback which fades into non-animated documentary footage of the massacre itself. My interpretation, at least, is that the friend’s excuses are being refuted by reality, and that the memories in question cannot be talked out of significance.

    As I see it, the film presents a powerful and relevant challenge. I think that recognizing and meeting that challenge is a responsibility. Shifting the dialogue to what some other person thinks or says is dodging the responsibility.

    Best, Ron

  4. Ron Edwards

    I’ve been musing about Levy’s column for a week or two now. The thing is, I think I understand about the “shoot and cry” image of the IDF and its role in deflecting criticism; I’ve read about it before and encountered it in conversations. The issue really comes down to the scenes I mentioned: does the friend’s invocation of the concentration camps elevate the protagonist’s amnesia/denial into an excess of conscience, or is it an excuse that is swiftly refuted by reality (literally, in the form of live documentary footage)?

    I find myself going for the half-full glass on that one, probably of a sense of relief that those events are even being mentioned in a mass media context, and Levy (after two viewings and a lot of thought before writing and being actually there in the culture as I am not) is going for the half-empty glass.

    I’m posting because last night I saw Mechilot, a film which is explicitly directed toward Palestinian + Israeli + Jewish-American unity of spirit. I’m not paraphrasing much; see the manifestor and interview with the director at http://www.forgivenessthefilm.com/. Its most powerful concept for me is to unite the aging, and in this case mentally shattered survivors of the Shoah with the souls of the murdered villagers of Deir Yassin. As I see it, the film says that to deny this likeness is to turn the new generations into conflicted monsters, like the protagonist, and as symbolized by the soldiers dancing in that insanely weird sequence (one among many; it’s a wacky film in a lot of ways). Like Waltz with Bashir, the whole story hinges on the soldier’s loss of memory and some of the action is imagined or even hallucinatory.

    I liked it. But with Levy’s essay at the front of my mind, I’m also disturbed – is it another “shoot and cry” film? I’m not often inclined to talk about films’ effects on audiences, because people make all kinds of claims about that … but in this case, is it possible for the viewer to say, “Oh gee, he [spoiler information omitted], but now he’s so sorry. What wonderfully conscientous people these IDF guys are!”

    After all, the small team of IDF soldiers are composed of a ne’er-do-well, the conflicted protagonist, a short-fused bigot (whose voice is never heard, so we don’t get the full impact of his attitude), and an idealist – and the lion’s share of attention goes to the latter, who apologizes at length to the Arab family the mean one harasses at one point. There’s nothing about Israeli policy as such, nothing about the intrinsic violence imposed daily, nothing about the economic and political shutdown. One might be able to come away saying, “Gee, those Palestinians sure have to go through a lot of checkpoints,” without grasping the fundamental nature of the issue: millions of people who are simply prisoners. (Case in point: the young Palestinian actress *did* have to go through checkpoints every day even to participate in making the film!) It might be possible to come away still thinking that this is about “sides,” specifically two sides, facing one another in a equal standoff-ish way.

    If it weren’t for the Palestinian/Shoah content of the film, especially the burning scene – I can’t describe it, you simply have to see it – I think I’d be invoking Levy’s points about Waltzing with Bashir. Or maybe not! It’s a tough call. Has anyone reading seen it? I’d like to know what you think.

    Best, Ron

  5. gabriel

    I have read Naira Antoun’s review in the electronic intifada, and I think it is coming from someone so deeply emotionally involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict from the Palestinian side that she will never be able to accept any Israeli film or piece of art-work, no matter how honest and inspiring it is.

    I bet that if a film about Palestinian suffering didn’t show the Israelis as humans, but just as faceless oppressors, she wouldn’t mind one bit.

    It is ridicolous to accuse the film of perpetrating violence against the Palestinians. On the contrary, it does the opposite. Yes, it doesn’t explain the context of the war, how could it? And anyway Israeli audiences are expected to know that already.


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