Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Open Thread: Hillel Halkin on Bashir

BY NOAH K

I must admit, I had a tepid reaction to "Waltz with Bashir," Ari Folman's Oscar-nominated animated film about his experiences during the First Lebanon War and after it, when he seems to have suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The dream sequences were indeed seductive, particularly the young soldier floating back to Israel (or Israeli-occupied buffer territory below the Litani line), the lone survivor of his unit, adrift at sea, forgotten or at least unrecognizable to his own army, safely "stateless" in a way out there in international waters.

But as for the politics? What is there to make a fuss about? What were the film's politics? Or did it have any? Was it just too post-Zionist, too Etgar Keret? I took from the film some bite-size lessons: war, in general, corrodes our moral constitution -- it breaks people; the massacres of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila were committed by Christian militiamen, not by the IDF; however, some IDF leadership looked the other way, while some soldiers on the ground were to a certain, undefined degree culpable -- not only for inaction but for rendering specific services to the Phalangists, which, at least in hindsight, made the massacre possible.

Hillel Halkin's review in Commentary makes to my mind a rather jejune complaint about the film's lack of "historical context." The only "context" he adds to the what the film depicts in that case of the massacres are his imaginative reconstructions of "what really happened:" maybe, he reckons, Israeli soldiers were unwilling to wake up their superiors in the middle of the night to investigate the activities of the Phalangists in the camps; maybe they were scared to go in; maybe they were happy to unleash their local allies on their eternal foes...I don't know, yeah, maybe...maybe Folman nudges the viewer in the direction of some of these interpretations. Maybe he doesn't nudge enough.

True, the film doesn't provide an historical context for the conflict as a whole. Israel's 1982 geo-strategic gambit isn't laid out. Nothing of the war's objectives, the internal Israeli debates that preceded it, the machinations of the PLO and its Syrian backers, etc. These omissions produce, in Halkin's mind, a generic "anti-war" film, which, he condemns as intellectually deficient. Fair enough. Still, the film was about experience; it wasn't didactic. And the reviewer's war experience, as it turns out, was one of trying to explain the war with his fellow reservists as he trained in southern Lebanon in the run-up to the war; of trying to explain the massacres in their immediate aftermath. Folman had a different experience, clearly. Now, it's quite a different thing to accuse the film of providing fodder for anti-Semitism insulting the honor of the veterans, and splashing shame on the Jewish state. It seemed to me that Halkin's review almost makes that leap.

How is that possible? Halkin, naturally, interprets the film as an Israeli; I, on the other hand, as an American (Jew). And, as Halkin points out in introducing the film, Israelis and the rest of us saw this film differently. How else to explain the mild reaction of the domestic audience and the wild accolades it has garnered abroad? The review, even more than the box office receipts, points up the wide (and at times widening) gap between the way Israelis see themselves and the way the rest of the world sees them (see Roger Cohen in the NYT, whatever you think of his opinions). Note that the "hero" of "Waltz with Bashir" has to go abroad (like Oedipus of old) to gather clues about who he really is.

I am puzzled by extreme reactions to this film. Did you have one?

Here's one from the Commentary website, a response to Halkin by a certain Jerome Kaufman:
"The film blames the entire massacre in the Sabra and Shatila camp on the Israelis."
Is this guy serious?

And why did Halkin have to diss the score? I liked the music!

14 comments:

Nobody said...

How is that possible? Halkin, naturally, interprets the film as an Israeli; I, on the other hand, as an American (Jew). And, as Halkin points out in introducing the film, Israelis and the rest of us saw this film differently. How else to explain the mild reaction of the domestic audience and the wild accolades it has garnered abroad? The review, even more than the box office receipts, points up the wide (and at times widening) gap between the way Israelis see themselves and the way the rest of the world sees them (see Roger Cohen in the NYT, whatever you think of his opinions).

Israelis are simply bored by this Sabra and Shatila stuff. In the world the film is perceived as a sort of an individual act of resistance against the society and state. Non Israelis are simply unaware that Israeli government was very supportive of the understaking or that you can hardly take a shit in this country without your shit landing on another moralist sitting in his corner and agonizing over the fate of Sabra and Shatila.

Technically speaking that massacre was only a foretaste of the things to come and the real disaster happened later when Amal invaded the camps. Both camps were flattened by Amal's artillery while the death toll was running in many thousands. During one of these sieges the Palestinians were starved to the point they have asked permission from clerics to eat corpses.

What's really interesting is how that early massacre is widely known while the true story of the camps remains largely unknown even in Israel and Lebanon. Never mind that the person who lead Amal during the war of camps has since then served as number three of Lebanese politics, Nabil Berih, speaker of Parliament. This is very illustrative of the function the Palestinians play in mass culture and intellectual circles. For Israeli leftists like Folman Palestinians have become a sort of Western Yoga, an oject of meditation. It's a whole way of life and a spiritual technique to make the world a better place, to make oneself a better person. It's a powerful tool for practicing deep introspection and developing emotional intelligence. Unfortunately, this kind of Western yoga has just as much to do with the Palestinians, as the Palestinians with Patanjali and his Yoga Sutras.

Charlie H. Ettinson said...

Interesting review.

Though I found it very difficult to watch because of the subject matter, I really enjoyed the movie. I don't think it's purpose was to examine the politics surrounding the 82 Lebanon war, nor do I think it was intended to examine the morality of the IDF (or anyone else) during that conflict. I think it made the generic point that war is awful and then placed characters the audience could identify with into that hell.

It made the point, to my mind at least, that this war is fought by kids, who are placed in situations where they are often in way over their heads and they become unwillingly and unwittingly exposed to and "indirectly responsible for" absolute horror.

I agree that the context of the war was missing, but I don't think that was the point. There are, for example, plenty of movies about the Vietnam War which make similar points and provide no context. This can have the impact of convincing the audience the entire war was pointless, but again, I don't think this was meant to be a political film but rather a psychological one. Also, as you point out, given that this is an Israeli film, Israeli audiences do not need context, just as US audiences don't need the context of the Vietnam War. They know it already.

On the whole the movie treated a complex subject in an original way. In comparison to films like Beaufort, which I think was somewhat more political, I don't think this movie was meant to comment on politics or morality, but the human experience, and perhaps the unique IDF experience of conscripts who find themselves parties to horrific, ancient ethnic conflicts.

Oh, also, I don't think Bashir won an Oscar. It was nominated though.

Amos said...

This is very illustrative of the function the Palestinians play in mass culture and intellectual circles. For Israeli leftists like Folman Palestinians have become a sort of Western Yoga, an oject of meditation.This is right on the money. Such objects of meditation exist in many countries, but if say, but Israelis who engage in public moralizing of the sort you describe automatically can garner a huge audience - for various reasons (none of which have to do with the "brutality" of the occupation, etc.).

Nobody said...

This is right on the money. Such objects of meditation exist in many countries, but if say, but Israelis who engage in public moralizing of the sort you describe automatically can garner a huge audience - for various reasons (none of which have to do with the "brutality" of the occupation, etc.).

They exist in many countries but remarkably Sabra and Shatila are not these in Lebanon itself. This is by far more interesting than the way Israelis react to this stuff.

I was blogging for several years now and never, never means never, I encountered any reference to Sabra and Shatila on Lebanese blogs outside Israel/Sharon context. The most fascinating aspect of it all is that the overwhelming majority of Lebanese I know are M14 supporters. So they are basically people who have nothing good to say about Nabih Beri. However, while Beri himself is widely reviled in M14 camp and blamed in many things from corruption to being a Syrian stooge, the long list of his sins does not include Sabra and Shatila. Even more fascinating is how Lebanese are reminding Israelis of Sabra and Shatila in forums, as if they have nothing to do with the camps, even though the person who commanded the Christian force that operated in the camps served later as a minister in Hariri's government.

Having said this, I should say that I am absolutely not sure whose behavior is more abnormal in this case. Very often I think that Lebanese are having a very healthy reaction of people who just don't want to waste their time brooding indefinitely over something that happened 30 years ago. The same goes about many Israelis I know, who can only yawn at news that yet another film or a book about Sabra and Shatila or Lebanon war is released. It's Israeli and global leftists/liberals who transformed this affair into iconic symbol that appear weirdos to me.

noam said...

interesting post. may I Offer a leftist critic of the film? I think Folman absolves himself from the sense of guilt in the movie, rather than assume responsability. I also think foreign audience will have a better opinion of Israelis after watching the film, so I don't see why the commentary people got angry.

here is the full review I posted on my blog:

http://www.promisedlandblog.com/?p=298

Nobody said...

noam said...

interesting post. may I Offer a leftist critic of the film? I think Folman absolves himself from the sense of guilt in the movie, rather than assume responsability.

Yes, exactly. This is what I had in mind when I said:

Non Israelis are simply unaware that Israeli government was very supportive of the undertaking or that you can hardly take a shit in this country without your shit landing on another moralist sitting in his corner and agonizing over the fate of Sabra and Shatila.

noam said...

Nobody, you are so right. those moralist with their moral. life could have been so much easier without it.

Nobody said...

About easier I don't know, but less boring for sure

Anonymous said...

Do you know where to get english subtitles for it?

Amos said...

What do you mean? The trailer has subtitles; the version you'd see on a DVD does too.

Anonymous said...

I (American Jew born in Russia) have a mild reaction to the film. Graphically and vocally, it was very well done. As to historical accuracy or bias, I am not sure. It does not paint any of the parties involved in a positive light.

Ariel said...

I'm surprised no one has commented on the one thing that really was relatively novel in the film, which was its being animated. The circle of people I'm closest to in Israel is comprised of the younger generation of the social class that should be leftist, but has to a great degree eschewed politics almost entirely in favor of art and culture. In that context, one of the great things about the movie was the way in which the animation allowed for a great deal of expressiveness, that is, it could express the subjective experience of the protagonist all the more effectively. So this is basically a movie about individual psychology within a particularly Israeli context. The great symbolic power of Sabra and Shatila, incidentally, is obviously tied up with Holocaust memory, as in, "how could we of all people allow this to happen?"

Nobody said...

The great symbolic power of Sabra and Shatila, incidentally, is obviously tied up with Holocaust memory, as in, "how could we of all people allow this to happen?"

It's a technical question turned into a rhetoric one. I doubt that Hobeika had informed anybody about what he is up to before he entered the camps. Given that much of his family was massacred during Damur, probably Israelis could have guessed that at some point he was going to try to settle the score with the Palestinians, but then Israel has demonstrated such a lack of understanding of Lebanese sectarian dynamics during that war, that it's not surprising that they missed it. Also I guess that like many Lebanese Christians Hobeika was an educated and very cultured Francophone, hardly a person Israelis would naturally suspect of being capable to do such a thing.

And anyway, how empowering Palestinian moderates very popular these days is any different from that one? It's the same thing, that Fatah or anybody will do the dirty work of crashing Hamas and other Islamic opposition. How do you think Fatah is going to do this? Just like that...

Nobody said...

Or like that..

You should better first read the disclaimer, before you dare to watch it...

Torture of Hamas operatives by Dahlan Death Squads

Category: Politics Videos
The following videoclip shows scenes of real torture, and should UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES be watched by minors or by sick or impressionable persons. In plain english that means that the clip is HORRIBLE.

Discretion is advised before you press on the PLAY button.